Our performing arts teachers reflect on the importance of the arts in education

Paul Stone, Director of Drama, writes –

As is often stated, part of our role in education is to prepare young people for jobs that may well not currently exist. The importance of a well-rounded education and the development of transferable skills has never been so important. It is expected that careers will become much less fixed; flexibility, creativity and personal development will be the key to success, even if this were not the case, education is about so much more than preparing for employment.

I have become increasingly aware of the pressure on the Performing Arts in schools across the country, through regular reporting in the media and also my own experience; meeting Heads of Drama who are leaving but not being replaced, teachers who are told that the school production must be sacrificed in case it is a distraction from the focus on results, and those suffering the removal of music entirely from the curriculum. The numbers in creative subjects are falling nationally at both GCSE and A Level due to the pressures of attainment measures, this is despite OFSTED chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s criticism of a ‘narrowing’ curriculum: “Childhood isn’t deferrable: young people get one opportunity to learn in school and we owe it to them make sure they all get an education that is broad, rich and deep”.

Against this backdrop, it is more important than ever that we celebrate the importance of creative education in developing the effective communicators, analytical thinkers, reflective practitioners, imaginative problem-solvers and empathetic responders of the future. And it’s not a question of choosing one or the other: I recently read of a primary school successfully using additional music lessons to improve SATS results. Also, pupils who have not had space for a performing arts subject in their option choices may now access through enrichment activities, having key roles in performance projects and activities; these activities enhance and inspire their success in other areas. As an example, my daughter gained all A* grades at GCSE and A level here at Ipswich High School, going on to study Mathematics and Astrophysics at Cambridge, and she was involved in productions, choirs, orchestras, dance lessons and performance opportunities throughout her studies. Interestingly, from a curriculum point of view, since 2012, more than 9994 students at Russell Group Universities, studying over 250 subjects, have an A level in Drama and Theatre (source: essentialdrama.com).

One of the key strengths of our positive approach to the arts at Ipswich High School, is our recognition of the importance of a fully-rounded education and the number of creative projects that we are able to offer in enrichment sessions. It is a privilege to work with our pupils in a vocational setting, and to see first-hand the very clear benefits that these challenges have.

Our next performance is ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at Dance East on the 14th of November, forming part of the Shakespeare Schools Festival. Tickets will soon be available here: https://www.danceeast.co.uk/book/90970/

Angela Chillingworth, Director of Music, writes –

This week at Ipswich High School we held heats for one of the categories of the forthcoming Vocal Championship competition. For two and a half hours, I listened to a queue of pupils waiting their turn to sing their hearts out and gain a place in the final; this was just one category of the six in the competition. For some of them, the experience was clearly terrifying. For most, it was a little daunting. None walked in with confidence, convinced they would astound me with their talent – but once they started to sing they forgot themselves completely. After hearing them all I wondered firstly, how on earth I was going to whittle them down to a smaller number and, secondly, why they put themselves through this ordeal. I asked some of them why they were there and they all said the same thing – they just love to sing.

I love to see the way that music transforms these pupils. In a few bars of music they turn from shy pupils into committed performers, with character and passion; they sing with a confidence beyond their years and become the person their song portrays. Equally heart-warming is the level of support shown by the singers for each other. There was silence outside the audition room while performers were singing but each performance was immediately followed by cheers and performers were swept away in a wave of congratulations and support. The competitors ranged from the least able to the gifted and talented; in this situation the competition is a level playing field. At a previous school where I taught, one of the performers who moved me to tears every time he sang was unable to read or write, but he knew how to sing a phrase in a way that melted my heart.

When the Ancient Greeks developed the idea of formal education almost 2,500 years ago, music was included as one of the seven essential subjects. It was considered so important that in order to gain a Master’s degree in Maths it was necessary to study music. One of the worst insults was to be called ‘unmusical’ as it implied someone was less than human. We are very fortunate, at Ipswich High School, to be able to study Music at every level, and many pupils who choose not to continue their studies at KS4 and KS5 still have singing or instrumental lessons. They understand the importance of including music as part of their lives in a way that budgeting and cost-cutting cannot.

Rebecca Curtis, Head of Dance, writes –

I was delighted to read Geoff Barton’s article about the power of the Arts within our schools. Having worked under his headship for eight years, I know first-hand his genuine passion for giving all pupils access to lessons in dance, music, drama and art; especially as nowadays state schools struggle to maintain numbers in these subjects at GCSE and A Level.

He discusses how much of an impact dance had on hearing-impaired pupils. This struck a chord with me; not only having personally taught some of those boys, but having just taken part in an enthralling GCSE dance conference held at Rambert Dance, London. I worked over two days with practitioners from the Dance Anthology; one of which, StopGap Dance, works with dancers who are both able-bodied or have wide-ranging disabilities ranging from amputation to paralysis. Their ethos is that everyone has movement within them – we just have to translate it to find our own body’s way of performing it. I truly believe that dance is and should be for all, having seen first-hand the benefits it has for pupils’ lives, but also – on a professional level – how stunning the work of a wheelchair-bound dancer can be. It puts things in to perspective; if they are making a career from dance, then anyone can achieve whatever we put our minds to.

Barton also discusses how arts subjects are far more than just ‘enrichment activities’. I wholeheartedly agree. Here at Ipswich High School we are proud of our unrivalled opportunities for our pupils to study performing arts subjects, from the age of 3 to 18, in curriculum time. The dance department celebrated the first cohort of GCSE and A Level results this summer with a 100% pass rate in both courses. 66% achieved an A/A* grade at GCSE and 100% A-C at AS level. We are thrilled with how much the subject has grown – bucking the trend of both local and national decline and we will look forward to welcoming new pupils to the school who are passionate about performing arts. As Geoff says “Show me a great school and I’ll show you a rich pulsing culture of the arts at its core. It’s what we do and has made our schools the envy of so much of the world.”