Evidence informed decision making about the importance of arts rich schools

Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Learning and National Partnerships, explains why a sector-wide approach to evaluating the impact of arts learning interventions is long overdue.

We believe that everyone can benefit from the arts and creativity. Research consistently shows that young people who experience an arts-rich education are likely to do better at school, be more employable and become more active, engaged citizens.

To quote the Department for Education, whilst ‘…Ability is evenly spread across the country…opportunity isn’t.’ Many young people miss out entirely on quality arts learning opportunities because of where they live or where they go to school. It’s important to acknowledge in making this statement that there are no data sets outlining what arts experiences are happening in primary and secondary schools nationwide. There is also no nationally recognised set of recommendations about what good arts learning provision in schools looks like. It’s a significant gap.  

Despite this, across the UK there are brilliant examples of arts organisations embedding work with schools and schools embedding arts subjects across the curriculum. Established over a decade ago, our own Associate Schools Programme (ASP) is just one example. The ASP builds long-term partnerships with schools and theatres across England in areas that experience structural disadvantage (a term we use because it relates to the disadvantage experienced because of the way society functions - for example, how resources are distributed).

Value and Benefits of an Arts-Rich Education

A commitment to research has always run alongside the work we do in schools. We want to know what difference RSC approaches to teaching Shakespeare make to learning outcomes for children and young people. Research suggests that Shakespeare’s language and our theatre-based approaches to teaching not only support the development of reading and writing skills but also accelerate language acquisition and development.

Research also tells us the work builds confidence; improves student attitudes to school and learning; fosters well-being, increases self-esteem, develops empathy, resilience and tolerance and promotes critical-thinking, creativity, communication and problem-solving skills.

We have been finding out what the CLA reports are key outcomes of an arts rich education. That as well as equipping young people with cultural capital and vital life and work skills, an arts-rich education can help narrow the attainment gap and level the playing field.

Yet despite these benefits, in recent years, we’ve seen a continued decline in take-up of arts subjects at GCSE and A ‘level and English Literature and Theatre Studies degree courses being axed. This points to a lack of understanding about or belief in the benefits that arts learning brings. It also points to an education system that rarely encourages young people to be both scientific and artistic, to have both STEM rich and arts rich learning experiences.

A teacher kneeling on the floor surrounded by children in red school uniforms
Children working with a teacher at a workshop
Photo by Rob Freeman © RSC Browse and license our images

What Research Tells Us and Why It Matters

In our 2018 study, Time to Listen, we analysed 5,500 responses from young people in state-maintained schools across the country. We asked whether arts subjects and experiences mattered to them and the answer was a resounding yes.  They told us that creative subjects were the only spaces they felt they were given agency: where they could make mistakes and try new ideas. These same young people told us that they felt society at large did not value those subjects and that, as a result, they became less valuable to them.

Research will play an increasingly important role in helping us to understand the kinds of learning experiences young people need to take their place in our rapidly changing world. But we need research that isn’t replicating binary arguments about certain subjects being more important than others. We need to understand the role of inter-disciplinary learning and the importance of a truly broad and balanced curriculum that isn’t asking young people to narrow choices and opportunities.  

The arts sector has an interesting relationship to research. We know that the arts contribute to a wealth of emotional, social and intellectual outcomes, fostering tangible ‘hard’ skills alongside what are often called ‘soft’ skills. But, unlike some other sectors, the impact of the arts can be harder to quantify, and therefore harder to measure. As many others have said before, we need to measure what we value, not value what we measure. And that means we need to invest in new forms of measurement.

It goes against the grain in a sector that values originality and innovation to quantify and measure, but if we want to influence what happens with arts and cultural learning inside and outside school, we need to get serious about research. About how we design and co-ordinate our approaches as a sector to research and evidence.

Time To Act?

In 2021, the RSC became the first performing arts organisation to be awarded Independent Research Organisation (IRO) status. Our first major project as an IRO is a three-year research programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation called Time to Act. Part of the work involves developing tools to measure the difference our work makes to the language development and acquisition of children as well as their academic self-concept.  Once we have piloted the tools, we will share them for use by any artist or arts organisation.

Alongside the measures, other kinds of information we will share include, what constitutes reliable evidence; approaches to designing an arts education study; and what sample sizes are required to produce credible results. Overall, we want to share what we’ve learnt to inform the debate about assessing the impact of arts experiences on learning outcomes for young people.

Time to Act takes a co-creative approach to research. We worked with teachers and young people on defining the research questions and research design. An expert group of teachers, artists and academics is guiding the research throughout.

To date, we’ve recruited 56 primary schools (71 classes) across the country to participate in a randomised control trial. Through this we will test the tools for measuring impact on language development and academic self-concept. The research also involves a Teacher Researcher Network who will evaluate the work we do according to their specific learning priorities. The results will inform how the RSC works in the future and the tools we create will be available for all artists and arts organisations to use.

As a country celebrated for its creative brilliance, we still suffer from a curious lack of confidence around the role and the value of the arts and an arts-rich education. We hope that the tools we create will make a valuable contribution to the arts sector, helping it to articulate the importance and social impact of its work in schools.

Jacqui O'Hanlon

Jacqui O'Hanlon

Jacqui O'Hanlon Jacqui is Director of Learning and National Partnerships at the RSC, leading its work with children, young people, teachers, adult learners and partner theatres across the UK and around the world. Jacqui originally trained as an actor before working for several years as a drama practitioner in schools and communities prior to joining the RSC.

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