Antony Gormley, Jez Butterworth, Mark Wallinger and other artists, playwrights and leading cultural figures look back on the experiences that inspired them as children and reflect on the dangers of marginalising the arts in schools
Jez Butterworth playwright
I went to a comprehensive school in St Albans and, as any of my old teachers would tell you, I was impossible to teach from 13 onwards. I was bored out of my mind in every single lesson except creative writing and drama. We had one drama class a week. I longed to be in these classes where someone was broadcasting on a frequency I understood and which inspired me. Writing my own stories. Acting in stuff we’d made up ourselves. It was wonderful. But there was pitifully little of it. Everything else was just endless clock-watching, sitting at the back, getting into trouble, creating some drama for as long as you could, till you got thrown out.
April De Angelis playwright
At primary school in the 1970s our drama teacher was the legendary Ivor Cutler. We sang along to nonsense tunes and improvised being monkeys picking salt out of each other’s skin. Once he gave us each a plastic grape for excellence. Collectively we revelled in the power of unstinted imagination. A year on at a new school I got lucky landing the part of Toad in Toad of Toad Hall. I loved my drama teacher, Mrs Heaton. Drama at school was the key that unlocked me with its premium on curiosity and inventiveness; the joy of working in groups yet feeling your individual input was integral. Being inside the complex world of a play with its debates, strategies, motivations and allegiances was brilliant for confidence and developing a love of language. I wasn’t a kid who was taken to the theatre, so school was the place. In the school mag at the time I said the cast felt like family. Drama creates engaged, articulate beings who are attuned to their connection with others – which is why it’s been suppressed – it’s a political act.
Michael Craig-Martin artist
Like most people, I consider it disgraceful that there are students leaving school without being able to read or write or do simple arithmetic, and this situation should be addressed with urgency. However because the three Rs form the basis of most well-educated people’s experience of education, many make the mistake of assuming that they constitute the basis of all education – of education itself.
The reason why the teaching of the arts is not automatically being included in the proposed new required curriculum is that the minister and those advising him do not believe that teaching the arts is of genuine and equal educational value. They see such teaching as peripheral, a luxury rather than a necessity. They do not understand (perhaps because they never experienced it themselves) that the arts teach students important things academic education does not.
Learning by doing, by flexibility of imagination, by personal choice, learning the pleasure of hard work when what you are doing is itself a pleasure, learning by the satisfaction of personal accomplishment – these are the things that art practice teaches best, and these are the very attributes we all know young people are going to need to lead a prosperous and fulfilling life in the modern world no matter what they do.
In my experience the people who are most vociferous in their condemnation of new art, art they do not “get”, are those who see themselves as well-educated. For many this is the first time in their lives that they have come up against something that does not find a comfortable place in their picture of things, something that resists their understanding. It is a very unnerving feeling, and they often dismiss the work as rubbish or the artist as fraudulent. Could it be the consequence of a failure in their education?
Es Devlin designer
When I was about 15 the land artist Chris Drury took our art class into the forest. We built a giant dome out of branches. There were about 12 of us and we could all fit inside it. We told stories in the dark. We emerged from the forest the next day as new people. I wonder whether I would be telling stories for a living now if it weren’t for this singular experience.
We rehearsed the school play in the evenings and the school became a new place, with new rules, new possibilities. I remember running anarchically down the dark corridors – running in corridors was strictly forbidden during the school day. Parents helped teachers make costumes – the terms of pupils’ engagement with teachers were revised, the school became a community. I wasn’t conscious of this at the time, but the sense of freedom we gained from being in the school at night time under the revised laws of the rehearsals has been something I’ve pursued ever since.
Britain excels in fashion, music and drama. How can we expect to perpetuate excellence if we do not cultivate the roots of these practices in children at school?
Antony Gormley artist
Had there not been an art room at the heart of my school I would not have become an artist or a whole person. The art room was always open, I could go there any time. It was a well-lit room where anything could be made, drawn, painted. I would go there several times a day to keep whatever I was doing going. “What are you trying to say?” would be the question asked by the monk/painter/art teacher: a good question. Here I was encouraged to originate things that did not exist before, that came from my own experience, thoughts, feelings and my ability to give them form. It made me examine my perceptions and value what they told me. It made me search for means and competence. This was subject matter that did not come from books, was not already known, and although from a source without authority, was my own. The fact that this was given attention, value, critical consideration gave me confidence, and when the outcome was shown in the main assembly hall it gave me an identity in the school. The other question the art master asked was: “Is it finished?” It had to be complete, and what was complete? When what I had to say was made: made into a thing that was whole, undeniable, a thing in the world. This was not an opinion or a recovered piece of general knowledge but a fact, something in and of the world that changed the world.
