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In Perspective #19: The Branch and the Blossom

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In the series In Perspective, Erik Akkermans looks back and ahead at developments in cultural policy and practice. Today: cultural education in primary education.

Ambitions of a new cabinet

Spring 2003. The sun was already beginning to shine a little more and on branches came the first blossoms. Here presented itself the metaphor that could serve as a title for the report we were about to deliver: "The Branch and the Blossom". At the consultancy, we had been commissioned for a quick scan of cultural education in primary education. What opportunities, bottlenecks and financial incentives did we see?

Maria van der Hoeven had been OCW minister since 2002 and the culture ministers had managed to stimulate her enough to have ambitions about culture in education. Van der Hoeven informed the Lower House that she wanted to intensify the Culture and School programme. Before Budget Day, she wanted to get some 25 million euros for this from her colleague of Finance. The ministry was thinking mainly of strengthening primary education.

For more substantive content, it set up a Task Force on Cultural Education in Primary Education. The Task Force, led by education expert Jan Wagemakers, was to look into questions such as: what cultural education in primary education can entail, how schools can give form to this content and by what means this can be achieved. The report was due in June 2003.

It is up to us to ensure that there is a quick scan became available to provide numerical justification to the Language Group and provide the minister with factual ammunition for cabinet negotiations. The quick scan came about and led, among other things, to the well-known ten euros per child per class that became and remained structurally available to all schools.1 The Task Force report also appeared on time and in the form of several scenarios.2 I'm not so sure if much has happened to that yet.

Differences between schools

We found in our inventory that the differences between schools were unacceptably large. The state contributed from the so-called lump sum for an average of €4 per pupil on cultural education. Some schools were able to add to that from parental contributions. And many municipalities also provided occasional or structural subsidies.

So what a school had to spend on art soon ranged from 4 to 15 euros per child. In practice, it was more often five than 10. It had to be better and it had to be more equal. By now, it was becoming customary to talk about a 'continuous learning path', including for cultural education, and that meant that it was precisely in this first phase that the foundations had to be laid for the further path in secondary education. Without action, the gap between schools would only widen.

Meanwhile, the Van Wijnen committee had advised on core objectives in education. This gave less room for individual interpretation in the core part of the school curriculum, but all the more in the free part. This is where the metaphor of the branch and the blossom came in handy (although you can differ on its applicability afterwards). What we advocated with it was a strong structural embedding of cultural education in the core programme ('the branch') and a more pluralistic, flexible individual approach outside it ('let a hundred blossoms bloom').

If schools wanted to firmly establish cultural education at its core, they needed their own school plan, vision and direction. This also made them less vulnerable to the much criticised supply-oriented approach of the art institutes. After all, the schools then knew better how to choose for themselves. But this took some doing,

To ten euros per child

Vouchers or subsidies should make art projects more affordable for schools. For 1.5 million pupils, this plan required - on top of the available 4 euros - just under 6 euros per child. Then a fixed base of 10 euros per child would be provided from the state. Total cost: some ten million euros. These were part of the total of the calculated 27 million euros of various measures to strengthen cultural education in education. For example: strengthening the coordination of cultural and art subjects at school and in-service training for teachers.

One measure we proposed that didn't make it actually still strikes me as sympathetic: a 'family context' pilot. In some families, children do come into contact with theatre or visual arts through school but when they talk about it at home it lands in indifference, unfamiliarity with the subject or even negative reactions.

Can you get parents more involved and also enthusiastic about artistic activities from school? By doing so, you also reduce the differences between children from art-conscious backgrounds and children from families where art is something extravagant.

Eventually, Minister van der Hoeven and State Secretary van der Laan set aside a sum that rose to 22 million euro in 2007 for strengthening cultural education. Moreover, as part of the Cultural Reach Action Plan, they continued to encourage municipalities to co-finance.

It took some persuasion before the minister agreed that the extra boost for primary education would be earmarked. As there was much criticism of all those different earmarked schemes, the move was precisely towards 'lump sum'. But if the lump sum were to be dumped, too little of the ambition of 'more culture in the classroom' would probably remain. Afterwards, we managed to keep this earmark for a long time. Later, the contribution disappeared into the so-called performance box. If you looked carefully, you could find it in the 'talent development' section.

From 1 January 2023, new funding for primary education will apply: a fixed amount per school and per child with which the 'branch and blossom funds' have been further absorbed into the big picture. Knowledge centre LKCA once again urges all involved to make it very clear to school leaders what financial space is available for arts and culture.3

Constraints and threats

Meanwhile, a lot of positive things have happened since 2003. Action programmes by the state and municipalities to stimulate cultural education, such as Culture Education with Quality. An initiative such as 'More Music in the Classroom' that has had a major impact. Profile schools that emphasise art education.

