The Dangerous Game of Subject Hierarchy

It’s a few months since Nicky Morgan gave a speech in which she told the audience that children who chose Arts or Humanities subjects were making choices that would ‘hold them back for the rest of their lives’. She then argued in a separate speech for the case that universities should be judged on the amount of tax that their graduates pay in the future. Let me just hold back the spewing vitriol that I feel for the hypocrisy of that statement given the number of rich people paying little or no tax at all….There, swallowed.

It all forms part of an ongoing narrative that we have seen from Michael Gove, Liz Truss, Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan over the past five or so years which began with the devaluing of Arts subjects as the EBacc was promoted. As a direct result of that accountability measure we saw a 14% drop in the uptake of Arts subjects in schools. And as if this was not bad enough, in schools serving the most deprived children (who won’t get Arts provided by parents paying for musical tuition or sending them to ballet classes, or taking them to art galleries), there was a 23% reduction in the offer of Arts subjects at GCSE. Since this government came to power, teacher training places in the Arts have been decimated with some of the finest institutions closing their courses altogether. And on what basis or grounds are the assumptions that Arts subjects are either soft or worthless made? On mere prejudice it would seem.

In January, the government released figures showing that the Creative Industries were contributing £8.8 million per HOUR to the British economy. In fact since 2008 while the overall economy has grown by 5.4%, these industries have grown by a whopping 15.6%. Not all people working in these industries are artists of course, often they are scientists working alongside designers and artists to bring visions to fruition. This is not a case of Arts versus Science, but of Arts with Science, an argument made by the Stem to Steam campaign and by a variety of stakeholders, including, interestingly, the Chinese government. For all the noise made about China’s PISA performances in Maths and Science, the education system there is turning to the Arts for inspiration.

We are in danger of eliminating high quality arts and design programmes from our school curricula at the very time that the most forward thinking organisations and countries are promoting them. We may well live to regret this in 10 years’ time. But it isn’t even the economy exposing the lunacy and hypocrisy of this line of thinking. There are cracks all over government rhetoric. Take the following policies and beliefs promoted by this coalition government:-

“We want state schools to offer what private schools offer”

If we have a little look at this year’s male oscar nominees we’ll see that of the two English actors up for Best Actor, one attended Harrow and the other Eton. Eton has supplied several lead actors over the past few years. This is not to bash the private sector but to point out that when you invest in theatre spaces, a full time director, stage carpenter, costume designer, lighting and sound technicians and provide your pupils with dozens of opportunities to perform, you’re probably going to produce some pretty good talent. Why don’t we hear politicians demanding better theatre facilities and drama activities so that we can compete with the private sector? Eh?

“We want to build character, resilience and grit.”

Taking an idea from conception through research and improvisation, repeated failure, confusion, more failure to successful outcome is pretty much what all arts disciplines put children through on a daily basis. In addition, the wide ranging benefits of learning a musical instrument, or regularly reading a book (yes, people, literature is an art though under Morgan’s regime, we’d have no more writers) are well known. So why on earth would we disparage the subjects that build the very qualities in children that we are now creating awards for? Eh?

“We want children to know the best that has been said and done – heritage and culture matter”

The Arts hold you back. So it will no longer be necessary to study Shakepeare, or poetry, to listen to music, to look at art. Picasso, Rembrandt, Mozart (ooh imagine measuring his worth by his tax contribution, dying as he did, a pauper), Van Gough (no ear and no tax either), Keats….all useless. The problem with this haphazard, anti-intellectual, reasonless thinking is that you end up undermining the very things you say you value. How do you square your insistence on learning poetry by rote with undermining the value of the Arts? And as for the Humanities, well ‘Lest we forget’ seems to have been forgotten. The past? It holds you back. Eh?

And then, let’s just go back to that silly tax idea shall we? Ask any scientist working in a lab on cancer research what they earn. It’s a pittance. And all those art therapists, working with traumatised refugee children? They earn barely enough to pay tax at all. Is their work worthless? Based on a tax bill, is a Hollywood actor worth more than a teacher? A nurse? The stupidity of the idea is so ridiculous, that I have to leave the comment to John Cleese.

