A Vision of the Future for Arts Education

Neville Engelbrecht, Director of the Arts Education Department at the Grahamstown foundation (South Africa), answers some questions about the challenges of Arts Education, and his vision for the future.

“Studies show that knowledge of dance develops attributes of creative thought, including originality, fluidity and an ability of abstraction. Theatre teaches us to understand complex situations and incites us to reflect on the motivations of others as well as honing our interpersonal skills. Learning music increases the capacity of reasoning and makes use of the abstract thinking needed in mathematics.” -Steven Brault, Canada Council for the Arts

What is arts education?

Arts Education for me is a very fundamental ingredient that is lacking in our education system in general. We try to fill that gap by providing the youth with our arts-based festivals and other projects.

It promotes collaboration, communication and direct interaction in a non-threatening “neutral” environment. Most importantly, it enables a significant boost of self-esteem and confidence and in doing so, facilitates the discovering of the values of co-operation and empathy that the ensuing self-realisation fosters. This can only mean a healthy society in general.

What is the aim of arts education?

Our aim mainly, is to facilitate the unlocking of the potential for creative thought and imagination within the youth. Whether they become scientists or accountants, we want them to be creative in whatever they do in life and to be confident in their abilities as human beings. Of course we are also interested in encouraging and nurturing an appreciation for the arts as well, but the focus is on spiritually and emotionally healthy future South Africans.

Why is it so important?

For me, especially in the South African context, I think it is absolutely essential that we have arts education. Arts education is not really about creating the next best actor, or director, or whatever.

Whether you become a scientist or an accountant or a lawyer, it is so essential to be creative, to think creatively in life.

The whole point of it is to unlock people’s minds, to get them to think creatively, to get them to think laterally, and in so doing, actually improve their lives immeasurably.

What is your vision for South African Arts Education?

The main ideal would be that schools actually include arts education in their curriculum and that there would be more support and more interest. That would mean in a sense that we wouldn’t be necessary because we fill a huge gap in their education curriculum. But realistically, I think that instead of reaching 15-16000 kids during the year with our projects in arts education, I would like to grow those numbers. I would love to see more support from business and from education and from the government for our projects.

Festivals have been growing over the years; I mean it’s been going for over 37 years since Professor Guy Butler came up with the idea and it started as this tiny small Shakespeare festival for local schools and it’s grown from there. First it was the National Schools Festival in Grahamstown, then it became regional and over the years it’s just been growing and growing. It’s still growing but we’re pretty much limited to the capacity of the venues we go to. We don’t have many of those 1000 seater theatres around the country, so we end up having double festivals in some places just so we can cope with the demand.

It’s a pie in the sky for now, but part of my dream of where I want to see arts education is to be able to go right back to the start, not drop what we’ve got but build on what we have. I would really love to be able to have the capacity to reach even younger learners and expose them to the Arts as young as possible. By the end of primary school would be ideal because learners at that age are that much more receptive. I think if it was spread both towards the end of primary and the end of high school, which would be ideal, but that would be a whole other project in itself.

-Jade Fernley, 2010


The 2011 Arts Education Team (from left):  Neville Engelbrecht (Director), Derralyn Short (Manager), Lily May (Senior Administrator), Benita Rama (Marketing Officer), Niki Searle (Olympiad Officer)

About Schools Festival

The Grahamstown Foundation’s Arts Education Department runs several provincial festivals throughout South Africa. Festivals include the Sasol Schools Festival Series (Mpumalanga, Free State/Northern Cape, and Gauteng) for Grade Elevens and the Standard Bank National Schools Festival for Matrics. Our project serves to ignite a passion for South African arts and develop artists and arts consumers with a culture of ‘paying for the arts’. Self-expression and bridge-building between individuals and communities are focal points while platforms for performance encourage audiences to engage with the best South Africa has to offer encouraging emerging artists to discover and develop their own artistic skills. Some 6,000 participants benefit from these programmes nationally over the period of a year. The need is evident from the enormous demand by schools. Participants from across a wide economic divide get to literally ‘rub shoulders’ because the projects attract large numbers of participants from the most rural schools to the most wealthy. Opportunities to engage with diverse arts experiences is rare, as are opportunities for artistic performance and assessment. The festivals expose the youth to professional work and hands-on workshop experiences with artists. They also engage with intellectuals in lectures and demonstrations. Professionals are drawn from national experts committed to establishing a creative nurturing ground and a sustainable arts industry. Our Educational objectives are to supplement the often under-funded and under-resourced arts and culture components of school curricula recognised as essential to holistic education, by submerging learners in an intensive arts experience that is absent in schools. Further objectives are to expose learners to a range of genres, arts opportunities and career options while encouraging them to further explore opportunities in the arts.
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