Speech: The arts underpin our understanding of Britishness

Thank you, John, for that kind introduction. I’m absolutely delighted to be here today.

One of the questions I often face is how we can teach young people about what it means to be British? How should they learn about what it is that unites us as a country? And how can we help them understand exactly what it is that defines our national identity?

Do we teach it through our patriotic symbols? The Union Jack and the National Anthem. Or through our democratic heritage? The Magna Carta, the birth of parliamentary democracy and the advent of universal suffrage.

Do young people learn about Britain through the diversity of its citizens? The values that bind those citizens together? Or the contribution of those citizens as innovators, industrialists and ideologues?

The truth is of course, and I hope you won’t see this as a politician’s cop out, that the answer lies in all of the above.

A curriculum for Britishness is both vast and broad, that isn’t just taught at one point in a young person’s education, but something they discover throughout their life. But, if you were to force me, in the style of Jeremy Paxman, to identify one thing that a child’s understanding of Britishness would be incomplete without – it would be an appreciation of the vast cultural contribution that our nation has made to the wider world.

Because from Purcell to Shakespeare, St Paul’s Cathedral to the Angel of the North, from Margot Fonteyn to Akram Khan, to the Beatles to Banksy to One Direction, this small island country has, throughout its history, punched well above its weight as the cultural capital of the world.

And without that understanding of our cultural contribution, without an inspiring and eye opening education in the arts, it is impossible to truly understand what being British means and to appreciate the ties that bind us as a United Kingdom.

Just as much as an understanding of culture helps us to appreciate our national identity, so too it fosters an understanding of Britishness around the world. Just as young people’s horizons can be broadened by the cultural heritage of other nations.

When I talk about young people leaving school as well-rounded citizens, I am of course talking about young people with a range of high quality academic or vocational qualifications. But I’m also talking about young people who enter the world as well rounded citizens, young people with an appreciation and love for the arts – a generation ready to make their own unique contributions to our cultural heritage.

I only have to think about the contribution that the arts have made to my life. The relief from the pressures of the law I felt when singing in the City of London Choir. The LAMDA exams which not only developed my love of drama, but also increased my confidence in public speaking, something which has played no small part in getting me to where I am today. And I think, slightly mournfully, as Proms season starts tomorrow, of the time when I was able to sneak into a prom anonymously and spend a wonderful evening enjoying the music.

These are just some examples of how the arts have enriched my life. And I want every single young person to have the opportunity to discover how the arts can enrich their lives too.

I believe access to cultural education is a matter of social justice. And it’s a sad truth that often those with access to the best opportunities that the arts have to offer, are those young people with parents with the ability to pay.

That cannot be right.

So, I am delighted that broadening access and opportunities to the arts is a priority for my department. Since 2012, we’ve invested £460 million in cultural education projects that complement what’s happening in the classroom. Fantastic projects like the Music and Dance Scheme, the 123 music education hubs that work with schools and the British Film Institute’s ‘Film Academy’.

And we’ve made changes to ensure that GCSEs in arts subjects are more rigorous, in line with our reforms to other academic subjects.

In music, there will be a greater focus on knowledge and critical engagement with a wide range of styles, with students expected to read and write staff notation, understand chord symbols and analyse unfamiliar music.

In art and design, there will be a new emphasis on drawing, including an ability to draw for different purposes.

And in dance, students will learn to create and perform their own choreography alongside developing a deeper critical appreciation of a range of dance styles.

And we’re now consulting on new design and technology qualifications that, with their focus on the iterative design process, will prepare young people for a wide range of careers in the creative sector as well as engineering.

Our commitment to rigorous arts qualifications is also a reflection of the significant and ever increasing contribution that the creative industries make to our country, bringing in £77 billion a year, outpacing growth and job creation in many other industries.

And that’s why I firmly reject any suggestion that I or this government think that arts subjects are in any way less important or less worthy than other subjects for study in school. On the contrary, for all of the reasons I’ve outlined so far, a young person’s education cannot be complete unless it includes the arts.

Now, last year I made a speech at the launch of the ‘Your Life’ campaign. At the time I thought the speech was uncontroversial. I made the point that for too long some young people, and in particular young women, had been deterred from studying sciences because they thought that science subjects only ever led to jobs in science careers. The result of this is that many young people drop science subjects at 16 and in doing so close doors to their future.

Some then interpreted this sentence as me criticising the arts, as saying that the arts ‘limit career choices’.

Let me be clear – what limits career choices and holds people back, is not being given the information and advice to pick the right combination of subjects, that will open doors for their future and let pupils pursue the career of their dreams. And of course, there’s always the temptation to portray this as an either/or choice – it certainly makes more interesting copy… But up and down the country schools are showing that needn’t be the case, and that the best curriculums know how to combine them both.

Like School 21 in Newham which weaves drama into every single subject from history to biology. Like Ark Conway, which as well as having among the best primary school results at key stage 1, also expects every student to learn a musical instrument. Or Rawlins’ Academy in my constituency of Loughborough where students produced their own film documentary to inform other pupils about the general election.

And that’s why I don’t think those who care about the arts have anything to fear from the EBacc.

The reason I think every child should do the EBacc, that is GCSEs in English, maths, a humanity, a foreign language and a science, is because for too long, certain pupils have been told that these subjects aren’t for them. And we know it’s the most disadvantaged students who face these damaging assumptions most often.

According to research published by the Sutton Trust, the brightest pupils at primary school – those in the top 10% nationally – are still less likely to take history, geography, a language or triple science at GCSE than their peers, if they’re disadvantaged.

Anyone who believes in social justice, who believes in the power of education to transform lives, must agree that all children – whatever their start in life – deserve the chance to get these qualifications and see doors open.

But what that doesn’t mean is that these are the only subjects that we value or the only subjects that matter.

I would expect any good school to complement these subjects with a range of opportunities in the arts. The percentage of pupils who were entered for at least 1 arts GCSE has increased since 2010.

So I hope I’ve allayed the myth that the arts, or the creative industries are in anyway held in low esteem by this government. To the contrary, my ambition is to ensure that every pupil gets a rich cultural education. Because access to the arts is the birthright of every child, regardless of background.

And I need all of you to play your part in that, to reach out to your local schools, to inspire the next generation of young people to follow in your footsteps, to engage those pupils who, for whatever reason, think that the arts aren’t for them.

In exchange this government will make clear our expectations that schools should place high quality arts education alongside a strong academic core at the heart of the curriculum. Because as I said at the start, if young people who leave school and aren’t just academically gifted but are well rounded, imaginative and open minded citizens.

If we want the next generation to understand the pivotal role that our cultural heritage has played in shaping the Britain we live in today, and if we want to ensure that we nurture the next generation of Tracey Emins, Andrew Lloyd Webbers and Helen Mirrens, then we need to inspire a love of art, design, music, drama and culture from the very first day of young person’s education and keep it going throughout the rest of their life.

Thank you.

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