Creativity is GREAT : so why would Britain cut its nose to spite its face?

Designer, Inventor and Inspirator Dominic Wilcox in UKTI Creativity campaign

Creativity warms our hearts whether it’s Adele, Ricky Gervais, Lemn Sissay or Grayson Perry.

Creative new ways of working and innovation fuel our economy, whether it’s GSK, Dyson or ARM (you know the company who make the computer chip in just about everything from your washing machine to smartphones and tablets. The company that was just sold to the Japanese).

So why are creativity and creative ways of teaching our children in UK schools such dirty words to many educators, commentators and policy makers?

And why don’t parents value it, when employers and head teachers, like the one in this 20 second film, so clearly do?

All change.

For ten years we’ve walked, scootered and cycled our sons to our local primary half a mile down the road. This week, as a first day of term treat and to ensure they got there on time avoiding the 45 minute, two bus, one train commute, we drove them to their new secondary where they both started in Years 7 and 9.

At the end of last term they both had places at the £90m new-build Holland Park School which Ofsted says is ‘Outstanding’ and others call the ‘Eton of Comprehensives’ and which is just ten minutes away on the bus. So no, not a case of paranoid, pushy, helicopter parenting and top school targetting.

Two years previously, our eldest had won one of 20 or so coveted ‘Art Aptitude’ places at Holland Park School for which apparently nearly a thousand had applied. Over the last few years the helicoptered-in super head there has saved this once legendary school from the developers’ bulldozers and turned it around. Our youngest was due to join Year 7 this week with Michael Gove’s son.

So much for art aptitude. Last term the school dust-sheeted the state of the art design and technology department and replaced the head of art with a languages teacher. Moreover our son has had next to no computing in two years (beyond a trip to a local branch of Barclays Bank for a coding lesson.), But that’s OK because being an academy they can get away with it as they don’t have to follow the national curriculum.

Holland Park School offers great teaching and learning. They get great results and all resource is focused in that direction. The head teacher did say at an open evening the school wasn’t for everyone. He was right: but it is no longer the school our son applied for either.

We were also told that we were unusual, as parents, to value creativity.

So we took them out in the last week of last term and this week they started at Acland Burghley School in Camden whose Ofsted report says ‘Requires Improvement’ which makes for great headlines in the local newspaper and maybe explains how we managed to get places so easily. 

Are we mad?

As for the reason we took them out of Holland Park, well that quite simply comes down to the impact that the government’s (and Michael Gove’s) English Baccalaureate (EBacc) policy is having on secondary schools and that one in particular.

Despite protestations from the Department of Education that schools should provide a broad and balanced curriculum beyond the EBacc subjects, the fact is that they aren’t.

Budgets are tight and getting tighter and therefore focussed on what schools are measured on and parents conditioned to want by the ‘back to basics’ headlines in newspapers.

Many people — educationists, ministers, artists, industrialists and, surprisingly, even a few parents, passionately feel the EBacc is marginalising creativity, the arts, technology and vocational subjects in secondary schools.

I wrote about how, as a humble dad I stumbled into the area of creativity in education, and the EBacc in this blog post.

But I will include again here this thought-provoking two-minute introduction to the EBacc and its impact by Bill Watkin, a highly respected UK education expert. In it he cites research among employers that reveals the most desirable qualification for prospective employees to be… drama. Yet it isn’t in the national curriculum.

‘What would Churchill do?” 2 minute talk by Bill Watkin on the impact of the EBacc.

But one thing really has struck me about all this and that is the almost brutal polarisation of views on education, and creativity in particular.

Don’t mention the C-word

It seems surprising that I’d have to spend so much time justifying a desire for a broad and balanced curriculum for my sons which embraces creativity it all its forms. Creativity is championed in business so why not in those dark corners of our some of our schools?

The Avatar of Andrew Old with 13.9k followers as an outspoken teacher tweeter, leader of Labour Teachers group and supporter, with Policy Exchange, of ResearchEd.

It’s also surprising that creativity and the creative industries should be under such pressure when they contribute around £80bn to the UK economy according to research by the Creative Industries Federation which campaigns fearlessly to raise the profile of arts and culture in the UK.

Post Brexit, you’d hope the UK would be looking for everything it can find to prop up the economy.

In this comprehensive creative response to Brexit by the BBC Front Row programme at the RSA recently, TV producer Phil Redmond described how arts and culture reinvigorated Liverpool and provided a foundation for growth.

BBC Radio 4 Front Row Brexit Creative Response at the RSA

Designer Wayne Hemmingway cites research that predicts an exodus of young people from the UK, lured by cities with creative cultures like Berlin and Brooklyn.

