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Bob and Roberta Smith: Why does art in school matter?

20th October 2015

A new exhibition of Bob and Roberta’s work has opened at the William Morris Gallery in London, based around his rallying slogans: “Every school should be an art school”. At its opening, I sat down with the artist – born Patrick Brill – to hear his thoughts on why the government is denigrating arts education, why it’s important and what you can do about it.

The blame for the downgrading of arts education in favour of STEM subjects (science, technology, English and maths) lies in a large part with the previous education secretary – the reviled Michael Gove – who Smith has had a long-running feud that has been well documented, including by Smith himself. In 2011, he created a six foot tall letter to Gove (below) – chiding him not only for his denigration of arts education but also using Gove’s apparent inability to choose a tie and shirt combination as a symbol of his lack of understanding even the basics of aesthetics and art. He also stood (unsuccessfully) against Gove in this year’s general election on a platform about arts education.

The letter and a film about Smith’s election campaign are both part of the exhibition.

Gove was replaced as education secretary by Nicky Morgan in July 2014, and has proved less controversial – so I asked Smith if he thought she was better for arts education than Gove.

“Nicky Morgan is a Conservative Party functionary,” says Smith. “That’s weirdly more dangerous because she’s just automatically putting through those ideas. You get the sense with Nicky Morgan that she doesn’t have the authority or intellectual capability to change things or listen to opposing views.

“Michael Gove was amenable to having at least an argument about these things. Nicky Morgan doesn’t want to engage, so she’s just pushing all this forward, and, I think that’s worse for our situation.”

One accusation often thrown at education ministers is that they don’t understand the importance of arts education. Smith sees it differently.

“It’s not that politicians don’t understand art education, [but] they’re so driven by the idea that they’ve got to get kids to do basic English, Maths and Science that that is taught to the exclusion of the arts. It’s a kind of perfect storm really, where they want to promote science and technology subjects; there are enormous cuts to funding; [and] the government needs to build more schools.

Smith notes that the arts aren’t the only subjects facing pressure from a lack of focus and resources. Science lessons have fewer practicals. Smith points out that when new schools open, they don’t have to have a playing field. This reduces a school’s ability to offer a wide range of sports – so fewer children participate on a regular basis.

“It’s cheaper to teach these kind of traditional, desk-based subjects, and you don’t need specialist facilities,” says Smith. “All of these different factors are conspiring against creative education in schools. I don’t think it’s really some sort of incredible maligned attack on the arts. A number of different factors are really squeezing arts, play and creative writing out of the curriculum.”

Any discussion of new schools right now can’t help but kick of a discussion about grammar schools – as the Department of Education has arguably allowed the opening of the first new grammar school in XX years, in XXX in Kent. Unsurprisingly, Smith is opposed to grammar schools on the grounds that they offer an excellent education for those who attend – but damage the education of those who don’t.

Smith says that a grammar school education is “brilliant for those kids who get into that grammar school. The thing that people don’t talk about in Kent is all the leftover, secondary, modern education, which people don’t know what to do with. It makes a very disenfranchised community.”

Why does art in school matter?

So why should every school be an art school? Is the government right to place the STEM subjects as a higher priority than art? Smith and I agree that teaching creativity is critical – both because everyone deserves the chance to develop a form of creative expression to enhance their personal life and because, professionally, creative skills are critical to advancing in many different types of career. The ability to conceive ideas and develop them from a concept to a fully fleshed-out project are as important for someone going into a career in banking as if they’re a professional designer or artist.

“It’s about empowering kids,” says Smith. “There are a number of lessons in schools which the teacher knows the right answer: maths and sciences. There are a number of lessons in schools where the kids have the right answers: the creative subjects, the English, dance, drama, and the arts. What’s happening is that all those subjects are getting crushed [by] getting kids to jump through hurdles.”

Smith believes that under the current system, he wouldn’t have been able to develop his potential – and wouldn’t have been able to create the level of work that make him able to exhibit in the Gallery we’re in.

Also, falling numbers of children and teenagers studying creative subjects means that the pool for finding the next generation of truly great artists is hugely diminished.

“There was a great interview on Desert Island Discs the other day,” says Smith. “Alison Balsom, the amazing trumpet player, was saying that music education has gone through the floor. There just aren’t the numbers. You need [high] numbers of kids [and] you need everybody to think they’re going to be the great trumpet player, or the great artist or whatever, in order to just get the breadth of experience through – so you get the one or two people who then succeed.”

Asked what he would like to see changed, Smith’s response is broader than just saying ‘give more resources to teaching the arts in school. He wants to see the creative and the practical put back into all subjects: art and science, brushes and Bunsen burners.

To help achieve this, Smith is asking everyone who attends the exhibition to take a postcard, write a message supporting Smith’s agenda for arts education – and send it to one or more of the candidates for London mayor, such as Zac Goldsmith for the Tories or Sadiq Khan for Labour.

Read more on the Digital Arts Online website