Getting Results: Addressing inequality in arts education must be a priority for the recovery

To mark a new report showcasing the role of Scottish universities in economic and social recovery, we’re publishing a series of blogs from Principals highlighting how higher education will deliver for Scotland over the next five years. Every day this week we’ll publish a blog from a Principal looking at a different area of contribution. The third blog in the series is written by Professor Jeffrey Sharkey, Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, who talks about his institution’s longstanding commitment to youth music and access to musical education in schools.

The creative industries contribute more than £5 billion each year to the Scottish economy. Yet they also do so much more than help our bottom line; they bring us together to share stories, learn from one another’s culture, create empathy, and contribute to positive change. As a national conservatoire educating through the performing arts of music, dance, drama, production and film we believe the creative arts are part of the glue of society. Vitally, they also give young people both their cultural right and the world-leading creative edge they need to thrive in the 21st century.

It’s been part of our institutional DNA since our founding in 1847 that access to the arts and arts education should be available to all. That commitment to fair access continues through our award-winning Transitions programmes, which we deliver across all of our art forms and from a pre-HE level.

Countless studies demonstrate how music, for example, is a critical driver of social development and emotional wellbeing; building confidence, promoting creativity and helping young people develop emotional and behavioural awareness and skills. It can also contribute substantially to positive mental health, particularly important in combatting the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Working in partnership with the Music Education Partnership Group (MEPG), RCS created a Music Manifesto for Scotland to make the case for equitable access to music education for all children. Together we spoke to the main parties in advance of the Holyrood elections, winning cross-party support. The new Scottish Government has committed to our goals of abolishing instrumental music tuition fees in Scottish schools from the new academic year and RCS will now play an important role in supporting a programme of quality pedagogical training and CPD to support the sector effectively.

Providing free access to high-quality music teaching, as well as progression pathways across the arts can be a tremendous step forward with the potential to be both life-enhancing and transformative, not just for individual young people but in enabling creativity, equity and well-being to be at the heart of both communities and the economy.

As a sector, the performing arts has had to endure some of the longest lockdowns, with devastating impact, but I could not be prouder that our focus, within the Conservatoire and the industry as a whole, has been to look outward and to find new ways to take art and music to others as a source of motivation and comfort to get through these times.

Inequality exists in many forms and I’m also very proud of the whole of Scotland’s higher education sector which has acted to provide support. Wonderful examples include Queen Margaret University’s extra tuition for pupils in local schools to ensure they don’t fall behind, the Glasgow School of Arts’ similar approach with primary schools in Glasgow, Moray and the Scottish Borders but with a focus on digital creativity, and the University of Edinburgh going further, in partnership with others, to support the homeless community at a time of much-increased risk.

The diversity of our higher education sector and our arts sector here in Scotland is a tremendous asset for the recovery.