CHAPTER – this is the third ‘scratch’ of some text for a book I am writing called Everyday Uses for Creativity in Public Life – Dec 1st 2019
I am still chewing over last month’s Scratch. In other words, I can’t face reading it. Thanks for feedback emails – which were very helpful. I plan to return to it next month with a bit more distance – and think about what it means for the structure of the book.
This month I have been thinking about creativity and education. It is a bit less theoretical and a bit more personal…it’s another Scratch…
A couple of weeks ago I asked a primary school pupil here in Devon whether her teachers use the word creativity in class? Or whether creativity is taught in lessons?
So listen up, I should declare that this kid was creative-savvy. Her parents work in the creative industries; along with a couple of million others. So even though my tone was meticulously neutral, I expect she knew why this this deeply dull dad was pursuing this line of enquiry. She was probably only humouring me because her mum was giving her that look.
Nevertheless, her response was remarkable.
The predictable part of her answer was that, no, the discussion and development of creativity was not a thing in her primary school. But when I asked whether there were opportunities to use her imagination at school she replied: “Definitely not, a boy in my class answered a question using his imagination and he got a warning.”
Allegedly, the unfortunate boy had written an answer to a question in English comprehension by imagining what might have happened; instead of saying what did happen. As a result he received an official warning which is step one of the school’s disciplinary process. “Creativity is not taught and no form of imagination is encouraged!” she confidently restated like a mini-Ofsted inspector from hell.
I shuddered a bit. That evening I checked out the school’s website. No sign of a school-wide immersive theatre production of 1984. Instead, the Head Teacher declared on the front page of the site that she ran an inclusive and creative school. Her tone seemed genuine and warm. So perhaps that boy in English simply got a warning because he was bloody annoying. I was a teacher for two years in secondary schools and I can testify to just how creatively bloody annoying children can be. I know I certainly was.
The reason I was asking my friend’s daughter about her experience at school is because it has recently become my job to assess local primary schools. My three-year old is due to start in ‘Reception Class’ next September and we have to choose our preference of four local primaries. Our research to date has involved viewing school websites, undertaking daytime school tours and asking friends’ children about what they think of their school. So it’s a study with limited scope! Even so, one thing has stood out…wow, things have changed.
My eldest daughter went to primary school twenty years ago. It is striking how much the philosophy and approach of Michael Gove and Nick Gibb is now tangible: from the way the teachers describe the curriculum to the school timetable to what’s on the walls of each classroom. The curriculum focus is clear; with an almost martial whiff; on literacy, numeracy and knowledge.
And I am a fan. Contrary to what you might expect from someone who has worked in theatre, I think there’s plenty that is good about this primary curriculum. In the past it has been too easy for schools to fail children; the evidence for poor standards of literacy and numeracy is substantial – and it’s been especially felt by children who don’t receive any learning support at home. Rigorously learning times tables, a more uncompromising approach to developing literacy, and soaking up relevant knowledge – bring it on! As someone who struggles to read books as an adult, I would love to have experienced a bit more oomph when it came to literacy and reading when I was at school.
But from my limited survey of local primaries there is also something staggeringly stupid about the changes brought about by Gove and Gibb – which almost make me want to home school my own youngest daughter. They have created an educational model which struggles to find time to take creativity seriously. The profoundly dumb and dumber consequence of their ideology has been to shape a school environment, pedagogical process and testing regime, which works on the basis that children learn in the same way, at the same time and at the same age. Say it enough times, write it down enough times, test it enough times, and you WILL learn it. From surveying local primaries, it is clear that the idea of employing children’s creativity to help them learn new skills and soak up new knowledge has been side-lined – and in some cases altogether dumped.
As toddlers we use our ability to think divergently and act creatively to test out lots of different ideas. Often to humorous effect. But entertainment is not our goal; we’re constantly gathering feedback from those around us about what we do. And thus we learn. By trying stuff out. Walking. Talking. Playing. Listening. Learning. (Something I have talked about before.) So the idea that when we get to primary school we should change the fundamental way that we have learned EVERYTHING since birth; from doing and trying stuff; to sitting, listening, thinking and repeating; is utter madness. Who the fuck thought that was a good idea? Well yes, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb are the latest in a long line who did. Even if with good intentions.
