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The class barrier to arts in education

In recent years, a much wider demographic of students has been admitted to universities across the UK. Universities are perhaps less elitist than ever, offering bursaries to help those from lower income backgrounds. Yet despite this positive move, secondary schools seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Cuts are constantly being made to the arts in particular, and we are left to wonder: how will this affect access to higher education in these faculties?

The arts are now part of the national curriculum: both comprehensive and grammar schools offer lessons in music, art and literature. While lesson time is still clearly weighted more towards the sciences and maths, this provision is a movement towards a widening of ideas of intelligence and appreciation of a wider range of personalities and skills sets. There are other subjects in the arts however, which are not in the national curriculum, such as the study of architecture and appreciation of arts. Due to exam pressures, many schools are asking students to choose their GCSE subjects earlier – often at the end of year eight – and this leads to less time being spent on the more creative subjects.

Lesson time is still clearly weighted more towards the sciences and maths

This begs the question: do inspectors such as OFSTED actually serve to improve education, or merely push schools away from a comprehensive view of education to one which is more focused on passing exams and attaining set goals?

As well as pressures from within the education system itself, there are also external barriers to the arts in schools, in the form of the continual cuts to the arts funding of both primary and secondary schools. According to the Educational Policy Institute: “entries to arts subjects by KS4 cohorts have declined over the past couple of years, following several years of gradual increases, with the 2016 entry rate falling to the lowest of the decade”. Seemingly, then, these cuts and shifts in priorities in schooling have had severe effects on how the arts factor into the priorities of students.

This is problematic because it influences the demographic of those who succeed in the arts. For example, to be able to learn to study music requires families to have money to pay for private lessons. While schools have historically been able to subsidise music lessons and offer bursaries, particularly for those from low-income backgrounds, cuts are being made. In Coventry, the Performing Arts Service used to lend instruments to students in local schools for the extent of their lessons, but this practice has ceased. This means that many students are barred from learning music due to the substantial amount of money required to buy an instrument, even before the lessons begin.

Shifts in priorities in schooling have had severe effects on how the arts factor into the priorities of students

As a Russell Group university, Warwick has a widening participation department, and is active within local schools in supporting those from low-income backgrounds, as well as offering bursaries to help increase access to such students. However, whilst this does go some distance to combat the inequality in backgrounds, this still does not level out the barriers between art and class. Many students, due to lack of facilities and funding, simply do not have the access to opportunities that would encourage them to take arts subjects at GCSE level or higher.

University level support is therefore only a starting point – it is most important that we give encouragement and support to students in primary and secondary education if we truly want to abolish these class barriers.

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