Writer Dreda Say Mitchell says that “Arts are being side-lined in schools as a hobby”.

Ricky Gervais @First Time’ on BBC Radio 6

In this fantastic interview on Radio 6 this last weekend, one of the UK’s greatest exports, Ricky Gervais cited the part creativity, music and artists from Elvis to David Bowie played in his life and inspiring his creativity.

The justification of the importance of creativity to the economy, society and us as people is everywhere. It’s what makes us human.

300m people can’t be wrong. Can they?

In some education circles I have to take a deep breath when I say that my journey up to my neck in creativity in education was prompted by a film by a bloke from Liverpool called Ken. Well actually, he’s more formally known as Sir Ken Robinson and that particular TED talk has had nearly 40m downloads and, he reckons been seen 300m times in various showings.

It’s a talk about how schools can kill creativity and given the exposure it’s had, “the message clearly resonates with someone” as Sir Ken says.

Despite near universal acclaim with creative audiences as well as businesses and governments, who pay Sir Ken very large sums to speak and offer advice, it provokes a polarised reaction in education circles, sometimes utter condemnation.

Indeed the more paranoid might feel that there’s a smear campaign against Sir Ken and others like him who promote a much needed fresh look at education in this changing world.

Only last year, Sir Ken was described in a review of his latest book ‘Creative Schools’ by Tom Bennett, an outspoken columnist in The Times Education Supplement (TES) as a “butcher being given a ticker tape parade by the national union of pigs”.

One can only assume that those pigs include parents like me who value a broad, balanced curriculum, creatives, businesses and government who value and respect Sir Ken’s work.

Not very nice to us, or him.

Is Dance as important as Maths or is Maths as important as Dance?

Sir Ken Robinson’s most recently filmed lecture this summer, the Cohan Lecture at the Place in London was called ‘is Dance as important as Maths?’, a title which he has to defend by saying he is “not arguing against maths” which he advocates as “an adventure for the human mind” and cites examples of university maths professor colleagues who look for creativity and visual flair in new maths papers.

Do watch this compelling and as always, highly entertaining talk below.

In his first TED talk Sir Ken says “creativity is as important as literacy” which provokes similar polarised responses, where many feel it devalues literacy.

Literacy and numeracy, dance and creativity are all critical, as Sir Ken’s stresses in his talks and work by others demonstrates.

Does what it says on the tin

So what could be behind this unpleasant denigration of Sir Ken?

As well as writing for the TES, Tom Bennett is also known as the Government’s Behaviour Tsar, his suitability for which was questioned by The Daily Mail.

After a period as a teacher, he now also leads an organisation called ResearchEd.

As the name might imply, they do great work helping teachers find out what works in schools through robust research methodologies and share best practice.

Indeed it is supported by some great teachers and academics from inside and beyond the classroom with a broad range of contributors from the schools minister Nick Gibb to the head of education at the liberal RSA and is seen and valued as a grass roots organisation representing hard working teachers.

Who’d argue with that, or them?

Indeed what’s not to like about an organisation with such a literal name that one would hope does what it says on the tin?

There’s an interesting parallel in this almost Orwellian doublespeak type naming, with ‘The Taxpayers Alliance’ which is on a worthy and populist mission to reduce tax paid/wasted..

Some might say that the logical conclusion of TTA and not paying much tax might be for there to be next to no public services to waste tax on with everything privatised, all totally in line with their confessed and declared right of centre, nay neoliberal politics.

Applying similar thinking to ResearchEd, it appears that they are only interested in researching certain subjects and educational approaches. For example where is the research into effective use of IT, project-based learning and flipped learning at the event this weekend? It just reinforces the view by many that there is a move to only ‘teach what you can test’ in UK schools.

Which is probably where creativity and the arts fall down, because they can be hard to assess and test, certainly using the standardised and automated multi choice tests of our increasingly conveyor belt education system where cost and effectiveness are king. And more expensive to teach in UK schools, which the CBI has referred to as “grim exam factories”.

Who pays the piper?

Some may find an alignment between ResearchEd’s objectives and those of Policy Exchange, initially set up years back and chaired by the expert educationist, Michael Gove. It’s therefore seen by many as a right-wing think tank which has significant impact on education policy and thinking.

Should people question why, unlike most think tank and lobby organisations, Policy Exchange (whose education director, Jonathan Simons, is also a regular columnist for The Times Education Supplement) refuse to admit a political bias or disclose sources of funding.

Leading UK teacher blog, @teachertoolkit recently featured a report and academic paper on Policy Exchange and how it had come bottom of an international survey of think thank transparency.

It’s common sense, isn’t it?

