How will art funding cuts in schools affect creativity?
We speak to an arts teacher and four creatives who went to state school about their experiences, uncovering how integral their teaching was in their pursuit of a creative career, and what the catastrophic impact state education without arts provision would have on the wider industry.
Grayson Perry, Zadie Smith, Don McCullin, Jenny Saville; imagine a world without these artists. Well, each of these individuals attended UK state schools. And now, after immense cuts to funding, arts classes in state schools are in serious jeopardy.
Following 13 years of Conservative rule, cuts to the UK’s arts sector have been immense – a fact which is now reflected in our state funded schools. Sadly, it comes as little surprise with our current Prime Minister telling artists to retain and “find other jobs” throughout the pandemic. In May 2021, then education secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans to cut funding to arts and design higher education courses by 50 per cent to focus on “high-value subjects”. Then, last year, plans were also set in stone to ban student loans for students who fail English and Maths GCSEs – journalist Zesha Saleem argued in an article for us last year how this would primarily impact creative students, especially those from deprived and Black and South Asian backgrounds. Now, with a cost of living crisis contributing to spiralling cuts, some schools may be forced to cut creative subjects, as reported by The Guardian in November last year.
In my own experience at state school in Manchester, arts classes not only provided me with learnings that were fundamental in forming my interests, but in them I received some of the most considerate and caring teaching. My GCSE and A Level art teacher Mr Davidson, was an eternally calm figure. I was always in awe of how he created a space for children to exist outside the rigid confines of traditional academic learning; he supported his students in their vision, never attempted to sway them into something more ‘grade friendly’; he allowed talking and joking (as long as work was being produced in tandem), and had a way of conversing with students of all abilities and behaviour in a way that made them feel comfortable and welcomed. While I didn’t end up pursuing art as a practice, my experiences in school gave me a deep passion and respect for creativity – I truly doubt I would be in the job I am today without it.
To gauge an understanding of how cuts are currently affecting arts provision in schools, we spoke to a London-based arts teacher who has worked in primary and secondary education, and in a therapeutic pupil referral unit. For clear reasons related to the nature of the topics discussed, the teacher who kindly spoke to us wishes to remain anonymous.
Our conversation made it clear that the state of arts education is already quite poor. As a result of a continued lack of funding, there’s a scarcity of materials and resources in classrooms. Upon beginning her training at a mainstream secondary school towards the end of the academic year, the teacher recalls finding there to be next to no resources: “we didn’t have any art books – there weren't even any pencils,” she says. In 2022, The Guardian reported that each year just £9.40 is allocated per student for all music, arts, and cultural programmes. For 2023-2024, the overall amount funded to schools on a per-pupil basis was £7,460. “Just think how much paper costs?” the art teacher highlights. “That’s pretty much all you can buy.”
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Lucy Grainge: National Centre for Craft and Design solo exhibition - The Shapes of Words about Dyslexia, 2019 (Copyright © Lucy Grainge, 2019)
This lack of resources, combined with many schools now only scheduling a single lesson of art a week (sometimes even only an hour), has resulted in what the teacher sees as children not taking “pride” in their work. Moreover, the teacher highlights how family financial situations may also be a dictator of success. When on an internal GCSE moderation training course, the teacher recalls that one of the highest graded works was a “talented” 3D architectural model. “Obviously it was really good and it ticked off all the assessment objectives – and I didn’t want to pass judgement – but this kid clearly has money,” the teacher says. “The work that had come from the student that was well resourced was getting a higher grade.”
Creativity can be a powerful tool for supporting young people, particularly for children who find that mainstream education hasn’t been suitable – many of whom struggle with mental health issues. Another worrying eventuality that the teacher highlights is the effect that these cuts will have on inclusivity. “I think that the push the creative industry is having at the moment to diversify and give access to those who maybe wouldn’t originally have access will become redundant,” she says. Quite simply, if there are no arts classes in state funded schools, then families who can’t afford the expensive add-ons still tied to arts access – like exhibition tickets, travel, art books and tools – will be the ones ending up with no exposure.
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Harriet Richardson: My Two Loves (Copyright © Harriet Richardson, 2023)
To contextualise such a concerning situation, we thought it prescient to hear from creatives who attended state schools and identified their teaching as being a vital factor in pursuing a career in the arts. While all the creatives we spoke to had unique experiences, there were a number of key takeaways and recurring experiences.
Harriet Richardson, is an artist based in London and former designer at Pentagram. Growing up in Manchester, Harriet recalls the impact her teacher, Miss Livesey, had on her. A figure who “completely fit the stereotype of an art teacher”, Miss Livesey was eccentric, and accepted – perhaps even facilitated – such eccentricities in her students. “She was definitely the reason I felt (and still feel to this day) that standing out in an obscure way is a good thing,” Harriet expresses. A “defining moment” in Harriet’s creative journey was Miss Livsey’s dramatic reaction to a 14-year-old final project she made – “a concoction of papier mache, chicken wire, beads and blue nail varnish” that Miss Livsey held up for the entire class to see, “in a Simba-like motion”.