Now at this point, in any argument about the lack of creativity in our school system, especially by someone who used to work in theatre, it would be reasonable to expect Ken Robinson to be quoted and championed. Why aren’t our schools following Ken Robinson’s creative advice and approach? And the truth is that I do love a bit of Ken. But to be absolutely honest, I am not wholly convinced that any school run by Ken Robinson would suit a lot of children either.
I love his memorable anecdotes in which he rails against an inflexible and uncreative education system. As someone who struggled with academic attainment, I recognise many of the things that he says as true to my own experience of school. But I am also troubled by the way he often points to creativity as a pathway to artistry. Like the story of Gillian Lynne, who can’t sit still and is struggling at school. You might know it?
Ken tells us that Gillian is struggling in school and as a last resort is sent to educational specialists. He tells us that thanks to the insight of an enlightened doctor she begins to attend a dance school. As a result Gillian Lynne turns out to be a Royal Ballet dancer and the choreographer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera. She clearly needed “to move to think” and instead of becoming a troublesome child in a conventional school, she develops in to a world famous artist. Ken highlights the value of Gillian’s creativity and illustrates how the school system did not know how to support its development. The story makes your heart sing. But I think it’s also true that Ken Robinson’s work is easily misinterpreted – and this is partly because it so readily promotes the connection between creativity and artistry in schools. And some people just don’t think like that.
I am sitting in a meeting with Nick Gibb MP the schools minister. It is about 2013. There are about seven or eight of us who have come to meet him; most of us run a cultural organisation of the sort that Gillian, and people like her, might have thrived in. We have come to talk to the schools minister about the increasing lack of creativity in schools. We all play our part in the good natured choreography of the meeting. Mainly we all dance on the spot and get nowhere. But the stand out moment of the meeting is when a colleague mentions Ken Robinson and his approach to education. Nick Gibb MP interrupts and offers a mini-tirade. He describes Ken Robinson as “the enemy”. He says that Ken represents an element of the educational establishment who “must be defeated”.
Talk about touching on a nerve. I have often remembered this moment since that meeting. Because when I have been involved in debates about the decline of cultural education, the government’s EBACC and so on, there seems to be an ideological schism between Govians on the one side who talk of educational rigour and knowledge – and King Ken fans on the other who demand that cultural subjects must be strongly represented in the curriculum. The debate in recent years has been dominated by a cry that “the arts” should be inserted in to STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – to create STEAM.
And these sorts of arguments have been playing out for a decades.
In the Tory and Lib Dem White paper in 2010, Govian principles set out “profound structural change and rigorous attention to standards” as a response to what Gove saw as a ‘cluttered curriculum’ in the years of New Labour from 1997 to 2010;. This was a period which included the national “Creative Partnerships” programme which Gove and Cameron duly cancelled.
Then you go back another decade to a time when the Creative Partnerships programme was initiated by New Labour, placing artists inside primary and secondary schools. The idea was to boost creative practice across the education system and is described as a response to concerns that “the establishment of the National Curriculum in 1988 and the National Literacy and Numeracy strategies in 1998 and 1999…[have meant] that creativity and innovative approaches to teaching may have been unintentionally constrained.”
And each time you go back a decade (or so) you can find the latest knee-jerk response to the previous knee-jerk response.
Michael Gove actually articulates the schism in a speech to the Ofqual Standards Committee in 2011: “On the one hand, you have those people who believe in rigour, who instantly morph into Charles Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind, demanding facts alone. And on the other hand, those people who believe there’s room for free play and creativity in education are sometimes caricatured as the offspring of AS Neill, the headteacher responsible for Summerhill, the school in which it was entirely up to children how they spent their time every day.”
Gove caricatured and ridiculed both ends of the swingometer – and then managed, over the coming years as Education Secretary, to go on to perpetuate the decades-old struggle between two ideologies, with his educational reforms.
