The importance of the arts in primary education

Picture credit: Ellie Kurttz

Drama and creative learning can enhance crucial skills – such as creative and analytical thinking, that employees seek in the future. So how can drama be embedded across your primary school? Jackie Tait, primary programme manager at the National Theatre, shares some ideas

Every day it seems we read something in the media about the decline of the arts in schools. Since 2010 we have seen a 40 per cent decline in GCSE Arts Entries and in the past 12 months alone, Drama GCSE entries have declined by seven per cent and Music has declined by 12 per cent. In 2019, a survey of primary school teachers found that two thirds believed arts education was in ‘dramatic decline’, and half felt the remaining provision was poorer than in 2010.
However, the National Theatre would argue that the arts in education is more important now than ever before.
Theatre is one of the few art forms which encompasses most other art forms – be that visual art in the form of scenic art and costume design or music and dance in productions. And the benefits of drama and creative learning are wide-reaching with an extremely significant contribution to make to the skills development of all children and young people.

Learning through play

Drama and creative learning are essentially learning through play. By its nature, drama is grounded in story, language, and communication and therefore has significant impact on listening and speaking. It develops empathy though stepping into the shoes of characters in a story. Participation in drama can be the key to building resilience, self-esteem and confidence. It allows children to experiment, explore and get things wrong. Through this they learn problem solving and critical and analytical thinking skills. It speaks to and draws on children’s inherent curiosity, creativity and imagination. Once this is ignited it has a huge impact on their language skills and the quality of their writing. Learning in this way has a proven impact on the depth and recall of their learning. It is also a great leveller, enabling learners to succeed who may not engage with more traditional teaching methods or who simply learn in a different way.
A teacher at Coopers Lane Primary School in London commented:  “It was the freedom in their writing that changed – usually we have a very structured lesson and they produce work by virtually copying our examples, whereas this time they were using their own imagination and producing their own writing using their own style.”  
For teachers too, drama and creative learning connects them with their own creativity and ability to play allowing them to be facilitators of a learning journey rather than simply an imparter of knowledge. Drama is a word which often strikes fear into the hearts of teachers. Memories of school plays past or being forced to be a tree, come flooding back. Dispelling this fear and encouraging teachers to learn new skills and consciously embed them in their teaching practice can change drama from an addition to an already heavy workload, into a toolkit that can support them to deliver the whole curriculum.

The future of jobs

In their recent report The Future of Jobs, the World Economic Forum identified the following top five skills which will be of increasing importance in any workplace between now and 2027. These are creative thinking; analytical thinking; technological literacy; curiosity and lifelong learning; and resilience, and flexibility and agility.
The benefits of drama and creative learning align closely with this and illustrate why it is so essential for these skills to be built into children’s education from the moment they start school. The NT works at scale across the UK to fire imagination and inspire creativity and to open up theatre to every young person growing up in the UK. Increasing access and easy deliverance of arts education can inspire and increase connectivity from an early age as well as developing vital life skills. It is our firm belief that arts subjects need to be taught as part of a broad and balanced curriculum and extended through – not sidelined to extra-curricular activity.
The NT’s Let’s Play primary schools programme is designed to help school leaders and teachers cultivate drama and creativity in their school. The programme is divided into three key areas of work. The first is ‘Let’s Learn’ which uses theatre, drama and creativity to support learning across the curriculum.
The second is ‘Let’s Perform’ which creates extraordinary performances as part of lessons, an exciting assembly or a school production.
The third is ‘Let’s Watch’, where you can watch high-quality theatre productions – both live and digitally in your classroom. It includes industry leading CPD opportunities for teachers, original play scripts tailored for primary schools and crafted content and resources designed to inspire. All of this is now completely free to UK state primary schools for the next three years.
A year 4 teacher at Rufford Park Primary School in Leeds said: “Let’s Play is absolutely superb - I cannot praise it highly enough! The CPD was the best I’ve had in over ten years of teaching, with expert advice from professional directors, musicians, artists and choreographers. There’s something for everyone.”

Embedding drama

So, as we start this new school year how can you begin to embed drama and creative learning across your primary school? Here are some top tips to help you get started.

Sign up to the Let’s Play Network and join the NT’s community of primary schools committed to drama and creative learning.
Sign up to Artsmark – the only creative quality standard for schools and education settings, accredited by Arts Council England.
Build partnerships with local arts education providers. You can find out about opportunities with local arts organisations through your Local Cultural Education Partnership (LCEP).
You could also sign up to creative learning professional development opportunities at the National Theatre.
New to creative learning? Explore the NT’s creative learning resources and download top tips with our ‘5 creative ways’ series.
You should also aim for at least one trip to the theatre for each year group each year or sign up for free to the NT Primary Collection – an online collection of productions suitable for primary aged children accompanied by creative learning resources.
Find out if any parents work in the creative industries and would be willing to come and talk to pupils about their job or to run a session or help with a school play. You could also plan a student-led arts week and get the whole school involved. If you don’t already have one, nominate a creative arts lead in your school. Finally, enable pupils to work towards their Arts Award which inspires young people to grow their arts and leadership talents.