Photo credit: David Choi


Jon Nicholls is the Director of Creativity & Arts at Thomas Tallis School, our latest Achieve Your Greatness partner. His background is wide ranging and steeped in the arts. In addition to running his department and teaching, hes the cofounder of

Currently in our final week of our blues themed Achieve Your Greatness programme at Thomas Tallis School, we caught up with Jon about all things arts education

Describe an average day at school for you

Thankfully, none of my days are “average”. It’s probably the reason why I’m still at Thomas Tallis School after all these years. I feel very fortunate to still enjoy being in the classroom which occupies just over half my week. I teach from Year 9 to 13. I manage the school’s websites and social media. This has become an increasingly important part of my job. I lead on creativity which means promoting the use of our Tallis Habits of mind across the curriculum (these have been featured in three books on education this year), collaborating with colleagues in and out of school and thinking of new ways to develop students’ creative capacities (like this partnership with the Abram Wilson Foundation). I tend to have a smattering of meetings across the week and spend a bit of time out of school, usually at cultural institutions discussing new or existing partnerships. I am often at evening events in school, supporting the arts.


What is the biggest challenge youre facing at school at the moment

The two biggest challenges currently in schools are the negative effects of performance league tables and the lack of money. The former tends to distort our idea of the purposes of education, distracting schools from thinking about what makes for a good education and coercing them into a competitive mindset. The cuts imposed as a consequence of the “fair” funding formula are having a negative effect on our ability to resource education for our young people at the level we would prefer.


What is the biggest challenge your students are facing

The new specifications at KS4 (and KS5) are more demanding in terms of knowing and remembering subject content. Students are having to learn to master a huge amount of material and this can be a challenge. I feel a great deal of sympathy for young people who experience anxiety and stress as a consequence of this change in expectation.


Do you consider the arts an essential part of a childs education? If so, why

The arts are of fundamental importance in education. The arts provide many opportunities for young people to explore their relationship to the world, to exercise and test their subjectivity, to explore ethical issues and develop their habits of mind. I’m not of the opinion that the arts, or creativity for that matter makes you a good person, there have been very many examples of highly creative people who were appallingly behaved persons. However, if the arts are taught well, if the quality of pedagogy, materials, resources and experiences is high, then I believe that, of all the disciplines in the curriculum, the arts provide the most powerful means for young people to know themselves and the world so that they can change it for the better.


Can you tell us about the changes that are happening to arts education in schools

Arts education in schools is suffering for a number of reasons. High stakes accountability structures, the EBacc, myths about requirements for ‘top’ universities, an obsession with the cognitive over the haptic or affective etc. etc. We have lost, to some extent, a sense of education for the head, heart and hands. The ideology of competition, between schools and countries, is in danger of distorting for successive generations, a commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum. It is very sad that state education has become a much narrower affair (especially when one considers that most private schools still offer and very rich artistic and cultural education). The right of young people to access high quality arts education seems to have been ignored as many schools marginalise the arts in favour of the core subjects which count so much in league table positions. I can’t help but feel that the nation will be the poorer for it (literally, morally and spiritually) in the future if we don’t reverse this trend.


What impact do you foresee this having on students

I believe all students need access to the arts in order to make sense of their cultural heritages, to feel a sense of belonging, to explore their status as citizens, to learn to collaborate with others, to develop a sense of their place in the world. Removing the arts from young people’s lives in school means that their understanding of these things is limited by their home circumstances, their peers and the powerful, coercive influence of the media. Schools can help students to become more literate (not just with language) but with images, media products, and a wide range of cultural forms. This kind of critical visual literacy can and must be taught in schools since so many of the messages young people receive are ideologically formulated. Understanding how to ‘read’ these messages is vital for democracy and for individual wellbeing.


If you had a magic wand, what would you change in today’s education system and why

I would remove school league tables. Whilst I’d like to believe that this system of accountability was introduced for good reason – to improve the quality of young people’s education – I think it has had some unfortunate, damaging and possibly unforeseen impacts on schools. It’s not something you find in other countries where the quality of education is high across the board. There are other ways to improve education that promote challenge through collaboration rather than competition.


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