What is it?
Arts participation is defined as involvement in artistic and creative activities, such as dance, drama, music, painting, or sculpture. It can occur either as an additional part of the curriculum or as extra-curricular activities. Participation may be organised as regular weekly or monthly activities or more intensive programs such as summer schools or residential courses.
How effective is it?
Overall, the impact of arts participation on academic learning appears to be positive but low. Improved outcomes have been identified in English, mathematics and science learning. Benefits have also been found in both primary and secondary schools, though on average greater effects have been identified for younger learners.
In some cases, specific arts activities have been linked with benefits on particular outcomes. For example, there is some evidence of a positive link between music and spatial awareness. Wider benefits on attitudes to learning and well-being have also consistently been reported.
A 2011 review of arts in schools was commissioned by the Northern Territory Department for Education and Training. The authors noted that, in Australia, few large-scale research studies have looked at the causal impact of the arts on academic achievement.
Since then, there has been only one article examining the relationship between arts participation and standardised measures of academic achievement. One Australian study examined the impact of arts participation on the academic performance of students in ten New South Wales primary schools in highly disadvantaged settings. The lack of Australasian-based studies on the topic may be due to the variability in the type and number of interventions, which poses difficulties for providing evidence of impact. The available studies tend to focus on students in disadvantaged settings.
How secure is the evidence?
There are a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses which have found small benefits for arts participation. However, these effects vary according to the type of approach and the age group targeted, so are hard to generalise.
A recent systematic review conducted for the EEF found no individual studies that passed a high benchmark for their security and convincingly demonstrated that arts participation had an impact on achievement. This Toolkit strand synthesizes meta-analyses, and gives a general picture of the pattern of findings in the literature.
What are the costs?
Costs vary considerably from junior drama groups with small performances (estimated at $10 per student), through to organised dance groups for young people ($175 per class per session) to high quality music tuition ($100 per student per hour). On average, costs are estimated at $280 per student per year, though some activities would be considerably more expensive. Overall, costs are estimated as low.
What should I consider?
The research evidence shows a wide range of effects from the programs studied, suggesting that achieving learning gains from arts programs is not straightforward.
Benefits for learning appear to be more achievable with younger learners, with some promising evidence supporting the academic impact of programs which develop skills in music performance in particular.
Arts-based approaches may offer a route to re-engage older learners in school.
The transfer of learning to the classroom is not automatic and needs further exploration. For example, how can you encourage students to apply their learning from arts participation to more formal contexts?