Evidence for Learning: Arts participation

Arts participation

Moderate impact for very low cost based on moderate evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Arts participation is defined as involvement in artistic and creative activities, such as dance, drama, music, painting, or sculpture. It can occur either as part of the curriculum or as extra-curricular activity. Arts-based approaches may be used in other areas of the curriculum, such as the use of drama to develop engagement and oral language before a writing task. 

Participation may be organised as regular weekly or monthly activities, or more intensive programs such as summer schools or residential courses. Whilst these activities, of course, have important educational value in themselves, this Toolkit entry focuses on the benefits of arts participation for core academic attainment in other areas of the curriculum particularly literacy and mathematics.

1. Arts participation approaches can have a positive impact on academic outcomes in other areas of the curriculum.

2. The research here summarises the impact of arts participation on academic outcomes. It is important to remember that arts engagement is valuable in and of itself and that the value of arts participation should be considered beyond maths or English outcomes.

3. If the aim of the arts approach is to improve academic outcomes it is important to identify the link between your chosen arts intervention and the outcomes you want to improve.

4. Arts-based approaches may offer a route to re-engage older students in learning, though this does not always translate into better outcomes. It is important to consider how you will use increased engagement to improve teaching and learning for these students.

Overall, the average impact of arts participation on other areas of academic learning appears to be positive but moderate, about an additional three months progress. 

Improved outcomes have been identified in English, mathematics and science. Benefits have been found in both primary and secondary schools.

Some arts activities have been linked with improvements in specific outcomes. For example, there is some evidence of the impact of drama on writing and potential link between music and spatial awareness.

Wider benefits such as more positive attitudes to learning and increased wellbeing 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.

  • Impact is similar for both primary and secondary school students.

  • Effects tend to be higher for writing and mathematics than reading.

There is intrinsic value in teaching students creative and performance skills and ensuring disadvantaged students access a rich and stimulating arts education. Arts participation may be delivered within the core curriculum, or though extra-curricular or cultural trips which can be subject to financial barriers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There is some evidence to suggest a causal link between arts education and the use of arts-based approaches with overall educational achievement. Where the arts are being taught as a means to boost academic achievement for less advantaged students, schools should carefully monitor whether this aim is being achieved.

Arts participation relates to a broad range of subjects including traditional fine arts, theatre, dance, poetry, and creative writing. It also includes teaching strategies which explicitly include arts elements, such as drama-based pedagogy.

Some components of arts education approaches might include:

  • Explicit teaching of creative skills and techniques.
  • Opportunities for students to practice, reflect on their strengths and identify areas for improvement.
  • Access to materials, equipment, extra-curricular activities and cultural experiences.

Arts education may be organised as regular lessons or monthly activities, after school clubs, small group or one-on-one tuition or whole school approaches. Activities can also be delivered through more intensive programs such as summer schools or residential courses.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

The average cost of arts participation is expected to be very low, with costs ranging from very low to high depending on the type of provision. Costs to schools are largely based on teacher professional development and resources. Costs are greater where activities fall outside of the school day or involve small group or one to one tuition from specialist teachers.

Implementing arts participation will require a small amount of additional staff time compared with other approaches as it is part of the core curriculum. Arts activities may also involve professional artists, or certified drama or music teachers.

Alongside time and cost, school leaders should consider how to maximise professional development needs of staff to effectively integrate arts activities (such as drama, visual arts or music) in the classroom and evaluate their impact on student outcomes.

The security of the evidence around arts participation is rated as moderate. 80 studies were identified. The topic lost a padlock because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies80
Review last updatedJuly 2021