In recent months discussion of education has been dominated by concerns about Scotland’s declining standards of literacy and numeracy. Not surprisingly, the political response – not only from the Scottish Government – has been to emphasise the need to raise attainment in these basic skills. Nobody is going to dispute their importance but it is essential to remember that there is much more to being an educated person than the ability to read, write and count.
The Curriculum for Excellence aspires to ensure that all young people develop as successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens. Developing these qualities requires a broad curriculum with an emphasis on, among other things, imagination and creativity.
There is a danger that, among the deep – and justified – concern about basic skills, the importance of some other areas of the curriculum will be ignored. The vital contribution of the arts to developing educated and civilised people can all too easily be forgotten. Recent threats to school libraries, instrumental tuition and other areas that are sometimes portrayed as peripheral underline this risk.
Protecting these areas of the curriculum depends on understanding how the arts contribute to learning and having in place appropriate strategies to ensure that their impact is maximised. Subjects like art, music and drama are highly motivating. They have the capacity to engage learners deeply and often to involve their families. They stimulate creativity and imagination. At the same time they promote the “soft skills” that employers see as essential in the modern workforce. Communication is at the heart of any creative endeavour. What better example of teamwork is there than in a choir or orchestra? Resilience, hard work and enjoyment go hand in hand.
At the same time the importance of the creative arts to the modern economy must be emphasised. Creative industries are an increasing source of employment and add to national income.
As yet, effective strategic thinking is not strongly apparent in the oversight of the creative arts aspects of the curriculum. It is better established in relation to sport where the link between large-scale participation and elite performance is better understood and where the contribution of physical activity and focused attention to broader education is increasingly seen as significant.
Developing comparable approaches across the creative arts will take some time but there is an opportunity now to make a start in one area and, at the same time, reap a number of other major benefits for the nation as a whole.
St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh is dedicated to developing young musicians of the highest calibre. At present it operates in restricted accommodation that constrains its ability to expand. However, the opportunity exists for it to relocate to the old Royal High School building on Calton Hill that has lain empty for some 50 years. Such a move would find a highly appropriate use for the most important Greek revival building in Scotland, conserve the integrity of Edinburgh’s World Heritage site, allow the school to grow and create a new concert venue in the centre of the city. Along with the proposed new home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra nearby, this would give the city and the Festival a full range of concert venues from the intimate to large scale and grand. There is every prospect that generous charitable funding will make this plan achievable.
Of course, the creation of a hub for musical excellence is only part of the kind of educational strategy outlined above. There needs to be a commitment to encouraging large-scale participation in music making of all sorts in schools. There needs too to be understanding of how best to use the full educational potential of music in school and to forge productive links with musical organisations in the outside world.
This involves a recognition that music aids cognitive development. It means valuing the contribution of music to broader educational objectives such as teamwork, perseverance and skills of communication. All this will take time but we can make a start now with the St Mary’s Music School project.
Keir Bloomer is an independent education consultant and an ambassador for the Perfect Harmony campaign