Much of Harriet’s practice engages with the UK’s political climate, so she’s clued up on the environment that has led to such cuts. “Am I surprised that the top one per cent of earners – aka the people that hold all the power – want to optimise the most capitalistic subjects and leave behind any trace of freedom of expression? Nope!” Harriet laments. She also highlights a lack of forward thinking on the part of the government. “Arts education helps to cultivate creativity, which is a key skill in many creative fields, such as design, advertising and entertainment,” she expresses. “Without access to art education, young people will not be able to develop these skills as fully, which will not only limit their career options and the overall quality of work produced in these fields, but will also result in a loss of artistic recognition in general.”
Laina Deene, a freelance illustrator highlights the importance of Polly and Ryan – two teachers at her sixth form college in Brighton – whose “care, enthusiasm and importance for the arts they held” helped her to pursue further arts education. Polly, Laina’s graphics teacher, led her to creative resources and guided her to her now-specialisation, illustration, while Ryan, her fine art teacher, aided Laina in experimentation and, critically, self reflection. “Conversations with [Ryan] were probably my first introduction into crit-like scenarios that taught me how to deal with criticism and be happy to receive it,” Laina laughs. “I have this vivid memory that always comes back to me when I get lost in making something. I was splatting paint onto my sketchbook seemingly with no real aim, and Ryan said, ‘know when to stop’. It sounds so simple but was so useful for me.”
One of the most worrying aspects of cuts to arts education for Laina is how much it will widen pre-existing gaps between classes and those from underrepresented communities. “As someone whose parents didn’t go to university, who’s Black and from a working-class background, a career in the arts felt unreachable (it still does in many ways). But the teaching and advice I received regarding further education aged 15-18 from my teachers made it feel possible,” she identifies. “Before then, I hadn’t even considered going to university.”
For multidisciplinary artist and designer Lucy Grainge, a struggle she experienced at school in Manchester was navigating her (then undiagnosed) dyslexia. Often finding herself overstretched, the art room became a place of solace for Lucy. “Playing with Modrock and exploring Miss Taylor’s cupboard of art books at lunch time was often my way to decompress.” Lucy recalls a GCSE art trip to Tate Liverpool and seeing a Turner, Monet and Twombly group exhibition as being a pivotal moment for her. “I was 14 and the connection I felt with this colourful, abstract piece of dripping paint was so powerful, I couldn’t explain it.” she says. “That trip felt quite pivotal to me for seeing art in the ‘real world’ for the first time, outside of my classroom.”
Later, pushed by other figures in school to pursue academia, Lucy found herself with a place at university to study psychology. It was only after Miss Taylor encouraged Lucy and a number of other students to do a foundation course – telling them to treat it as a ‘gap year’ – that Lucy changed her mind. All of the students Miss Taylor led towards a foundation ended up going on to pursue further arts education. “For me, it was because of the personal relationship and trust I’d developed with my art teacher over the years that I felt the confidence that I could go on and do an arts degree,” Lucy says. “If teachers are stressed and being pushed to their limits, there is much less time for these relationships to develop.”
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Anna Gibson: Raveena, Notion Digital Cover (Copyright © Anna Gibson)
Anna Gibson is a freelance graphic designer who regularly collaborates with Notion magazine. Attending a Catholic school in Surrey, Anna found herself restricted by “average grades” and the high academic expectations of her school. What’s more, her arts classes favoured a very traditional perception of creativity. “You painted or nothing – which I hated so much,” Anna highlights. “I was constantly frustrated because I so badly wanted to do well, but I was so shit at painting it was embarrassing – I felt like I’d never be taken seriously.” But there was one teacher who stood by and supported Anna. Listening to her struggles, he often stayed with her after class to help her find ways to “push the boundaries of the curriculum”, before then leading her toward graphic design. “I remember emailing him a couple years later to let him know I got into my top choice university and he was so delighted – I really owe a lot to him.”
As expressed by Harriet, Lucy sees the current situation as stemming from a general disdain toward creativity, and a lack of awareness of how much it offers to our society. “Everything you see around us, from the tube map, hospital infographics to TV shows have creatives behind them – and many of those creative journeys started in school.” Anna says. “By cutting funding, not only are they taking away opportunities away from students and punishing those from low socio-economic backgrounds, they are going to really damage anything that relies on creatives in order to function well.”
Fundamentally, further cuts to the arts in state schools will have a catastrophic impact both on the individual future of creatives, and the industry at large. Without exposure to the arts in the space where the country’s children spend the vast majority of their days, awareness of the arts and a belief that you can have a successful creative future will be dramatically impacted. The creative industry – which is much broader, essential and more lucrative than people often give it credit for – will lose future generations of brilliant creative minds.
On top of this, it’s clear that art classes regularly provide a vital space of solace, often for children who don’t find their place within the inflexible ‘academic’ expectations in the majority of classrooms. Art teachers are those worth celebrating – many providing their students with warmth, direction and drive that they may not find elsewhere in school. But most worrying is the effect such cuts will have on pre-existing inequalities in the arts, further driving a wedge between those from marginalised backgrounds and a creative industry already dominated by a wealthy elite. In sum, an education devoid of the arts is one that is less rich, less varied and, quite frankly, not one worth putting any young person through.
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.