Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Recently, Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman came under fire for her comments that further education courses in arts subjects promote unrealistic career prospects to students, making young people the victim of what she branded as ‘false hope’. Spielman quickly attracted the attention of several public figures, many of whom came forward to challenge her views – including the likes of actress Amanda Abbington, and actor/director Mark Gatiss. Abbington took to twitter to urge young people wishing to pursue a career in the arts sector to ignore Spielman’s comments and to follow their instincts. ‘We need way more talented and tenacious people not from privileged backgrounds making and performing all forms of art’ she continued to write. Mark Gatiss similarly reprimanded Spielman’s comments via twitter, referring to them as ‘the most chilling and ghastly statements’ he’d read in ‘many years’.
Spielman has since defended her statements, where she addressed readers of The Stage – a British weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry, particularly theatre – to explain that as someone with a ‘family member who spent more than a decade as a frequently under-employed actor, I have seen at close quarters quite what a demoralising experience that can be‘. While Spielman isn’t incorrect in her assertions that there is a substantial ‘mismatch’ in the number of students enrolling in arts courses and those that are later employed within the industry, her thoughtless comments recall a much bigger, and indeed persistent, issue that faces the education system in this country: how the arts have increasingly been discredited, devalued and demeaned by education officials in Britain.
It’s incredibly unfortunate, although not surprising, that someone in a position such as Spielman – a position that, if used correctly, could be used to evoke real change and to better the lives of our country’s young people – has fallen into the trap of being yet another of Britain’s education officials speaking out against the study of the arts. Certainly, there is no denying that the discrepancy between those enrolling in arts courses and those employed in the arts industry is an issue, but wouldn’t it be far more productive for Spielman to use her status to work on this? Surely it would have been more constructive for Spielman to acknowledge this ‘mismatch’ and consider the ways in which the education system can support students interested in the arts: offering them career guidance and counsel, and providing them with opportunities to break into an industry renowned for being so fiercely competitive. The creative industry is thriving, and contributing a massive £92bn to our economy as of 2016 – a record breaking figure, making up 5% of the UK economy’s GVA. Yes, positions in the creative industry are difficult to obtain, but they are by no means limited – something that Spielman could be celebrating as someone who has frequently hailed herself a champion of the arts.
Throughout my time as a student, I have encountered this very dismissal in action: I’ve lost count of the times people have patronised me when I have shared that I am studying an arts degree. I’ve always been told that I am the lesser intelligent family member whose degree isn’t real; the person that wasn’t capable of excelling in subjects like Maths or “Pure” Sciences that require a more sophisticated academic capability that I, obviously, all but lack. I was the person subjected to snide comments as I lugged around the art folder that I put my heart and soul into; the person that was just too stupid to be gifted at a real and important area of subject; the person that would amount to nothing of note or importance.
It’s something that, as I look to life beyond my undergraduate studies, I still confront. What on earth would possess me to look to further study, I’ve been asked, when I’ve already wasted my time racking up a mountain of debt for a subject that no one takes seriously. What job can I hope to get having spent three years – and a very expensive three years at that – studying books? Oh, unless it’s teaching, that is. I used to be disheartened by comments like these, but now I am aggravated by them because, ultimately, I just wish people could see that what they are saying is founded on plain ignorance.
I’d never dream of telling a person that their aspirations are unworthy, or that they’re being foolish to want to purse a career in something they have a genuine passion for. The best things are never those that come easily, but those that do require determination and resilience. For us arts students who are serious about careers such as publishing, journalism, and mass entertainment, this is something we are well aware of, and not something that demands the judgement of the ill-informed.
I’ve been inspired by countless lecturers and teachers of arts subjects – individuals who are engaging, enthusiastic and, above all, encouraging. While I do not believe Amanda Spielman’s comments were made with the intent of grave offence, I do believe that they are potentially harmful for prospective and aspiring students. When a student expresses their desire for a career in the arts sector, we should not question why it is they want this, but ask how they can be supported to ensure personal success.