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The full measure of an arts education

A school for the arts is not a factory that churns out artists, but a place for young people to discover how the arts enhance their learning.

News last month that fewer than three in 10 School of the Arts (Sota) graduating students go on to pursue arts-related university courses stirred debate, with some saying this was too low a figure and asking if taxpayers' dollars were well spent in funding such a school.

Those remarks invited heartfelt responses from a handful of Sota alumni and their parents, who defended the school and its programme and detailed the tremendous benefits of an arts education.

Sota is the only secondary school here with a dedicated arts programme. Singapore's other arts schools offer programmes at tertiary level. The other secondary schools that offer specialised programmes include the Singapore Sports School, the School of Science and Technology, Singapore and the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science. At NUS High, some seven in 10 students go on to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) courses in university.

But the Sota-NUS High comparison may not be apt when one considers why Sota was set up in the first place. When it was first mooted in 2004, the aim was not to set up a vocational school aimed solely at producing arts practitioners.

Instead, the committee that drew up the report on a School for the Arts back in 2004 said such a school would give students at the pre-tertiary level a strong foundation in the arts, and plug a gap in mainstream schools which lacked teaching resources and opportunities to expose students to an arts learning environment. Sota students, the committee said, would be "better positioned to pursue higher education in the arts or arts-related fields, or apply their artistic and creative capabilities in other fields". That, in turn, would support Singapore's plans to develop its own artistic talents in its push to position itself as a "global city for the arts", and provide new opportunities for those with creative aspirations as society matures.

WHAT NUMBERS DON'T SAY

To secure a place in Sota, Primary 6 pupils have to go through individual or group auditions in the art form they are interested in, whether music or dance. They may also have to prepare a portfolio of their artistic works, and are interviewed by the school's arts teachers.

Once admitted, Sota students embark on a six-year programme which culminates in an International Baccalaureate diploma. In the first two years, students are also exposed to art forms other than the one they are specialising in. They also study a full slate of academic subjects, including science and mathematics.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The arts are often integrated into the academic subjects and that allows students to approach what they are learning from multiple perspectives. So a music student may, for example, demonstrate during physics class how the pitch of a violin is adjusted and how that corresponds to sound frequency. Dance students may apply the principles of cultural anthropology to carry out research on different dance cultures.

As the Sota committee said in its 2004 report, an arts education can help students develop critical thought and creative expression, nurture self-development and leadership qualities, and also enrich their study of other subjects.

Whether or not a Sota student pursues a university degree in the arts is a poor indicator of the school's success. Some Sota alumni have moved into law or the humanities after graduation, but continue to contribute to the arts scene, with some starting arts education programmes and others founding literary magazines. Yet others apply their ability to think critically and independently in the non-arts disciplines they have ventured into.

All this is consistent with the national push to encourage lifelong learning and with the SkillsFuture movement which emphasises that learning is a personal endeavour and that every person should be given the autonomy to decide when and how to apply the skills and knowledge they have acquired, and have the flexibility to switch from one industry to another depending on interest and market demand.

The other thing to note is that Sota is a very young school, having been founded in 2008, which means it is just approaching its 10th year. It may be premature to size up its impact on society at this stage. The proportion of students entering arts courses at university excludes students who left Sota before completing the six-year programme to pursue tertiary studies in the arts, at institutions like the National University of Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music or the Central School of Ballet in London, as well as those who return to work full-time in the arts sector after working professionally in another discipline.

Singapore Management University Associate Professor Margaret Chan says: "It should not be seen as a failure of Sota that their graduates go on to non-arts courses." She studied business administration at university before becoming an actress and earning a PhD in performance studies later. "Art is about meaning-making; it is understanding ourselves and society, reaching into ourselves and out to others," she adds.

ROOM FOR CHANGE

The recent debate has, however, served a useful purpose in surfacing questions about the teaching of the arts and how arts careers are perceived. That is partly due to reports that a sizeable number of teachers have left Sota of late, with some citing a disconnect between educators and management on how the arts should be taught.

Mr Charles Tee, a parent of a Sota alumnus, also wrote to The Straits Times Forum to register his unhappiness that Sota seems to be chasing after academic excellence at the expense of artistic development.

The question of what balance to strike between arts education and a rigorous academic curriculum is one that Sota's management needs to address, Sota teachers told The Straits Times.

A related issue is the widespread perception among Singaporeans, including some parents of Sota students, that to pursue a career in the arts is to court unemployment and hardship.

Sota alumna Faye Tan, 21, who left Sota after four years for the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London, says young people are discouraged by pessimistic labels attached to arts careers, such as "risky, difficult, poor and unappreciated". Now a full-time company artist and digital marketing manager at contemporary dance company Frontier Danceland, she says there is also no need for Sota alumni to limit themselves to pursuing the arts as a hobby just because they are not training full-time or extensively in the arts.

Theatre practitioner and Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun believes there is no lack of career options in the arts. But society's perceptions of artists need to change, he says.

"We need artists to be respected. A lot of people still see artists as just entertainers or, for some, trouble-makers because they tackle difficult issues. Artists need to be seen as being as important as scientists, economists and entrepreneurs," he says. It is also important that people respect artistic work, he adds, as that reflects their appreciation of the time and effort the artist has invested in art making.

PATHS FOR DIFFERENT TALENTS

At the official opening of Sota in 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the school demonstrates how Singapore is opening up multiple paths to different talents, giving artistically-inclined students every opportunity to excel. He added that Sota's mission is "not to produce a single peak of excellence, along which everybody is trying to climb, but a whole mountain range with many peaks".

"Each person then chooses his own area of interest or focus, areas where he wants to put in his passion and his effort, and to excel and do well. And ultimately, we want to have lots of people standing on top of all of the mountains."

He had also forecast that many Sota graduates would go on to professions not directly related to aesthetics, such as medicine or engineering, but maintained that an education in the arts is of value in itself. Addressing Sota students, he said: "I hope whatever you do, your training in the arts will equip you with a more comprehensive perspective and way of thinking and add an extra touch to the new profession which you will learn."

As Singapore's only dedicated arts school at the pre-tertiary level, Sota is an important source of arts education.

National Institute of Education don Jason Tan notes that the school also provides an avenue for pedagogical innovation. Sota, he says, can develop creative models for imparting skills and content through the arts that other schools can consider adopting.

To pin the value of such a school to the percentage of students that go on to pursue arts degrees is reductionist. A better approach is to see where a Sota education is working so as to draw out lessons for other educators and schools, and critique those aspects that are not working and in need of change.

There will always be a place for the arts in society, and it is fitting that young people who are eager for an arts education have access to a secondary school that offers them just that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'The full measure of an arts education'. Print Edition | Subscribe