Blog post

The benefits of an arts education

Latest reports suggest the creative industries are under pressure and question whether they can provide a useful education to young people. David McGravie, Head of the School of Arts at the University of Derby explains why an arts education is important and how it can benefit students.

6 December 2017

Allies or enemies?

The arts and sciences were once conjoined. The artists were the scientists and the scientists were the artists. They were connected and entwined. Together they heralded and laid the foundation of modern medicine, engineering and design.

Over time arts and sciences separated, as scientists sought respect and credibility for their profession and subject expertise. The associations with the 'creatives', who were predominately covered in paint and acted instinctively in a wholly unpredictable manner, were frowned upon. Subjective thoughts and actions did not sit well with the new area of science that demanded respect and recognition in the new objective world.


In recent times, UK governments have promoted STEM as the solution to all of our economic ills. More enlightened governments added a small but significant addition to the acronym, evolving the STEM to STEAM through the simple addition of the arts.

In these countries, arts sits alongside their more contemporary upstarts of science, technology and engineering and the addition of this small letter is significant and profound.

Yet here in the UK, we have decided not to include arts in our acronym. Therefore STEM remains STEM. The omission is disappointing both from a personal and subject perspective. But beyond my own feelings and whatever they add to this discussion, the omission is serious and damaging for both cultural and economic reasons.

The lack of arts means that we are potentially on the precipice of losing all that we hold dear in respect of the UK and what we are known for around the world. The skills and talent pipeline is dangerously close to being turned off.

Around the world we are known for great design, fashion, films and music!

In the UK we innovate, we lead, we change and we enrich people's lives. There is a simple reason that Apple's leading designer is British, there is a simple reason that the world's music charts are full of British bands and acts: arts is what we do and we do it well.

Arts encourage people to think, to question, to explore and to experiment. They embody creativity and risk taking. They enrich and excite and bring real and tangible benefit to society as a whole.

Credibility to the arts

Creativity is instinctive and yet our educational system educates this out of us. Creativity is less measurable; risk taking is dangerous. Things might go wrong. Results might suffer. A league table position might plummet. But it could go so well!

Innovation and risk taking are what we do well. It's what the arts support and encourage. Our products enrich our lives; from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep - we consume and benefit from the 'products' of the arts.

Think about the music we listen to; the film we watched last night; the games our children play on their consoles. Even the clothes we wear and the cars we drive are all products that owe their creation to the arts.

The fastest growing sector

The creative industries collectively draw these activities together at a sector level. Its GDP accounts for approximately £91.8 billion to the UK economy (5.3%) and supports 2.4 million jobs. It is the fastest growing sector in the UK and grew at twice the rate of the wider economy in 2015-2016.

Yet, as a sector it is largely unknown and it is under threat. The creative industries could pay the Brexit divorce bill of £50 million twice and are worth more than seven times the UK's gross annual contribution to the EU.

We need to better promote and encourage additional support for what is a 'pipeline of opportunity'. It is an industry that we know enriches people's lives through its products; products that we know make us feel good about ourselves and our environment.

So what is our country's response? We cut the feed off at its source.

Arts education in schools

Arts based education in schools is falling... dramatically. There is a year on year fall in the number of students choosing arts at GCSE in schools (across the full range of arts subjects). If students do not study arts GCSEs, then they don't study arts A-levels. If A-levels are not studied then Universities have a real problem.

In the 90s, many vocational courses disappeared and with them so went the skills of the bricklayers, the electricians, the carpenters and the plumbers. Ironically many of the resources that supported these vocational courses were diverted into developing design courses that taught DTP on Apple Macs and now as sector, we are facing a similar threat.

In recent times, government and property developers have bemoaned the skills shortage; houses could not be built because there were no trades to build them. There was a real skills shortage because young people were not encouraged to learn a trade and if they wanted to learn a trade, they couldn't because most vocational courses had disappeared.

Let us shout loud about the value of an arts education, let us promote arts as a valuable academic choice for GCSE options and let us encourage more young people into what is an exciting career and opportunity.

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