A school demonstrating artistic excellence wins awards and competitions. Just as in sport.
How do you know if a school champions artistic excellence? How do you know when one school is better at creative arts (art, dance, drama, music) than another? You could trust your own judgement though many who do confuse excellence with good facilities or high levels of participation. You could look for a critical number of angst-ridden and tormented souls, but that’s probably not the vision you have for your children as you pack them off to school in the morning. Or you could look at the level of achievement of pupils in the creative arts. But that’s not as easy as it might sound.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There is a difference between being good at creative arts and being good for creative arts. Being good for creative arts refers to the broad arts curriculum, teaching and achievement, facilities and participation. Being good at creative arts refers to achievement only. A school might hope that by being good for creative arts it might increase its chances of being good at creative arts. But it’s not a given.
To be clear, when we say that one school is better than another at creative arts we are saying “this school produces better paintings than that one”. Or “this school produces better flautists than that one”. Or even “the dramatic portrayals are more believable in this school than that one”. It seems odd doesn’t it? We’re quite happy to compare the achievements of school sports teams, but not so happy to compare the achievements of the orchestra, drama students, corps de ballet. Why is that?
Can you compare artistic excellence and sporting excellence?
Sport is about competition. The creative arts are about expression of truth, emotion and beauty. They champion creativity not competition. So, you could argue that you can’t judge artistic excellence by results in a competition. At the professional level I might agree with you. At school level, I think there’s more latitude.
You and I will most likely differ in our musical tastes. But we’d probably agree on the relative technical abilities shown by the people performing that music. We’d also probably agree that greater technique affords greater range of expression. And a greater range of expression, in turn, contributes to artistic excellence. At the schooldays stage in their careers children are acquiring technique. They can’t master any subject, let alone art, music, drama or dance, without acquiring technique.
Technique can be quantified, graded and measured. Technique is what music, drama and dance grading exams measure and promote; with incremental grades reflecting incremental competence. Competitions and festivals for art, dance, drama and music are primarily judged on technique, with a nod to artistic interpretation.
There’s another difference. In most sporting competition the result is objective. A competitor wins or loses. There is a referee but only to ensure fair play. In a creative arts competition the referee, or rather judge, is all important. The judge determines the winner. The result is subjective.
With a plethora of local creative arts competitions comes a plethora of judges. Many are local dignitaries, qualified in local administration, but not in the arts. They judge competitions according to their taste rather than technique. It’s hard for a school to demonstrate excellence with this inherent inconsistency.
Indicators of artistic excellence; creative arts competition and qualifications
So, with all its inherent difficulties how might you tell if a school is good at creative arts? I suggest a few indicators of artistic excellence below.
Firstly, and starting with, performance in competition. There are many local competitions for creative arts such as art fairs and performing arts festivals. They focus on encouraging participation in creative arts and, being local, provide a limited yardstick for excellence. Unfortunately, apart from choral competitions, there aren’t all that many national competitions. Furthermore, only a few competitions recognise a collective excellence rather than an individual talent. It’s the collective excellence that is the showcase for the school rather than the achievements of one or two talented individuals. A great violinist says something about the individual. A great orchestra says something about the school.
Secondly, the number (or rather, proportion) of pupils reaching high grades in music, drama or dance exams. I would suggest Grade 4 or 5 standard in junior school and Grade 7 or 8 in senior school. Every school has a talented musician or two. We’re looking for a much larger number to reflect the school’s artistic excellence.
I don’t include arts GCSEs and A Levels here. As valuable as they are in their own right, as a more general course of study they don’t focus on performance and performance technique.
Interestingly, and I’m not sure I understand why, there are no graded technique exams for the visual arts.
Thirdly, the number of pupils going on to a specialist sixth form or tertiary arts facility; a conservatoire, music school, drama school, art college or dance school. For a junior school I might be interested in the number of pupils winning art, music, drama, dance scholarships to senior (independent) schools.
Indicators of artistic excellence; paid-for performances
Fourthly, the number of pupils participating in renowned choirs, orchestras, companies, troupes and tours outside the school. They may possibly be professional choirs and orchestras. The renowned choir may be the school itself, or the associated cathedral. In a similar vein, you may get a sense of how many pupils take part in paid-for performances. In other words, performances that the general public pay for rather than just loyal families and friends. This does lean towards choir schools and specialist performing arts schools where pupils complement their studies with participation in professional performances. Some schools send drama and dance groups to (inter) national festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe. Others have choirs that tour. Every school has a choir that sings to the local shopping centre or the old people’s home at Christmas. We’re looking to distinguish between the two.
Paragons of artistic excellence; the specialist schools
The benchmark for artistic excellence are the specialist schools; choir schools, performing arts schools and music schools. These schools are highly selective on music and performance ability, and provide pupils with the best facilities and teaching for their art. Pupils at music and performing arts schools pupils spend one half of the school day learning their specialism. The other half they spend on general academic studies. At choir schools, the specialisation isn’t quite as extreme. However choristers do practice or perform before and after school on most week days and Sundays.
There are 44 choir schools in the UK educating about 1,000 choristers (and 14,000 non-choristers). There are 16 specialist performing arts schools educating about 2,500 pupils. All are independent.
These specialist schools aside, it is difficult to judge how good a school is at creative arts. Some excel at some of the indicators I suggest. But the paucity of opportunity to showcase artistic excellence on a national level makes comparison difficult. That will change.