Imagination is a vital, precious, fundamental resource that exists in every one of us: the imagination and the power to make what has been imagined has to be valued within our schools or there will be no future. Please Mr Gove, realise that to be human is not just a matter of performing to standards but to be given the power and the confidence to make what we dream.
David Hare playwright
In November the Guardian website posted an unforgettable film made by Ken Russell for the BBC arts programme Monitor about the young author of A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney. Anyone who watches that film about Delaney’s life in 1950s Salford, and her love of the people who live there, will hear a particular tone of democratic idealism that has now disappeared almost entirely from British public life, and which, like pure music, chokes me up whenever I hear it. I hear the same tone when old film is run of the 1960s Atlanta civil rights leaders, and of Martin Luther King in particular.
What do schoolchildren need? Access to hope. And, most of all, access to convincing voices of hope. Gove’s central curriculum is designed to batten down and to proscribe. It’s profoundly anti-libertarian both in its programme and in its execution. The challenge for the rest of us is to make those voices accessible again, wherever they now are.
Nicholas Hytner director of the National Theatre
Every child should get the chance to make art, and to see it at the highest standard. Growing up in Manchester, I was taken by my school and my parents to amazing stuff, and I was blessed with an array of inspirational teachers who made theatre and music central to my life. I sang Mahler and Monteverdi, I saw Shakespeare and Joe Orton, I played Chekhov and the Christmas Fairy. Children from homes like mine will always do OK; it’s profoundly depressing that so much is being done to discourage schools from introducing every child to all that’s on offer.
Julian Lloyd Webber musician
As a nation the UK continually punches way above its weight when it comes to culture. Time after time we deliver the goods (as in Danny Boyle‘s wonderfully inventive Olympic opening ceremony) – but this always seems to be against the odds. Just imagine what might be achieved if we backed the arts wholeheartedly. The arts should not be the preserve of some privileged elite – all our children should be enabled to experience them. But the way the EBacc is currently framed will not allow this to happen and it needs to be changed, otherwise huge numbers of children will never be given the opportunity to realise their talents.
Antonio Pappano director of music, Royal Opera House
At St Vincent’s primary school in Westminster I was fortunate enough to have had a teacher named Mrs Walsh who played the piano beautifully, and I and my fellow students sang in a choir she led. That experience stays with me to this day as it all seemed so natural and right. Music was and should be a part of everyday school life. The brain needs music and the visual arts as well as reading/writing, maths and history to complete itself. The emotional intelligence that is engendered is a gift for life. The problems of the future will be solved by creative people, people whose brains are open. Music is not a privilege, it is an everyday necessity.
David Pickard general director, Glyndebourne
Through our education work at Glyndebourne we come into contact with thousands of children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. We see again and again how the arts enrich and sometimes change their lives, often when their families are unable to provide them with these opportunities themselves. The arts teach children so much more than simply drawing, playing an instrument, singing, dancing or acting. They teach them to think creatively; to interact effectively; to express themselves persuasively; and to believe in themselves. These skills are just as important in the world of work as the fact-based learning proposed by Michael Gove.
My own musical education has been less important for the specialised knowledge it has given me than for the creative and communication skills essential for running an organisation. My ambition to work in the arts grew out of the thrill of seeing live performance from an early age. When I was a teenager I sat on the floor of the Royal Opera House listening to Pavarotti. I was transported by Felicity Lott in Capriccio on the Glyndebourne Tour in Oxford. And now nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing the reaction of schools audiences at Glyndebourne and the knowledge that another generation is being inspired in the way I was.
Elizabeth Price Turner prize-winner 2012
My earliest memory of school is of making an abstract drawing: a kind of geometric maze. I made it using wax crayons, enjoying their luminous colours, and I was delighted with it.
I remember many different pieces of art I made during school: a poster of Jesus (wearing flares) admonishing children to put litter in bins; a powder-colour painting of a Coca-Cola bottle; a gold-foil collage of Tutankhamun. Looking back, my whole school history is charted by the pieces of art I made there. It was obviously my way of growing up, and of joining in.
