As chief executive of Arts Council England, Darren Henley is on a mission to help provide children – whatever their background – with a well-rounded arts education. In the latest edition of Overseas, he talks to Ross Davies about how encouraging creativity in the classroom can open up new avenues to the stars of tomorrow. 

In the celebrated film Billy Elliot there is one particular scene which always stands out.

A dejected young Billy is standing before a snooty review board from the Royal Ballet School, having punched another young hopeful at an earlier audition. For all the world, it looks like his chances of attaining a place at the prestigious institution have been blown. But just as he turns to head for the door, a member of the panel asks: “What does it feel like when you're dancing?”

Billy ponders, before replying: “Don't know. Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going... then I like, forget everything. And... sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I've got this fire in my body. I'm just there. Flyin' like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.”

Nearly two decades since the film’s release (2000), it still packs a punch. It’s the moment where Billy, who hails from a tough mining town in the northeast – the film is set during the 1984 miners’ strike – fully understands the natural talent of which he is in possession. Hitherto, he has relied on raw instinct – in the face of much initial opposition from his friends and family. As his father tells him at one point: “Lads do football... or boxing... or wrestling. Not friggin' ballet.”

Of course, there is a happy ending (spoiler alert for the uninitiated). Billy is accepted into the Royal Ballet School, going on to star in Matthew Bourne’s acclaimed 1998 version of Swan Lake. While the film may now be 19 years old – and retrospective by its very nature – it still throws up questions pertinent to the here and now.

What if every child could describe feeling as Billy does? That electricity. How many children up and down this country – particularly in deprived areas – are sitting on an untapped talent, but are unable to locate it though a lack of encouragement or funding? What if every young person keen to explore the arts – whether it be dance, acting or music – had a Mrs Wilkinson (Billy’s inspirational teacher played by Julie Walters) to help nurture that potential?

To hear Darren Henley tell it, the answer to these questions can be found in a greater emphasis being placed on the arts and creative subjects in the educational system. Henley, who became chief executive of Arts Council England in 2014, is very much of the belief that children should be offered a well-rounded arts education from the moment they first set foot in a classroom.

“I absolutely believe that every young person should have a cultural education that includes the likes of art, design, dance, drama and music,” he says. “When you look at education, it shouldn’t be a binary decision between what is essentially a 19th century faculty system of the arts and humanities versus science. It shouldn’t be seen as being two separate routes. For me, it’s all as one.”

Before succeeding Alan Davey at the helm of ACE, Henley undertook two independent reviews – commissioned by the Departments for Education and Culture, Media and Sport – into the funding and delivery of music education in England. Prior to that, he had been managing director of Classic FM.

In one of the aforementioned reviews, Henley was critical of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), finally launched by the government in 2017, EBacc constitutes a set of five GCSE subjects deemed to be looked upon more favourably by universities. Those subjects include English; maths; the sciences; history or geography; and a modern language.

The absence of a sixth arts-based subject still clearly raises Henley’s hackles. Could it be, I put to him, that in this country, we have a traditional tendency to allocate less educational weight to subjects that are – for want of a better word – fun?


“That’s absolutely right,” he says. “We really need to debunk this myth that creative and cultural subjects are in some way an easy option. On the contrary, they are rigorous and help to develop knowledge and skills at a critical faculty.

“One of the other things that concerns me is this idea that an education is all to be judged in the amount of money you make further down the line in your career. This has been something that has been put up against humanities subjects for some time now. I absolutely reject that. A measure of what you give back to society is not based around how much income you make.”

Worryingly, it would seem that not everybody operating in educational circles shares Henley’s unequivocal passion for the arts. According to a recent BBC survey taken of more than 1,2000 secondary schools across England, more than 40% claimed to have been forced to make cutbacks to creative arts subjects.

The same schools revealed they were spending less money on arts facilities and had reduced timetabled arts lessons. Music lessons have suffered in particular, with some schools no longer able to afford instruments. Consequently, costs are passed onto parents, while school orchestras have become increasingly dependent on donations from outside sources.

More worrying still, schools watchdog Ofsted has come out in support of giving precedence to traditional academic subjects – more commonly known as STEM subjects – as the best route into the top universities. For Henley, though, this one-or-the-other dichotomy is far from helpful. It also doesn’t chime with Britain’s historic reputation as a hotbed of artistic talent.

“Britain might be going through some interesting times right now,” he says, in a thinly-veiled reference to Brexit. “But, on the international stage, what cannot be disputed is the creativity of what is a relatively small island. Our influence on the areas of drama, film and music is far, far greater than the size of our population suggests.”

To be sure, the UK’s creative industries are reported to be worth £100 billion, growing faster than both the financial services and manufacturing sectors. Yet, investment in the arts isn’t always seen to be forthcoming. The Arts Council’s spend is mainly contingent on the government – largely intent on reining in spending – while schools, as aforementioned, are forced to make do amid financially straitened times. So, who should be leading from the front on all of this?

“I don’t think it’s really the responsibility of any one group,” says Henley. “It’s the responsibility of everybody. In my role I’ve met some amazing head teachers who encourage the arts. Local authorities also have a very strong part of play, as do artistic organisations, museums, libraries.”

As a very much a hands-on individual, Henley spends a lot of time on the road, including visits to more deprived communities. This has left him in no doubt that more needs to be done to address the widening chasm between the kind of cultural exposure enjoyed by privately-educated children and those on free school meals.

“It’s really important that young people who come from tougher socio-economic backgrounds have the same opportunities as those who – by virtue of luck – are born into more economically rich environments,” he says.

“One of the things you see whenever you meet a young person who has been given the opportunity to be creative is that they are being presented a set of possibilities that are outside the norm of what they have been used to. It can take you on a journey that allows you an insight into things that are way beyond your everyday experiences. That then opens up the possibility of what you can do with your life – sometimes in a way that some of the more knowledge-based subjects just can’t.”

To distil the argument to its very core, a well-rounded arts education is an antidote to a homogenous society – sometimes even in the most unexpected of places.

“I’ve spent a lot of time around employers working in the likes of medicine, science and accounting, and they often tell me they need more people who are able to think outside the box, think new thoughts and do things in new ways. This is precisely the thing creative subjects develop young people for.

“It’s about creating the next generation of critical thinkers and creative young people.”

Read more articles from behind the scenes of the art world in the latest edition, here.

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