Closing The Gap

This month our Creative Skills Manager Heather Armstrong explores the role the arts and creativity have to play in closing the attainment gap.

By the time they are five, Scotland’s least advantaged children will be 18 months behind in vocabulary and 13 months behind in problem solving skills compared to their most advantaged peers. For some of them, it will be the equivalent of asking a three year old to cope with the social, emotional and cognitive demands of primary one.

This isn’t new information, and resources are being funneled into Early Years in Scotland in a bid to close that gap. As a nation we’re obsessing over literacy and numeracy rates, gearing up to double free childcare, yet we have a secret weapon right in our midst, the very thing that makes us human, and we seem to be willfully ignoring it.

The arts.

Children’s Right and Inequality in Accessing Arts and Culture

In the Herald this week, a leading professor of education made the link between attainment and arts activities: Attainment gap between rich and poor fuelled by out of school classes for middle class pupils.

“Chris McIlroy, a visiting professor of education at Strathclyde University, said extra-curricular activities were fundamental in building confidence and resilience, but pupils from poorer backgrounds often missed out.”

This article struck two alarm bells for me.

  1. If these arts experiences are fundamental in building the confidence and resilience children need to learn and thrive, why on earth are they extra-curricular? Why should a child’s access to them depend on whether their parents have enough money? We have a curriculum that encourages the use of the arts across every subject area, as well as including the expressive arts as a subject area in their own right. Why aren’t poorer children able to access the arts provision they NEED?
  1. Scotland has signed up to the UNCRC, which includes, in article 31, a right to play, leisure, the arts and a cultural life. Article 31 is most commonly cited when people are talking about play, and much of the discussion and policy focus is on outdoor play specifically, but the arts and culture have been included for a reason – they shape the way we think about ourselves, about the world around us, they are what makes us human.

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We can’t claim to support children’s rights and ignore their right to access the arts.

The Scottish Household Survey doesn’t give data on children, but it does tell us a bit about how adults access and participate in culture.

In 2014, excluding trips to the cinema, 40% of our most deprived adults didn’t access ANY cultural events or places – no museums, no art galleries, no libraries, no theatres, no music gigs. Excluding reading, 60% of our most deprived adults didn’t take part in any cultural activity – if you look at adults with no qualifications that rises to 73%.

The poorer you are, the less likely to are to engage in culture, even when it’s free to access, and you’re even less likely to take part. I think it’s safe to say that if adults aren’t accessing it, their children won’t be either.

For Scotland’s least advantaged children, early education may be their only opportunity to access arts and culture.

Where does the arts sit within ELCC in Scotland?

While the Curriculum for Excellence has specific experiences and outcomes related to the expressive arts in the early stage (and strong arguments can be made for the arts being a useful vehicle for other areas of the curriculum including wellbeing, numeracy and literacy outcomes) the arts are mentioned in a variety of guidance documents and research. The authors just don’t always use that particular four letter word.

Here are some examples:

Guidance

 In the Pre-Birth to Three Guidance:

“Offering opportunities for stories, conversations, listening, rhymes, singing, mark making, environmental print, and creative and imaginative play are all effective and fun ways of developing literacy.”

That’s right, the pre-birth to three guidance says music, visual art and drama help develop literacy. It also makes the links between the importance of physical movement and play and how they support healthy brain development, supporting the use of dance and creative movement with small children.

The guidance also impresses the importance of facial expressions and being responsive and building positive relationships, all skills which are honed when taking part in a creative process together. Stories and play are highlighted as great ways to help children express their feelings and cope with transitions. All in all, it’s a powerful argument for including creative arts experiences in early years settings, and in work with families.

Scotland’s Play Strategy, although it only mentions the arts once (in the definition of article 31 of the UNCRC), describes the artistic process in all but name – exploration, learning from trial and error, and crucially the resilience children build as they go through this process. In My World Outdoors, the Care Inspectorate’s guide to the outdoors, there are several examples of good practice where the arts play a key role in rich learning experiences.

Research

A systematic literature review looking at creative learning environments for Education Scotland, found evidence of impact on pupil attainment, confidence, resilience, motivation, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills and school attendance. The list of activities recommended to promote creativity includes music, visual art, drama in various forms, expressive and imaginative movement and design.

A recent literature review of the Arts in Early Years from the National Endowment of the Arts in the US looked at academic studies over the last 15 years found arts activities help develop social skills, found the creative process helps children regulate their emotions, creative play (or drama as its sometimes known) is one of the most important ways pre-school children form friendships, and that when adults become involved in pretending, children’s pretend play becomes more complex and lasts longer.

American studies looking at long term effects of high levels of arts engagement in children with low socio-economic status, found correlations with better results in science, better results in writing tests, improved Grade Point Average and reduced school drop out rates.

Disadvantaged children who had a high level of arts engagement become adults who are more likely to volunteer, visit the library, read books, vote, and campaign for something they believe in.

And finally, from the Growing Up In Scotland report:

“Children who experience a wide range of activities like being read to, singing nursery rhymes and drawing, from an early age score higher in cognitive ability tests at age 3 than children with less experience of these activities.”

“Amongst children whose parents had lower levels of education, those who had strong early attachment with their mother, had better early language development and more regularly experienced parent-child activities like reading, singing and playing games were more likely to show a greater improvement in their cognitive ability in the pre-school period than those children who did not have these experiences.”

GUS makes it clear shared creative arts experiences are one of the best ways to protect young children from the negative effects of poverty, and a wide range of arts activities are linked to building vital skills and closing the attainment gap.

Conclusion

The arts are mentioned indirectly in almost every key document about children’s development and education – does it really matter if they aren’t mentioned directly? I think it does.

Our children have a right to the arts and a cultural life. That doesn’t just mean the passive consumption, it also means giving them opportunities to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding to express themselves, to be a part of that culture. Children are artists in their own right, and when you start talking about them that way it brings a language of respect and an understanding of how important their methods of self expression are. GIRFEC and the child at the centre only works when you recognise and respect the child’s voice, and the arts give them that voice.

Before they can speak, babies sing, before they walk they can dance, before they write they explore visual art – we need them to be surrounded by adults who recognise this, who are able to provide opportunities and inspiration for young children to continue to explore these mediums, because they are the foundations of healthy social, cognitive and emotional development.

There are clear links between arts activities and the outcomes we seek for every child in Scotland. Children who are least likely to access the arts through their home environment are the ones who could benefit from them the most. This is where ELCC needs to excel. It’s time the arts stopped being a four letter word and started being recognised for the role it can, and should, be playing in closing the attainment gap.

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