THE WORD Looking in the mirror of art

Jacqui O’Hanlon, RSC’s director of education, reflects on the 14-18 NOW legacy creative skills programme, Make Art Not War

Make Art Not War, 14-18 NOW’s creative skills learning programme, brilliantly exemplifies what arts experiences do and what too many students are missing out on. Shakespeare’s Hamlet told us that a play (the arts) holds a mirror up to nature - that’s what this project invites young people to do. That’s what great art projects and great works of art do.  They help us reflect on big life questions.

Recently, a 17-year-old art student told me that her art teacher told her not to rub mistakes out on her art work - instead, she had to incorporate it into the work. In terms of valuable life lessons, that’s a big one. The fact that her art teacher was Andria Zafirakou who won the global teacher of the year award in 2018 isn’t surprising; the fact that Andria chose to set up a charity with her prize money to secure arts provision in other schools is. Not the act of altruism itself, but the fact that it was necessary in the first place.

That act reminds us that the playing field isn’t even. Some students get access to high quality arts provision that helps shape and round their lives, some don’t. The fact that we still need to make the case for why this is an entitlement that all young people should have access to - why this deeply human and humanising form of expression and communication matters – is mystifying.

Along with Tate, the RSC has been working with Nottingham University on a three-year research project exploring the importance of the arts to young people. The research team analysed 6,000 responses from 14-18 year-olds across the country who are lucky enough to attend schools that we defined as “Arts Rich”, schools for which Mark Art Not Warwould be a priority. 

We have called the summary of the findings Time to Listen – because it is.  Those students, all from different backgrounds and schools and areas of the country, told us that the arts matter to them. They matter because they help develop their identities and a belief in their own agency. Arts subjects are interpretive, with no right or wrong answer – they demand and depend on the students’ own views and opinions. They develop their creative and critical thinking. The students also connected arts practices with mental health and well-being – they are a release valve for the pressures they experience elsewhere in their lives.

A large part of the world has already woken up to the essential role that the arts can play in awakening creativity in young people, and whilst it is undoubtedly true that creativity isn’t the preserve of the arts community, they do have a significant – I would say unique - role to play.

As the Cultural Learning Alliance continues to remind us, this is a matter of social justice. Do we value the arts and cultural opportunities in this country enough to make sure everyone has equitable access to them?  The answer at the moment is no. As the CLA also points out, there is a relationship between young people participating in the arts and young people exercising their right to vote. Doing the former makes the latter more likely. I hope that the young artists responding to Mark Art Not War and those young people who expressed their profound belief in the importance of arts subjects in Time to Listen make the difference they deserve to.


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