Anyone working in education would have to have been hiding under a rock, to not have noticed the effect the recent changes to the national curriculum have made on Arts education in schools.

Being performers in the circus arts as well as workshop educators in schools, it will come as no surprise that we see this as not only sad but detrimental to the education of young people.
You only have to spend a day working creatively with a group of young people to see how their imaginations blossom when given the space and opportunity to freely play.

‘The very art we practice as professional performers are born out of play, the creation process of new work is often very childlike in its exploration. New tricks, new routines, new laughs often come by accident, through the removal of parameters and the freedom to playfully explore. To us it is essential.’ Nikki Kennett 

Nikki_036With an increasing focus on academic subjects within the curriculum, there is now a battle to allow time for arts subjects in the timetable. Teachers are faced with the constant need to provide ‘good data’, so when the pressure is on, creative subjects are the first to go.

Schools working with children who struggle to achieve the ‘National Average,’ are forced to focus almost entirely on Maths and Literacy, often meaning time for creative subjects gets left to a Friday afternoon once in a blue moon.

For schools where academic achievement is high, the push to get the correct levels of progress in the ‘core subjects’, yet again, means time and space for creativity has lessened in the timetable. Ever increasing budget cuts mean that the opportunity for many schools to bring in external arts workshop providers such as ours becomes impossible, restricting pupils access to contact with the arts even further.

But can we afford to sit idly by and accept this as the new norm?

Let’s first look at what we define as the ‘Arts’ subjects.

We quite liked this definition…

‘Arts subjects are any subject where there isn’t a ‘right or wrong’ answer.’

Artist Bob Smith for the BBC 

Bob Smith sums this up perfectly with his emphasis on arts subjects not requiring a ‘right’ answer.
Children long for creativity, they need it to be given space to play, to create and experiment beyond the parameters of anything a test can measure.

The Arts = drawing, making, crafting, dance, drama, performance and music. While these subject areas do all have elements to them which have some parameters, The overriding theme of them encourages children to express, to share ideas and to imagine.

Why are the Arts subjects so important to a child’s development and well-being?

I’m not sure if you have ever been to a safari park or zoo? (Stick with me on this one…..!) But watching the young lions or chimpanzees is always really fascinating. Left entirely to their own natural instincts, they play.

They fight, they wrestle, they push boundaries………. they play.

This human need to play comes from deep within our most basic animal instincts. This research article clearly points to how vital play and unstructured activity really is.

the animal research clearly shows that it is unstructured play, where partners have to negotiate the rules and learn how to deal with infringements, that is most important for the beneficial effects on the prefrontal cortex. That is, neither non-social play on a video screen nor structured play as in organised sports provides the relevant experiences provided by the free play generated by kids themselves.”.

There is a tendency to regulate, or organise children, when actually what they need is time and space to simply play. Children are not static beings, their experiences change so the need to explore these and have an outlet for them is constant. With this in mind, it only makes sense for there to be more, rather than less time to allow for ‘creative gaps’ in an increasingly prescriptive curriculum.

Couldn’t resist sharing this real-life example of how even adults, sometimes, need to play.


Every child has a unique viewpoint of the life they lead and the things they observe. To encourage this to be shared is vital, not just for their own growth but think of all the things we as a society miss out on when we close the mouths of expression in our next generation.

As circus performers, we are taught to play – to create and push the boundaries of our ideas. Contemporary clowning is not just bright baggy costumes, red noses and water squirting flowers. It’s the exploration of how we play, who we are, how we discover ourselves in the world we interact with. It’s challenging and beautiful, it’s developed through practice.

The Foundation Degree course in Circus Arts, taught in London’s National Centre for Circus Arts has a module in the course dedicated just to this:

  • 8.1 Demonstrate focus, adaptability and playfulness in performance

The visual arts, be that painting, sculpting, drawing, modelling or designing, are a wonderful example of an activity where all children are able to be creative. We need to present a variety of opportunities to our children, so they might find a place to express their creativity.

Not everyone is good at sitting at a table drawing. Some children need to make movements, gross motor skills in expressive dance, drama, hula hooping, jumping, are a wonderful way for children to develop coordination and balance.

The formal nature of many subject areas can cause children to be paralysed by fear, inhibiting the flow of ideas. Many children cease to come up with ideas, due to fear of ‘getting it wrong’. It’s no secret that children learn best when they are relaxed and happy. The creative subjects are proven to have a beneficial effect on a child’s ability to learn the more formal subjects too.

This article from Psychology today perfectly sums it up;

“Interventions that provide children with greater opportunities for play make them more creative,” Bateson says. “Conversely, fears about safety and the pressures of school curricula are reducing opportunities for free play. These trends are associated with a decline in the ability to come up with new ideas.”

Not all children will love to sit at a table and write, but I’m yet to meet a child who doesn’t enjoy building a den or making up a silly game which makes them laugh!

Educators in every setting must be aware, however, of the making these subjects into yet more ways to ‘measure children’. The last thing children need is to be told to be ‘creative’ – then to be critiqued using a generic list of measures. Surely that takes away the very benefits of the creative subjects in the curriculum?

What does this mean in practical terms?

Primary schools are under so much pressure to get their children to progress in the ‘core’ subjects that there is simply less time given to allow children to play, or to dedicate a whole afternoon to make a sculpture or develop a dance. Much less to be given free reign to make up a game and simply play, in any way they choose.

Once a child emerges from the EYFS, free play is almost reduced to zero, as their life behind a desk begins.

Once at senior school, the looming measure of progress 8 comes in to focus, and the pressure to achieve a good set of data is on. Research from the Education Policy Institute has shown a decline in the proportion of pupils taking at least one arts subject at GCSE level.
In 2016 it reached 53.5%, the lowest level for a decade. With many schools now starting the GCSE curriculum at the start of year 9, this seems a crying shame, that from age 14 the arts subjects are disappearing.

When we spoke to a senior leader of a secondary school, he said that this percentage is set to decrease. Progress 8 means schools have to get the children to take subjects which will improve their data, not simply the subjects the students enjoy.


But how can we tackle this growing concern within education settings?

One wonders if maybe we can’t. Is it the responsibility of parents to provide unstructured time for children to play to be free, to create, and to move without structure or assessment?

This research study published in 2014 only highlights this issue further.

‘The results indicated that children who spend more time engaging in less-structured activities display higher levels of executive functioning. The converse also proved true: Children in more structured activities displayed lower executive functioning abilities. Executive function is extremely important for children,” Munakata told EurekAlert!. “It helps them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later.”

Children today spend increasing time in structured settings such as after-school clubs, sports clubs and organised activities, It seems that everyone involved in the life of a young person needs to consider incorporating space and time to play, to make music, to create, to express.

Secondary school circus skills workshop

Everyone in a child’s life needs to consider making room for creative expression.

As teachers, educators and service providers, do we need to kick back on the constant pressure to measure success?
Can the pleasure and freedom provided by the activity be enough to say it is ‘worthwhile’?


Have we come too far down the road of constant assessment and data to go back?

We would love to hear your thoughts….

Other Articles to read on this topic: