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Arts Emergency CEO Neil Griffiths responds to Labour comments on cuts 'stifling children's creativity' with call for explicit pledges

"We would like to hear more about Labour’s specific plans to ensure broad and balanced education should they come to power in 2024."

Note: These comments were made in response to an article entitled Labour accuses UK government of ‘stifling children’s creativity’ by Guardian Arts and Culture correspondent Nadia Khomami on Sunday 25 June 2023.

Imagine a world without musicians like Adele or Stormzy, actors like Daniel Kaluuya, Michael Sheen, and Julie Walters, or artists like Tracey Emin and Sonia Boyce? Working class artists enrich our lives and tell our stories, and there is so much research out there showing that the arts in schools and pathways into creative careers have been destroyed by over ten years plus of austerity cuts and political crises.

While it’s great to read about Labours’ promise to give every child a broad and balanced education that nurtures creativity, and their further pledges to provide young people the skills, knowledge and understanding to progress and thrive; we’re not going to declare the emergency over. That take up of GCSE art has fallen 40% since 2010 is now well known, but less well publicised was the 100% abolition of public funding for arts and humanities in universities in 2010, and the awful harm done to progressive thought and social mobility as a result. What is Labour going to do about the arts emergency in our public universities?

73% of current and recent members of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet have an arts degree including Barbara Keeley, who made these promises public, studied a BA at the University of Salford. Bridget Phillipson, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education is a history graduate, and even Jonathan Reynolds, the Shadow Secretary of State for Business and Industrial Strategy has a Bachelor of Arts degree! So, we have high hopes that the opposition and likely winners of the next general election understand that the arts and humanities are not only useful, but they promote a just society, they make money, they conserve our best traditions and ways of life, they embrace plurality, they are a vital space where power is questioned and new thought emerges. But experience has taught us that simply having an arts education isn’t enough to guarantee positive change - after all David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak are all arts graduates too.

The twin attacks of withdrawal of public funding for these courses, and increased financial barriers for anyone wishing to study them was a radically destructive act of cultural vandalism. We call on Labour to pledge a roll back of these policies and defend the arts and humanities for all in their election manifesto.

We would like to hear more about Labour’s specific plans to ensure broad and balanced education should they come to power in 2024.

Access to higher education ought to be a democratic right to all who are in a position to benefit from it. The promise of access is the promise of personal and public benefit beyond the balance sheet, not the promise of a well-paid job. No politician today seems willing to defend unconditionally the idea of a welfare state, or the promise of higher education for all. The consequence of this has been the creation of an elite plutocracy growing ever richer, while the institutions and social fabric upon which everything rests have been left high, dry and hanging by a thread.

We would like to hear more about Labour’s specific plans to ensure broad and balanced education should they come to power in 2024. Beyond the obvious human value and social good, there are some sound personal and public economic reasons to take the arts and humanities seriously right now, reasons beyond the significant and of the quoted contribution of the Creative Industries to our GDP (£109 billion in 2021 alone). The job market is subject to fast and profound change and unpredictability. Who would have predicted twenty years ago the number of jobs that would be associated with new social media? Who can predict right now how AI will alter the nature of work and the world? No one can, but doesn’t it seem sensible to begin actively upskilling people now in the things that humans do best: empathy, communication, insight, creativity, and human contact?

We can predict with frightful certainty the effects the climate crisis will have on society and the natural world, so doesn’t it make sense to lean into one of the best solutions humanity has to offer to such challenges, which is an education in the arts and humanities that compliments STEM and which prepares students with a critical awareness and alertness to new and pressing social and cultural issues. We can be sure that this critical awareness will give our children and young people the best chance of surviving and thriving come what may.

The sad truth of Government policies for higher education is that they appear to have returned us to an earlier time when ‘culture’ was understood to be the rightful domain of a privileged upper class. A long tradition of class-based and decolonial criticisms opened up the university to alternative ways of thinking and lived experience that shape the world we live in now. I hope that Labour will pledge to move us away from being such a backward looking, hopeless, insular country where everyone knows their place, and in which restricted access to higher education serves to ensure they remain in it.

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