Of course, the sad reality is that our schools are the territory on which this turf war is played out; and teachers and children are blown in both directions with every change of government.
But what if both sides are a bit right?
Did anyone stop to think that the reason why this contradictory turf warfare plays out is because some people benefit from learning through an academic approach and some people benefit from a creative approach? And that they’ve been fighting it out for decades!
Of course, the reality for most of us is that we benefit from both. And if we accept one of these approaches as beneficial it does not make the other dangerous.
Surely we need to have academic learning in our primary schools which successfully supports us to develop excellent levels of literacy, numeracy and knowledge. And surely we would be absolute idiots to create an education system which does not seek to super-charge children’s creativity in such a crucial developmental period of their lives. Not least because creativity is one of our most useful tools for learning new things. But also because by all thinking creatively we are more likely to embrace the fact that we all learn in different ways and at different times.
Of course, if we accept that both arguments are a bit right, then there is a problem…and perhaps this is another reason why this endless fight has been going on for years…it is not easy for both to be right in a classroom of twenty to thirty children.
I remember this from my own teaching experience. It is very hard to provide a balanced mix of learning – both academic and creative – when you are managing a large group of children. It’s just really hard to make it work because as a teacher you are trying to do too many things at once.
On our recent school visits it was interesting that the smallest primary school we visited was the one which we felt was closest to achieving both academic and creative learning. It was a school of around 40 kids with class sizes of about twelve – rather than a school of 300 with class sizes of about 25. In the smaller school you often had two or three year groups in the same class. And there was a greater ratio of teachers to students. This created the opportunity for students to accelerate or decelerate learning but still remain socially connected to the students in their age group. In this school while a learning support teacher worked in detail with two or three children, the class teacher adopted more creative approaches to work with the rest of the class – and the rest of the class was about seven or eight children!
As the Education Policy Institute reports “Pupil numbers have risen by around 10 % since 2010 – while teacher numbers have remained steady. This means that pupil-to-teacher ratios have risen from around 15.5 in 2010 to nearly 17 by 2018.” This is in contrast to private schools which often boast of ratios of one teacher for every 9 or 10 of their students. And we wonder why the private education system finds more time for culture and creativity?!
In terms of education policy, could it be more productive, rather than fighting from entrenched positions, that we sought to value both academic and creative learning? Both need to be rigorous if they are to be effective. The challenge is that if our schools are to deliver both then they require a significant injection of investment to increase teacher capacity.
In some senses that’s the easy bit. Perhaps the harder bit is ending the turf war that has played out in our schools for decades. The argument should not be about whether our kids are learning science, technology, engineering, maths or art, drama, dance and creative writing. The debate we need to have together is “the way” we teach our children all subjects: in a way that excites those with academic flair and stimulates those with creative flair; remembering that most have a bit of both.
In my recent research, as a parent of a prospective primary school child, a document I was most surprised to discover was published by OFSTED in 2010. It is called Learning: creative approaches that raise standards and sets out how more than 40 schools have used creative pedagogical approaches to improve attainment. If there is evidence of OFSTED engaging in this territory, surely it’s not beyond us to stop arguing about what we are teaching are kids and have a more grown up conversation about the way our kids are taught.
As a parent, that’s the conversation I want to have. I am pretty sure that if someone had taught me how to read in a more creative way, at the right age, I wouldn’t now break out in a sweat, when I have to read something longer than a page.
I was excited by the recent Durham Commission report which represents a shift in the debate: away from shouting “STEAM not STEM!” towards something more nuanced which seeks to celebrate creativity more broadly in schools. But I was surprised that its recommendations failed to grasp the nettle: that it is “the way” we teach our children which enables them to go on to be successful learners – both academic and creative.
Could we replace historic fights about the curriculum with a more collaborative effort to come together to debate “the way” that different children learn – and therefore the way we should teach – and therefore the way schools should operate.
Thanks for reading. Any feedback can come in whatever form suits you: an email to me (mrdavidjubb at gmail.com] or blog comment or tweet.