And finally. Let’s consider something else far more profound than any of the above. There is a reason that the arts have evolved along with all other human capabilities over the tens of thousands of years we have been on the planet. Since man decided to leave his mark on the walls of caves we have seen the overwhelming desire to find symbolic and representative forms of expression in order to understand, process and communicate our experiences. This need to interpret is writ deep in the human psyche. Let’s imagine for a moment that we eradicated our love of the Arts. That they disappeared from our notions of humanity. We would be diminished as a species. We would see the depletion of imagination – a quality that has been part of our survival strategy for generations. We would lose our concepts of beauty and appreciation of difference, becoming less empathetic, less creative, less expressive. Who would want to see this world? To see human beings evolve in a direction that strips an appreciation and interpretation of beauty and wonder from their lives? Not me.

Wolf Rescue

Timberwolf oder Amerikanischer Grauwolf (Canis lupus lycaon)

In her book, Seven Myths of Education, Daisy Christodoulou is a little dismissive of the use of Mantle of the Expert as a means of getting children into learning. She refers to the Outstanding Ofsted reports of the Bealings School and offers this as an example of how progressive Ofsted are and how misguided teachers are in insisting that children use role play in their lessons. She is not alone in assuming that drama related activities lead to what is commonly being called the “opportunity cost” of knowledge – one blogger even questioned the role of drama in the study of Shakespeare. But such critics of these techniques are often blind to the knowledge that is required in order to conduct MoE well and to the myriad of additional skills and competencies that the children develop in their quest to solve the problems that drama creates.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to work with a Year 4 class while members of the primary team watched to see how this kind of learning might work. Two of the observing teachers were on the Teach First programme. The class had read the book “The Ice Palace” by Robert Swindells with its cover portraying wolves as scary and fearsome creatures. Over the course of the day, we set them up as an animal rescue centre, specialising in the rescue and conservation of dangerous animals. Why would we do this? Where is the learning?

In my view, one of our responsibilities as educators is to get children to consider situations from multiple points of view – to create pivots through which their opinions, beliefs and values can be reframed and reconsidered. This capacity to view situations from another’s point of view is a critical skill in conflict management. In addition, building a collective enterprise in which responsibility is fostered is key to developing responsible behaviours in children. What responsibilities do we have to these animals? What responsibilities do we have to the human population?

In creating their enterprise, the children have to consider the roles that people working in the organisation might have. As part of this element of the work, they generate jobs and in doing so consider the myriad of possibilities for work in the adult world – developing aspirational thinking. They grapple with complex vocabulary – some of the words generated in these initial discussions were:-







They had to consider the skills that people working in this place might have and then they completed job applications and CVs – looking at the processes by which adults enter the world of work. None of these tasks are undemanding or pointless. There is no opportunity cost. But neither is there yet a purpose, client or problem to solve. So we needed a hook. It came in the form of an email to the children from a lady living in the Ural mountains. There was to be a cull on the local wolf population. The wolves had been accused of attacking a child who was now missing. The lady was concerned that the wolves were being blamed for something that was not their fault and expressed concern about their loss of habitat. In order even to decide whether or not to help, the children need to know several things:-

1. Where are the Ural Mountains?

2. What is the climate/flora/fauna?

3. Why are the humans and wolves in conflict?

4. Can humans ever live safely close to wolf packs?

5. What is habitat and in particular what is wolf habitat?

6. What can we find out about wolves (including how they communicate)


In order to learn these areas, the children had to explore maps, to read about the encroachment of mining on the natural habitat of the animals in the area. They had to understand the severity of winters there and how this causes food shortages and how the people and wolves hunt the same animals for food. They had to understand that in some parts of the world, humans and animals live in competition for space and food. This is knowledge with rigour and depth – becoming part of a responsible team means knowing stuff.