Many companies now look for people who can work well in teams. I’ve spoken to schools in very challenged areas who get fantastic results, highly engaged pupils and reduced behavioural issues by using cross curricula, project based learning. Aren’t these skills we should be teaching our children?

One ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ primary school in a challenged part of Greenwich I have visited structures its terms around an ‘Apprentice’ style project where the children research, brainstorm, learn and present their work.

They see their children as leaders and take them off the conveyor belt.

The cover of the event guide for the ResearchEd 2015 conference, produced and branded by TES, included a very strong put down of what are seen as progressive education approaches like learning styles and growth mindsets.

It’s almost as if there a special relationship between ResearchEd, Policy Exchange and the TES that is driving an education agenda?

Can we agree to differ?

We have to get away from this polarised view of traditional v progressive education, left brain .v right brain thinking and right .v. wrong views and find some common ground.

We have to bring together all the great minds we have in education, both within grass roots movements like ResearchEd and TeachMeets across the country as well as the thousands of hard working teachers in schools across the UK who have heard of neither.

The ‘Blue Sky DOING’ event I curated for STEAM Co. with Barclays Bank recently featured a wide range of speakers — creatives, business people, teachers and students to celebrate creativity and how it can engage children, innovate business and connect communities.

“Unleashing the power of art and creativity, that’s what it’s all about”
Ashok Vaswani : CEO Barclays

In it and a subsequent report, the CEO of Barclays talked about how we need to move beyond digitally enabling people with simple skills but empowering them to take control of their lives and businesses. How only a minority had benefited from the agricultural and industrial revolutions and that “this time we’re leaving no one behind”. But should it fall to a bank to teach us these digital and life skills?

Poet and Chancellor of the University of Manchester Lemn Sissay described how growing up in care homes, he’d seen how they focused on spreadsheets and institutionalised the process of caring to the point they didn’t seem to care, until a line was crossed.

Is the same happening in our schools? What, how and why are we teaching our children? Have we forgotten what education is for?

Who cares?

A broad and balanced curriculum for YOUR child?

So back to our new secondary school which would appear to offer the broad and balanced curriculum we want for our sons. It has a new and very impressive head-teacher and a great team of passionate and committed teachers with great facilities.

We were delighted to see our son’s new timetable come home featuring drama, dance, technology and computer studies in a single week at Year 7 and 9, all in addition to the EBacc subjects.

All is not lost. Let’s hope there’s a fair wind behind us, that a few more parents care to look closer and that in the next election our children’s education will be a real issue, beyond the stock manifesto line of ‘we will spend more on schools’.

Education shouldn’t be about money, well not necessarily about spending it and certainly not about making it but putting creativity at the heart of everything we do.

Nick Corston is a dad and creativity/literacy consultant and co-founder of non-profit social enterprise STEAM Co. that powers communities to inspire children with creativity.

Blog updates:

10:10:16 Parent information film released

While popular (300m views), TED talks like Sir Ken Robinson’s usually preach to the converted in their silos and echo chambers. We need to bring the conversation into the open and that needs new ways of telling the story.

This film by a young American spoken word artist had over a million views on YouTube in a week, and a staggering 135 million views on Facebook. It tells the story of creativity and education like no one has before.

09:10:16 Culture Minister speaks out for UK creativity

The day after writing this blog I attended an inspiring event organised by the Creative Industries Federation where the new Culture and Digital Economies Minister Matt Hancock MP spoke. I was delighted to be included in the official UK Government’s 2 minute film of that which you can see here.

Matt Hancock MP and audience reaction to this talk to the UK’s Creative Industries

10:10:16 Education Minister surprised by impact of EBacc on the arts

I attended the ResearchEd 2016 conference the day after that which Tom Bennett opened with a speech totally discrediting all manner of conspiracy theories.

Sadly he didn’t pick me to ask a question after the speech by School Minister Nick Gibb MP who I did manage to speak to after his talk. Mr Gibb was most surprised by my decision to take my sons out of Holland Park and the impact that the EBacc has had on creativity and the arts there.

Interestingly, a very influential journalist confirmed my fears about a convenient lack of interest at best, and collusion at worst, between the education press and think tanks.

21:10:16 New PX powered parents campaign

Leading education magazine publishes story about the launch of ‘Parents and Teachers for Excellence’, making a point about the fact that they refuse to reveal their backers.

It’s possibly a move to counter the threat presented by the Grammar school debate to big businesses’ investment in Academies, but with most of the team behind ResearchEd inc Tom Bennett and Policy Exchange represented, their agendas would appear to be closely aligned.

But let’s not call it a conspiracy as it’s very hard to use that word without another coming to mind, instantly discrediting the very thought of it.