I went to a secondary school where anyone could learn an instrument, anyone could join the hockey team, appear in the school play and go along to the art club. Although this extraordinarily rich educational opportunity is sneeringly referred to as a prizes-for-all culture that generates mediocrity, that wasn’t my experience. I participated in all of these things, and while I was not so good at some (hockey) I found I was good at others (art and music) and I was helped to excel in them.
This was made possible through the encouragement and dedication of some charismatic and highly dedicated teachers. Also, because these subjects had equal standing with other subjects in the curriculum, I never felt that being good at art was a lesser achievement. My way of joining in was OK.
The marginalisation of art in state schools as a result of the EBacc is a truly depressing prospect, not only because so many children will have less opportunity to discover their capabilities, of finding their own way of participating in the world, but also because, as a result, art itself will be profoundly diminished. If only the privileged have access to an inspiring art education (and we all know limited resources will be directed to subjects within the EBacc, at the expense of those outside) then art will become expressive of a narrow range of social experience.
Nicholas Serota director, Tate
I had the good fortune to be in London as a teenager in the early 60s when it was possible to see an early Rolling Stones concert as the supporting act at the Hammersmith Odeon, an explosive survey of international art in the decade 54-64 at the Tate, Matisse’s Snail and Hockney’s The First Marriage also at the Tate, Truffaut’s classic Jules et Jim and, slightly later, Peter Brook’s magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC. These were all touchstones that shaped my view of the world just as much as political events such as the death of Kennedy and the war in Vietnam. Culture is not an optional extra, it is just as much a part of life and education as maths, English, the sciences, history and a language.
Bob and Roberta Smith artist
I went to a huge comprehensive school in Wandsworth. I imagine it’s just the kind of institution Mr Gove hates. I had an amazing art education between the ages of 11 and 18. One of my teachers was Noel Hawks, who ran a record shop in Clapham High Street called Dub Vendor. Around that time I remember a large group of us trekking to east London to take part in the Anti-Nazi Carnival at Victoria Park. We saw the Clash and X-Ray Spex. The study of Poly Styrene should be in the art curriculum. I came away with two experiences that I talked to Mr Hawks about: one was seeing dub innovators Aswad and the other was the surrealist and activist collage work of John Heartfield. Heartfield-inspired graphics filled Victoria Park and later Brockwell Park. All kids at school need to realise that art is free speech and rebellion.
My other art teacher was Kathy Dalwood. She is the painter Dexter Dalwood’s cousin and Hubert Dalwood’s daughter. She took us on all sorts of school trips, mainly to what is now Tate Britain and the Hayward Gallery. I researched her dad and became interested in British sculpture. I loved, still love, Henry Moore from looking at his shelter drawings when I was at school. May be that’s why I am so incensed about Tower Hamlets selling the Moore sculpture “Old Flo“.
The most instructional experience was a school trip to the Whitechapel art gallery to see the Max Beckmann show that Nicholas Serota had put together. Jenni Lomax was the art education person then, and she told us, through looking at the paintings, about the Weimar republic and allegory. Later she presented us with huge sheets of paper and said forget about the paintings downstairs, just make something huge. That day was the day I thought: THIS IS FOR ME.
Alistair Spalding artistic director and chief executive, Sadler’s Wells
I’m afraid I’m not a good example of someone being inspired to go into the arts by my education, as we really didn’t get much of a chance to develop our creative skills at the secondary school I went to. I ended up educating myself in the arts, and luckily it turned out well for me. I do not want my children’s chances of enjoying or participating in artistic pursuits to be such a lottery, however. They should have a chance to at least find out whether they have musical, dramatic, choreographic or visual arts talent and, more importantly, whether they find pleasure in those pursuits. The benefits of having dance as part of a creative education are particularly obvious, as it is a performing art that enables you to express emotions and ideas but at the same time it improves your physical coordination and wellbeing.
Mark Wallinger artist
Looking back, I realise how blessed I was to go to Manford Way junior school in Hainault, Essex. Staffed by an array of talented and eccentric teachers, many of whom had come late to the vocation, it allowed our imaginations to flourish. I owe an awful lot to Mr Holland, a polymath who could hold a classroom transfixed by reading classic children’s books or get us to work out the height of the school clocktower using trigonometry, and who also took art seriously, promoting the better of us from desk to easel. He encouraged me to further what abilities I had to draw and paint – to look closely, observe and reflect, make judgments, assess and reassess. To draw from life is to become absorbed in a profound engagement with the world.
Art comes not at the expense of an academic education, nor is it about grace notes in the margins; it is education. But in Goveworld this might be a problem because it is impossible to measure and becomes its own reward.