Art is timeless and enriching – so why don’t our schools care about it?

Bushmen (san) rock painting of antelopes, South Africa

Bushmen (san) rock painting of antelopes, South Africa - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sharon Griffiths says education is neglecting the arts - to its eternal cost

I don't know exactly what everyday life was like 40,000 years ago but I'm guessing it wasn't easy.

The nearest thing to a ready meal was kill-your-own aurochs. Before you could even begin to make do and mend you'd have to trap and kill a creature to get a bone for a needle and then chop out its innards to get some sinew for some thread.

Life was hard, life was cruel and you were probably dead by the time you were 30.

And yet…

In among it all, these ancient people still had time to paint – to grind the stone to make the powder to mix with water to dab on a stick and draw life-like images of the animals around them.

And also leave a riot of hand prints that make us smile with recognition. Cave paintings have been found in many parts of the world – the latest in Borneo, that go back 40,000 years.

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In their harsh lives, they also had time for music.

Flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory go back even further than 40,000 BC.

When the world was at its harshest, our ancestors had music and art.

It brought them together. It soothed their souls. It was an important part of what made them human. It was probably fun.

So why are we, with all the time we have, doing our best to sideline the arts?

Teachers this month told a survey that they are forced to offer a 'limited bare-bones education' – one that concentrates on GCSE core subjects at the expense of everything else. Such is the obsession with exams and league tables that many schools are starting their GCSE preparations a year earlier, leaving even less time for music, art and drama.

We have a natural need to be creative, to make life more interesting and enriching, especially when it's not.

It's why people with virtually nothing made works of art of patchwork quilts and rag rugs.

Great empires commission great art. But great art has also emerged from dark times. Even prisoners and the oppressed make the most of the pathetically few materials they have. And any two-year-old can happily run riot with a box of crayons, delighting in what they've created.

The arts in their broadest sense is much of what makes life worth living. Yet we are gradually squeezing them out of an increasingly narrow school curriculum and depriving our children of so many possibilities.

Long after most of us have forgotten about Pythagoras' Theorem or what an ablative absolute might be or who exactly signed the Treaty of Versailles, we will still be enjoying music, literature, theatre. Or making things – whether it's cakes, clothes, photographs or dolls' houses.

We need to use our hands and our imaginations. We need to be creative. These are the things that give us a hinterland, a real sense of who we are and help us make sense of life and the world around us.

This is the really important stuff that our ancestors knew back in the Stone Age.

And we've ditched it for exam results. Some progress.

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