The Imperative for Expressive Arts Education in Primary Schools in Scotland 

Expressive Arts graphic

The arts play a pivotal role in shaping identities, fostering connections, and enriching lives. Within education, the Expressive Arts serve as a powerful means for children and young people as they seek to express themselves, engage in self-discovery, and support them in nurturing a deep connection with the world around them. This blog presents the current state of Expressive Arts education in Primary schools in Scotland. 

Policy background 

The Scottish Government, in collaboration with agencies like Education Scotland and Creative Scotland, has often reaffirmed its commitment to arts education through various policies and initiatives. A notable example is the Creative Scotland and Education Scotland Action Plan 2021-22, A Collaboration for Creativity (Creative Scotland, 2021), which emphasises the importance of making cultural and artistic activities accessible and affordable to all children across the country. This commitment aligns with Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and underscores the fundamental right of every child in Scotland to participate in cultural and artistic experiences (UNICEF, 2019).  

Despite this commitment, challenges persist in ensuring equitable access to arts education. Financial constraints and geographic disparities are barriers that too often dictate access to cultural and artistic opportunities, creating inequalities in educational experiences. Additionally, in Primary schools expectations are placed on generalist teachers to not only address the attainment gap in literacy and numeracy with their learners but also be ‘experts’ in a range of other subjects, including the Expressive Arts. Under these circumstances making time to teach the Expressive Arts in a meaningful and relevant manner can become increasingly difficult. 

Overview of the research

Recent research projects focusing on arts education in Primary schools have shed light on these challenges. Collectively termed ‘The State of the Arts’ these projects, a collaboration between colleagues from across the Universities of Dundee, Glasgow and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland gathered survey data on art, dance and music education between 2021 and 2022 from teachers in Scotland’s Primary schools. At the time of writing this blog, a fourth project on Drama is still underway at the University of Aberdeen. The findings revealed a profession that overwhelmingly believes in the value of Expressive Arts education but also highlighted a range of issues that were creating barriers to its implementation in Primary schools in Scotland. 

Inconsistent provision of Expressive Arts in Primary schools across Scotland 

While the Expressive Arts hold a cherished place in the curriculum, there are disparities in the amount of time dedicated to each subject and the level of confidence among teachers in delivering them. This inconsistency not only impacts the quality of Expressive Arts education in Primary school but also perpetuates inequalities in educational experiences for pupils, depending on factors such as school resources or geographic location. The Central Belt boasts a concentrated number of arts organisations, yet these groups encounter difficulties in fostering connections with schools and extending their reach to rural or nearby regions. These challenges arise from transportation constraints and the elevated costs involved in accessing remote parts of Scotland. Such obstacles can significantly impact the variety of activities and resources available. 

Pressures on teachers create a squeeze on the arts 

A challenge found both in the responses and more broadly felt across the curriculum (in Primary and in Initial Teacher Education) is the ‘squeeze’ on the arts. While Expressive Arts are one of the eight curricular areas of Curriculum for Excellence, their presence within a school may face competition from other more ‘pressing’ areas such as literacy and numeracy. Likewise, while Expressive Arts are becoming more present in other areas of learning such as STEAM, this is also inconsistent and ad hoc, coming with a concern that the arts could become lost within a science agenda or be open to tokenism. We accept and embrace the creative contributions that the Expressive Arts can make within and through STEAM, but at the same time must not lose sight of Expressive Arts as a curriculum area in its own right. Such a fragmented approach limits the potential for genuine and meaningful cross-curricular connections. It fails to harness the full transformative power of Expressive Arts education in enhancing overall pupil learning and engagement.  

Lack of structured whole-school approaches in schools 

The projects highlighted the absence of a structured, coherent whole-school approach to teaching Expressive Arts in Primary schools. Instead, responsibility for teaching Expressive Arts often falls on individual class teachers. The result of such an approach is a lack of consistency, with children’s access to the arts dependent on the teacher, and their levels of interest, experience and confidence when teaching the subject. This lack of consistency also poses challenges in delivering sequential and meaningful Expressive Arts education experiences for pupils. 

