Art from China to ireland
Totally unravelled

Attitudes to arts education giving me 1980s flashbacks

Standing on a train platform the other day I could have been transported back to the 80s. To the right a poster for a Stallone movie, to the left a Schwarzenegger one. A new Bowie single out. Oh yes, and headlines about recession.

But it was a very 21st century phenomenon that really made me think of the 80s –  the podcast I was listening to featured Sir Christopher Frayling, former head of the Royal College of Art and author of On Craftsmanship towards a new Bauhaus, talking about the current devaluing of arts education – especially in relation to design and making.

Like outgoing chair of the Arts Council in England Liz Forgan, he was decrying the fact that arts subjects have been left out of the core curriculum for the reforms of secondary education in England.  

Frayling was also talking about how the Russell Group of universities did not recognise arts and design subjects as important

It was this downgrading of the value of arts, design and making that took me back to the 1980s and an interview for a place at Cambridge that may well have set me on a very different course to the one my teachers anticipated back then.

80s style copy

Me in the 80s - I'm the stoppy one on the left! 

At that point being very able at maths and sciences I was on track for an engineering degree. I already had gained my maths A level a year early and thanks to a combination of my own desire to pursue all by interests, a school that believed in diversity and my natural traits of overachieving and bloodymindness, was now studying for art, further maths and physics A levels, as well as fitting in a Drama O level/GCSE.

So there I was in Cambridge meeting a senior member of the engineering department feeling nervous but OK because I’d already achieved one of the standards for entry. So it was a shock to be described as a “typical female” who couldn’t make up her mind about science v arts. The attitude was that art was a waste of my time – despite my arguments that spacial awareness and an aesthetic sense were in my view important skills exhibited by many engineers.

This was the first time I had really encountered the attitude that art and design was a lesser type of education or skills. It was a shock – especially to someone who came from a family filled with artists and makers.

It was that experience that made me think beyond my expected career path and I’ve spent all my adult life in one creative sector or another – theatre, TV, publishing, craft.

Over the years there has been a change in this divide between science and engineering and the designers and makers – note the rise in discipline of product design. So it is depressing to think that education in the UK might be returning to the attitudes I experienced in that dim Cambridge study. It also goes hand in hand with the lack of publicity given to the value of design and making skills, include heritage crafts, to the UK economy.

We risk returning to the assumption that art education is about creating pretty pictures and not about how visual skills can equip people to find different types of solutions to problems. And those different approaches can be as important to great innovation as research  in lab.

For the UK to be a success we need the skills of science and engineering and the skills of art and design to turn the ideas of the former into great products.