A Balanced Education Needs More Than Maths and English

Ofsted recently noted that primary schools might be placing too much emphasis on English and Maths, at the detriment of other subjects such as music, art, history and geography. In a move to ensure that pupils receive a more balanced education, new inspection frameworks have been introduced that will be imposed later this month. For some this will be a refreshing change from all the discussion over how important STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects are to the economy in recent years. Teachers have complained about the pressures they have felt to concentrate on specific areas of the curriculum, with arts and physical education frequently being neglected as a result. Ability in Maths and English are clearly vital to future success, but to what extent should they be allowed to marginalise teaching of other subjects?

Teaching of the arts and physical education are usually the first to feel the impact of budget cuts and shifting focus towards other areas of the curriculum. Yet both fields are important to a child’s development. Various studies have underlined the beneficial effects of both arts and physical education on overall progress. The connection between physical activity and academic success was outlined in a previous post on PE Scholar. Similar research has found the same strong correlation between the arts and academic success. One recent study examined the association between music involvement and maths and reading performance in childhood and adolescence, and found that ‘music participation generally increases achievement levels’ (Southgate & Roscigno, 2013, p18). Arts programs (i.e. visual arts, music, drama) in many schools have been cut back to the bone or eliminated entirely in recent years. But ignoring the positive impact of arts could have serious consequences, not only to a students overall growth and creativity (a much needed ability in a rapidly changing modern world), but also to the very core subjects that overshadow the ‘lesser’ areas.

First of all, in an age where many children interact with colourful, creative, interactive games, there is a need for the education system to take a more modern approach when it comes to imparting new ideas and knowledge to students. For many children, arts lessons are the most enjoyable part of the week, with its ‘hands on’ instruction, immediate rewards, the development of physical products at the end of a process, and the ability to display creative skills in return for recognition from teachers and peers. It builds confidence, which may not come easily through other means. This has a knock on effect in other subjects, as a child will develop a positive attitude towards the learning process if they are receiving affirmation of their efforts.

The arts teach students beneficial learning habits and behaviours through the constant reinforcement of practice with immediate gratification. Learning an instrument or developing painting skills is an enjoyable process in itself (creating sounds or colours), and is likely to hold a child’s interest regardless of initial level of ability. If the process of learning is enjoyable, then a student is far more likely to practice a skill and improve their capability, obtaining further gratification through concrete results. Developing a good attitude towards practice and persistence will also translate well into other subjects.

There are even closer ties between the arts and the core subjects of English and Maths. The arts offer students a context for learning in other subjects. For example, allowing a child to interact on a deeper level with characters from another era in a drama lesson, or studying in detail everyday objects used in another place or time in order to sculpt them. The arts can bring a more personal level of understanding to topics covered in different subjects. There is also an overlap with Mathematics, with the arts requiring proportional thinking, understanding of dimension and geometry, pattern recognition, and spatial awareness.

Additionally, through the arts a child develops critical social, observational and analytical skills that are important both to other areas of the curriculum and on a wider scale. Interpreting meaning in visual symbols, music, gestures and tone of voice, learning tolerance through the consideration of different perspectives and concepts, and finding connections between different components that make up a whole picture or musical score. A student will make decisions regarding their work (how to perform a scene, how to compose a chorus), which builds confidence in making decisions in other areas. They will also build team-working skills through collaborating with others in different projects. The link between the arts and behaviour has been cited as a key concern in the debate over the arts in schools. A 2008 study on violent behaviour amongst students concluded that ‘ high-quality arts programs have a significant effect on children’s in-program behaviour and emotional problems. Findings found increased confidence, enhanced art skills, improved prosocial skills, and improved conflict resolution skills’ (Wright, John, Alaggia & Sheel, 2006, p.1). Participation in the arts brings obvious academic and social-emotional benefits that convert to educational and personal success later on in life.

Despite the detrimental effects of budget cuts in recent years to both the arts and physical education, there is encouraging news for the future. The announcement by the government of reformed GCSE subjects has begun to address the importance of a broader and more balanced education fully incorporating the non-core subjects. The de-coupling of dance and drama as a single GCSE subject was another positive move, showing a belief in the disciplines as demanding individual subjects. A well-rounded education that covers a wide range of subjects is essential to both personal advancement and the success of the future generation.


  • Southgate, D., Roscigno, V. The Impact of Music on Childhood and Adolescent Achievement. Social Science Quarterly (Wiley-Blackwell) [serial online]. March 2009;90(1):4-21. Available from: Business Source Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 22, 2014.
  • Wright, R., John, L., Alaggia, R., Sheel, J. Community-based Arts Program for Youth in Low-Income Communities: A Multi-Method Evaluation. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal [serial online]. December 2006;23(5/6):635-652. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 22, 2014.

Photo: Brenneman

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