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I recently attended the launch of the newest report by the Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA), a collective working to ensure children and young people have meaningful access to culture. The CLA is chaired by Lord Puttnam and published its first findings in 2011, and this new report, ‘Imagine Nation’, was much anticipated.
The launch was probably the nearest I’ve ever got to celebrity, as it attracted many of the great and good. I recognised a few, including Dame Mary Archer, Grayson Perry, Darcey Bussell and Robert Peston.
Although quite different characters, their message was consistent: arts and culture are a life-enhancing and essential part of our existence. They bring pleasure, participation, self-expression and essential skills into children’s lives.
The report, which I recommend you read, includes some great and wide-ranging research findings:
• Participation in structured arts activities can increase cognitive abilities by 17%
• Learning through arts and culture can improve attainment in maths and English
• Learning through arts and culture develops skills and behaviour that lead children to do better at school
• Children who take part in arts activities during their early years at home are ahead in reading and maths at age nine
• Students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree
• Students from low-income families who engage in the arts at school are 20% more likely to vote as a young adult
• Employability of students who study arts subjects is higher, and they are more likely to stay in employment
• People who take part in the arts are 38% more likely to report good health.
It’s hard to argue with all that.
There are also some great quotes. One of my favourites (apart from my own!) is from Michelle Obama, who says that, “Arts education is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. It’s really the air many of these kids breathe. It’s how we get kids excited about getting up and going to school in the morning. It’s about how we help them take ownership of their future.”
I was a willing member of the CLA Steering Group because I fear the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children have a right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities, and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts, is being ignored.
This is not the experience all children have, and poor children are particularly likely to be locked out of the cultural experiences, despite the fact that cultural learning has a significant part to play in addressing inequality.
That’s pretty significant given that more than a quarter of all children in the UK live in poverty and in London the figures are higher.
Our minister, Caroline Dineage, also gave a short speech endorsing the power of the arts, so I hope that translates into some future opportunities, after she has sorted the recruitment crisis.
This view is also the basis of the LEYF pedagogy, which has cultural capital at its core. Cultural capital is beautifully articulated in the report as “the factual knowledge, intellectual skills, and emotional intelligence that are gained through exposure to the arts. [It] is acquired over time, as children are introduced to the ideas, images and values that constitute the culture of their families, their communities and the wider world.”
Early years teachers are in a prime position to build and deliver an educational approach that has cultural capital at its heart. Creative play through design, technology, art, music, dance, role play and stories extends vocabulary and enables children to represent ideas, thoughts and feelings so as to become active agents as they shape the world around them.
June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation. Visit leyf.org.uk, June’s blog at juneosullivan.wordpress.com or connect on Twitter at @JuneOSullivan
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