But there is also still criticism of the relatively scarce supply of art within primary education. And on the big differences between schools. Too little money is certainly a factor here, but in addition: commitment and attention. And time! Education does not complain about having to do so much at once for no reason, while there is also criticism about neglecting core subjects such as language and maths.

In contrast, there are schools, such as the Free Schools, that manage to integrate art (and sports) into education, especially in language and maths. It does not all have to be separate subjects. In any case, the workload of teacher complaints needs to be relieved. The Education Council has therefore argued for more subject teachers who can relieve the permanent teacher.4 The knife then cuts both ways. Professional Artists in the Classroom can also make a modest contribution here.5

Within the financial component, a threat has been added: the voluntary parental contribution is under discussion, as it would promote inequality between schools with affluent parents and schools in poor neighbourhoods. The City of Amsterdam is therefore punishing schools with a parental contribution higher than €225 by depriving them of their subsidy.

To me, it seems a blunt measure: it achieves nothing positive, just a forced form of equality. As long as the contributions are not compulsory but voluntary - usually per parent related to the level of income - it should be possible. If necessary, ask richer schools to make a voluntary solidarity contribution in favour of poorer schools.

Political perspectives

But in the end, money is not the decisive factor for an arts programme that will stay with pupils for the rest of their lives. The decisive factor is the drive of the teacher and/or the school management to give art and culture a place in the school curriculum at all costs, using simple means if necessary. And to select providers who are capable of really moving children.

Of course, a political climate in which all this is taken for granted and made financially possible then helps. With the new government to take office, we may not have to despair of this beforehand, even if these are the current (in)forming parties.

The BBB's election manifesto speaks positively about the value of arts and culture. On culture and school, it says: "At school, young people are taught art and culture and thus gain an understanding of the rich cultural history of the Netherlands. This not only ensures a better understanding of our traditions and values, but also stimulates creativity."6

When it comes to New Social Contract's election programme, critics have mainly pointed to its perhaps excessive focus on regions and history. But there are positive texts in the programme about the value of art and the position of artists. On cultural education, the programme says: "We recognise the importance of cultural education and participation and encourage young people to come into contact with arts and culture already at school where, in addition to basic education, there should be explicit room for developing talent."7

The VVD calls Dutch culture 'world-class'. The election manifesto states: "Heritage deserves our protection and cultural education gives children the opportunity to learn about culture and art. " 8

Access to culture

What might help in this regard is the recent opinion "Access to culture"9 from the Council for Culture. The Council notes that cultural education in primary education has been given a clear place in the curriculum, but that nevertheless structural embedding 'remains a challenge'. The Council also wants a framework law defining municipal tasks. This certainly includes a coordinating role in the field of cultural education. The positive expressions of political parties could thus land well within this.

Granted, these are election programmes and they offer no guarantees. And the (Randstad) professional arts should hold their breath. But for cultural education in schools, surely I do not see that branches will be broken off this spring, or later in the new cabinet period, and no blossoms can blossom. Above all, schools and institutions must keep and strengthen their cultural education ambitions. Harmful nitrogen will not be released with them.

ERIK AKKERMANS is a director, consultant and publicist. He chaired the cultural and creative sector labour market platform Platform ACCT and several other organisations. He worked for BMC, bureau for consultancy and interim management, from 2002 to2012, was, among other things, quartermaster for a new centre for the arts, Ateliers Majeur, in Heerenveen and led the project Beroepskunstenaars in de Klas.

Footnotes

1 HJM Akkermans et al. "The Branch and the Blossom", quick scan cultural education in primary education, Leusden April 2003.

2 Task Force on Cultural Education in Primary Education, Hart(d) voor Cultuur!, The Hague, June 2003

3 LKCA, Financing Culture Education from the lump sum, website LKCA, https://www.lkca.nl/geldzaken/lumpsum/. updated 6-11-2023

4 Education Council, Time for Focus, The Hague 2021. Among other things, the Education Council advocates that teaching teams share their responsibility with subject teachers, for example music or theatre. Arno Neelen, What does a fall teacher for cultural education at every primary school cost? Culture newspaper edition 24, December 2022

5 See In Perspective : With bass guitar in cabinet or classroom, Culture Press 2023-2

6 BBB, Every Day Better, From crisis of confidence to noaber state, Election manifesto TK 2023

7 New Social Contract, Time for Recovery, Confidence, Security, Perspective, Election Programme TK 2023.

8 VVD, Giving space, Setting limits, Choosing an optimistic future, TK 2023 election programme

9 Council for Culture, Access to Culture, The Hague, January 2024

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Erik Akkermans

Director, consultant and publicist.View Author posts

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