What is the value of an arts education?

The creative industries are worth £92 billion for the UK economy, with an estimated two million people employed in the sector [1]. But with a decline in students taking up creative subjects at GSCE, are the arts valued or vulnerable? Deanna Mathieson reports.


The creative industries grew at twice the rate of the economy in 2016, making a “record contribution” to the UK economy [2]. Generating almost £10m an hour, the arts sector is booming and is one of the country’s fastest growing industries [3].

However, figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications show the number of students choosing to take up arts and design at GSCE level is declining. A 6% decrease in 2016 from 2015 made it the biggest year-on-year decline in candidate numbers recorded since 2000 – and there was a further decline in 2017 [4].

In addition, a survey carried out by the BBC found that of 1,200 secondary schools who responded, nine in every ten said they had cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject. They cited a focus on “core academic subjects, together with funding pressures” [5] to be among the most common reasons for reductions in creative arts resources.

“The creative industries, while bringing in a significant amount of money and talent, could be called the forgotten industry,” says Alice Marshall, Lecturer in Dance at the University of Derby.

“I visit a lot of schools to talk about taking up dance at degree level but I have noticed that A level dance barely features there. BTEC Dance is taught in schools, but I believe it is being phased out.

“It is vital that creative arts are taught in schools. Students who may not necessarily be able to afford to attend a private dance school, for example, can often miss out on opportunities. Those who can afford to are more highly physically trained in dancing, but can sometimes lack the academic skills that go hand in hand with learning in school and at degree level.

“Many people view the arts as a hobby, rather than a lifelong career which can be filled with opportunity. Schools have a role in changing the attitudes of young people and in demonstrating to them that they can and should pursue this route.”

Government funding for arts activities

In a bid to support talented creative arts pupils, the Department for Education has announced it is providing an additional £96 million to give pupils across the country access to a range of cultural activities. These include training at the Royal Ballet School in London, free opportunities for young people to study art and design at their local college or university, as well as visits to museums and galleries.

Those who go on to study arts at degree level are not confined to one set career path, rather they are valued in a wide range of professions, according to a report [6] by the British Academy, the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences. “Arts and humanities often get a kicking for their graduates not immediately securing a job,” says Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby.

“However, arts graduates have a portfolio career. They not only gain subject specific creative skills, whether that be in ceramics, digital media, or photography, but learn a whole host of transferable skills that can be used in a range of disciplines, opening up a wealth of employment opportunities.”

Sarah Brigham, Artistic Director and Chief Executive at Derby Theatre, which is owned by the University of Derby, agrees: “Young people who have studied the arts can often go onto careers not necessarily in the creative sector, because they learn soft skills such as communication, confidence, and empathy. Sometimes students can tick a box academically on another course but actually, put them into a working environment and they don’t have the skills to thrive, which is what an arts education does provide.”

Tom Chambers and Clare Barker work as Level 3 Media Course Leaders and Tutors at Loughborough College.

“We think the idea that arts subjects are cop-out subjects is diminishing,” comments Tom. “Some older generations may still hold this view, but a course is what the student makes of it; the idea of making a living out of theatre, video games development and wider media topics is normal, so why not train to do so?”

Alice adds: “As a society we are surrounded by art, and a lot of the time we don’t even think about it. Every television show we watch has been designed, created and acted. The arts keep people entertained and happy, something we all need to experience. The challenge is making the whole world realise this.”

So what can be done to help shift the narrative?

“Universities are, on the whole, very good at promoting the benefits of arts and humanities subjects and have always been valued as contributing to employability as well as providing cultural value,” says Keith.

“Here in Derby we are fortunate because the city has cultural partners that contribute to the student and wider community experience. Dѐda, Derby Theatre and QUAD, to name a few, all play an important role in working together to inspire the next generation to become involved and passionate about the arts.

“However, there is still a fundamental shift that needs to take place in the language and narrative of the creative industries debate, which has, in recent years, taken on a very negative and transactional tone. This has to be combatted, first and foremost, to change that dynamic and make people realise that quite simply, the creative industries are enriching. They enrich you as a citizen, in terms of your civic values, they enrich you in your cultural life, and as an individual in your values.”


[1] Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport ‘Sectors Economic Estimates 2016: GVA’ report

[2]Creative industries’ record contribution to UK economy’

[3] Ibid.

[4] Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) paper, ‘A crisis in the creative arts in the UK?

[5] BBC survey

[6] British Academy report ‘The right skills: Celebrating skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS)

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591491, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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