The children decide to travel to the Urals to find out more. Happily, one of our Teach First trainees is a Russian speaker and he  teaches the children some key phrases. We Skype Olga, our client using a hot seating convention to find out more information and make the decision to go. There’s just one problem. Four boys in the class don’t want to go to Russia. They absolutely refuse. So we set up a lab at home and tell them that we’ll send evidence back to them to investigate while we are away. They are happy with this compromise.

You have to understand that they know and I know that they are not really going anywhere. The Russia team and the UK team will still be in the same room, but the children suspend their disbelief. The boys have pushed at a boundary and found that the boundary was simply an alternative door. The fiction is intact.

The work is not without play – we decide to interview a wolf cub by Skype. We agree to imagine that we can understand the language of animals. I cut a hole in a cardboard box for a screen and put a glove puppet of a wolf on my hand. “We have a Skype call from a wolf cub” I announce. “Who can speak Dog?” Twenty hands shoot straight into the air. I howl, growl, whine and bark and a story comes out of our translators:-

“A woodcutter killed my father in the forest”

“He said my father killed a little girl, but he would never do this.”

“My pack is being hunted.”

We decide what we will need to pack and what our safety procedures will be in the forest. How do you capture a wolf? How will we engage with the Russian authorities? How will we conduct our investigations? If we do rescue the wolves, how much food will they need? They check their fact sheets and discover that an adult can eat up to 20lbs of meat in a single feeding. How many wolves will there be? How much food will we need to buy? How much will it cost? How will we transport it?

At the edge of the forest, we consider what we might find –

“What might we be hoping to discover in here?” I ask

“Toys!” yells one enthusiastic child.

“Ahhh, if we were children we might want to find toys,” I say, “but we’re adults remember, we’re conservationists trying to protect the wolves, so if we were adults, what might we be hoping to find in the forest?”

“A nightclub!” he shouts.

The hands of the adults shoot up to their mouths to stop the giggles while the other children patiently explain that we are hoping to find the wolves alive. They help their friend to engage with the fiction, but his comments remind us of the reality of his life and his experience of what adults enjoy doing in that life. All the more reason for us to take him to a completely different kind of experience and hope.

Sadly, we find the body of a wolf in the forest – presumably the body of the father of our wolf cub. We will have to conduct an autopsy to find out how he died, and crucially whether or not he is guilty of the death of the child. I lay the wolf onsie on a table. They don’t flinch or complain that it is clearly not a wolf body – they are happy to imagine. photo

The children mime putting on their gowns and gloves so that no evidence is contaminated. With tweezers and empty evidence bags, they construct the imagined evidence, removing the contents of his stomach and carefully labelling the bags ready to send back to the lab:- “It’s a piece of fur or hair – I can’t tell if it’s human or not” photo

“It’s a sock”


“There is something that looks like skin, but it might be paper.”

Slowly the children collect their evidence and send it back to the four boys for analysis. The boys decide that the skin and the hair are animal – probably rabbit. There is no evidence, other than the sock, that the wolf had eaten or attacked a child. photo

As our investigation continues, the children interview other witnesses – a squirrel, an eagle, the woodcutter himself and they discover and conclude that the woodcutter has a lot to gain from a wolf cull. He can claim the right to land that may lie above a potential mine. They decide the wolves have been framed. And then they have to create a report making their case and recommendations to the Russian government – what can be done to protect the habitat of the wolves and yet ensure that the human population can thrive? Should the wolves be relocated? Should there be fences? These questions lead to deep discussions about the rights of humans and animals. There is no opportunity cost here – these are important questions for society and our world as a whole.

Drama is not an add on to a curriculum – not a ‘fun’ activity to offer as a tit-bit reward for proper work. It is a form of expression that has evolved with humanity as a key survival and communication strategy. To imagine the world from another’s point of view – to interpret life through narrative and character is one of the ways we as a species have found to connect and survive over millennia. It is no coincidence that the Arts are to be found in every civilisation as a key component of community life. To teach without them; to offer a curriculum that belittles them is to reduce human experience and capacity. And that is an enormous opportunity cost.