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The Liberal Democrat political party has listed 'culture, media and sport' as a key priority in its manifesto ahead of the General Election. Professor Simon James, from our Department of English Studies, explores the significance of this in more detail.

With the cost of living, taxation and, in the last few days, D-day commemoration, commanding the lion’s share of campaign attention, little has yet been paid to the parties’ plans for the arts and cultural sector this general election. Pleasingly, however, the Liberal Democrat (Lib Dems) manifesto (the first to launch) devotes one of its 22 sections to “culture, media and sport”.

Details are somewhat vague at this early stage, but one thing they make a commitment to is maintaining free access to museums and galleries and to lottery funding for sports and the arts. While these commitments are welcome, they do not go far enough, especially outside the institution-rich capital.

Cash-strapped councils such as Birmingham are having to reduce or cut entirely their spending on arts, and spending on cultural institutions by local authorities has nearly halved during the last 12 years.

The manifesto also looks to culture, media and sport as a means of national regeneration following COVID and the bruising divisiveness of Brexit, saying: “Art, music, drama and sports bring people together. They are an essential part of a thriving society.”

The economy is not far away here, either, though. The creative industries and tourism are seen as an essential part of the plans for economic growth. As is often repeated within the sector – and rarely heard at the heart of the debate elsewhere – the creative sector, broadly framed, is the fastest-growing part of the economy.

It is in education policy, however, where the arts and creativity can make the longest lasting? beneficial change. The promise here is to “nurture the next generation of creative talent” by promoting critical thinking, verbal reasoning (currently being investigated by the national Oracy Commission, which monitors children’s ability to express themselves fluently and grammatically when speaking) and creativity.

The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education has shown that these skills can also be taught across all subjects, in and out of school. But the role played by the arts in developing young people’s creativity and imagination has been disproportionately curtailed under the current government.

The Lib Dem manifesto correctly notes the decline in expressive arts up to and beyond the age of 16. Entry to arts GCSEs has almost halved since 2010, and a staggering 42% of schools no longer offer the study of music to this level. This has had a denuding effect on extracurricular art, theatre and music within schools’ broader ecology.

Rather than calling for the scrapping of the English Baccalaureate, as many educationalists, including the House of Lords Education Committee have done, the Lib Dems look to expand it through the addition of arts subjects. They believe this would incentivise schools to boost their evaluation measures by teaching these disciplines.

Further support is also promised for extracurricular arts, especially for children facing disadvantages. No details are provided on plans for the devolved educational administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which have managed to maintain a commitment to cultural learning and a broader curriculum.

Baroness Archer’s review of Arts Council England has been paused during the election campaign and the findings of the National Plan for Cultural Education under Baroness Deborah Bull have still to be announced.

Labour have given some indication that arts funding will be reexamined should they win power, hinting that perhaps the (originally Labour-created) Arts Council has been stretched too far in its purpose. But a reiteration of Jeremy Corbyn’s £1bn promised “arts fund” is highly unlikely given the fiscal tightness the opposition has looked to impose on itself in government. The thoughtful Labour Together paper Broad and Bold recommends, among other ambitious curriculum measures, for 11 cultural experiences to be guaranteed to every child before they reach the age of 11.

Whoever forms the next government, young people have to be at the heart of its priorities. The Cultural Learning Alliance calls for children to have four hours a week of arts, emphasising that this education is just as essential to mental wellbeing as sport is to physical health.

There is strong evidence that arts learning makes a strong contribution both to young people’s future working lives and to their happiness and wellbeing. At the same time, this essential part of childhood has been starved of resources and support in recent years – not only by the pandemic but by policymakers’ neglect.

Every one of us benefits from the skills of actors, musicians, artists, dancers and designers, and any governments’ commitment to the creative industries must look to their future by investing in young people.

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