‘Relegating the arts in favour of STEM is a big mistake’

The Telegraph, 17/12/14, HMC member Keith Budge, headmaster of Bedales Schools says that whilst it is true that STEM subjects are vital, there seems to be an instinct to promote them at the expense of a wider education

Last week, the Prime Minister announced a government push on maths, science and technology in schools, with teachers to get specialist training, a new national college for digital skills and coding, and a new GCSE in computer science.

"If countries are going to win in the global race and children compete and get the best jobs, you need mathematicians and scientists – pure and simple," we heard. However, there is little that is ‘pure and simple’ about the educational policy messages from government in recent weeks.

In late November, Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, sought a halt in hostilities between the government and critics of education reform within the teaching profession. She said that education should be a partnership rather than a war of ideas, with an end to “false dichotomies” between “subjects we value and subjects we don’t”.

She pleaded that the rhetoric be toned down, to be replaced by “a reasoned debate based on what works” and a focus on driving up standards.

At first reading this all appears sensible and conciliatory, and it is of course important that none of us to falls into entrenched positions. I share the Education Secretary’s distaste for false dichotomies – for example, she has clearly thought better of her statement of a few weeks ago when she declared that the days when arts and humanities subjects could be relied on as useful to all kinds of jobs were behind us.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that STEM subjects are vital, and I welcome the initiatives outlined by the Prime Minister, I remain concerned about what I see as an instinct to promote them at the expense of a wider education.

A case in point is the Education Secretary’s recent plea for a focus on ‘character education’; what she describes as “the character skills we all need to get on in life – resilience, grit, self-esteem, self-confidence.”

In fact, yesterday it was announced by the Department for Education that some £3.5 million will be spent promoting classes and extra-curricular activities that build “grit” and resilience” in schoolchildren.

Again, I agree with this sentiment, which plays very much to the strengths of the independent sector and a school like Bedales. However, I doubt the wisdom of relegating the arts and humanities if such ‘character education’ is to be achieved.

As I write, our Christmas drama production has just closed. Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle was significantly student-led, and demanded of those taking part all of the character qualities identified by the Education Secretary – and some that are not (presumably empathy and compassion are less than vital to those charged with prevailing in the global race).

Are there equivalent educational opportunities to be found in STEM education? I am of the view that making sense of the world of people – participating in that world – is the stuff of the arts and humanities.

Also interesting to note is the Education Secretary’s linking of the educational ‘basics’ and ‘driving up standards’; perhaps she might consider consigning such constructions to the waste bin along with false dichotomies.

Nobody would, or indeed could, disagree with a desire to improve standards in schools; however, the Education Secretary’s plea for "a reasoned debate based on what works" must involve discussions of educational values rather than the application of unchallengeable and ostensibly benign orthodoxies.

Good education policy – indeed good public policy of any kind – can only be strengthened by informed public scrutiny, which in turn demands that people are well-versed in the relevant critical tools.

These, I suggest, are significantly the result of exposure to ideas associated with the arts and humanities, and are no less important than the STEM expertise that, quite rightly, is valued so highly.

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