Teacher confidence in teaching Expressive Arts

Lack of confidence when teaching the Expressive Arts is a long-standing issue in research across many countries and Scotland is no different. The projects indicate disparities in teacher confidence levels across the different Expressive Arts subjects. While some teachers feel more confident teaching art, they may lack confidence in others such as dance or music. These discrepancies often correlate with the frequency with which the subjects are taught, and the level of prior experience or education teachers have in each area. It should be noted that where teachers expressed increased confidence in teaching the arts, it did not necessarily indicate better quality or more regular engagement of provision in schools.  

Comprehensive career-long professional learning in Expressive Arts is unavailable 

The absence of Primary teachers undertaking comprehensive professional learning opportunities in Expressive Arts education was a significant issue across all four projects. Many teachers expressed feeling ill-prepared to teach the Expressive Arts, citing limited exposure and training during their initial teacher education programmes. Likewise, very few participants could identify professional learning available from their local authorities and/or external agencies that could be utilised to further their professional knowledge, understanding and skills in the Expressive Arts.  

Moving forward 

Addressing these challenges necessitates a renewed, collective effort on the part of all those involved in delivering Career-Long Professional Learning to teachers:  

  • Nationally, the Scottish Government must continue to promote and invest in the Expressive Arts to ensure their societal value remains high among Scotland’s citizens, including parents and teachers. The creative industries are a valuable sector within the economy, and investment in the Expressive Arts ensures that the creative industries have a positive, thriving future ahead of them. 
  • Local Authorities must support senior management and teachers in Primary schools by providing and publicising professional learning opportunities in Expressive Arts education. This can be done by actively working in partnership with local and national cultural organisations and charities, as well as local businesses. Expressive Arts education must ensure that it not only meets the needs of children and young people in the present but provides them with the depth of knowledge and range of skills to actively pursue and engage in the arts for pleasure or indeed to see a career in the creative industries as a valid option.  
  • Senior Management in Primary schools needs to develop whole-school approaches to Expressive Arts education. By doing this, more children and young people will be able to access consistent, quality Expressive Arts education regardless of their background, where they live or which teachers they encounter as pupils. There should be more robust connections between local authority structures and school and learning communities to ensure a collaborative approach to designing and implementing meaningful arts activities in schools.  
  • Initial Teacher Education programmes in Higher Education Institutions need to review the amount and quality of arts education preparation delivered to initial teacher students. They should look to engage in creative partnerships, with local and national arts organisations and charities, to complement what is provided as part of this initial stage of the professional learning journey and look to model the practice of partnership working. This is the first stage of their career-long professional learning journey, so time must be made available for each of the Expressive Arts subjects to ensure that initial teachers feel they have a confidence base upon which to build as they progress through probation and into their professional lives as teachers. 

Additionally, collaborative initiatives involving higher education institutions, local authorities, arts organisations, and schools can look to address the challenges noted above but more importantly to empower the teachers, to support them in developing the confidence and efficacy to be able to design and implement Expressive Arts lessons in their classes and schools more widely.  

Accessing the Expressive Arts and fostering a love for the arts among the pupils, is not just an aspiration but a moral imperative. By investing in professional learning, developing collaborative partnerships, and championing the value of the Expressive Arts in education, we can cultivate a generation of creative thinkers, empathetic individuals and lifelong learners and appreciators of the arts.  

Angela Jaap (University of Glasgow), Anna Robb (University of Dundee), Lio Moscardini and Eilidh Slattery (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)

Reference list 

Creative Scotland, (2021) Creative Scotland and Education Scotland – Action Plan 2021-22, A Collaboration for Creativity. [accessed 20.03.24] 

UNICEF (2019) A Summary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) [accessed 20.03.24]