Creativity, culture and the ‘true worth’ of education

Last week, education secretary Nicky Morgan suggested that qualifications should be linked to income in order to show their ‘true worth’. This week, the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value warned that creativity, culture and the arts are being ‘systematically removed from the UK education system’. These developments are not, of course, unrelated. They highlight a deplorable – and largely unchallenged – narrowness in current policy thinking about education, a grotesque reduction of the value of education to a crude utilitarian calculation of future earnings typified in the steady erosion of lifelong learning and the disappearance of vital public learning spaces such as libraries. The critical infrastructure that is being lost includes some of the jewels of the British education system, such as university continuing education, and will be incredibly difficult – perhaps impossible – to replace.

Nicky Morgan’s words were shockingly blunt and, in black and white, look pretty crass, but they are not particularly surprising. In fact, they articulate one of the most fundamental principles of this government’s approach to education, one that now runs through policy in every part of the education sector, from primary level to university: the only real value is economic value – and the only education a skeletal state impoverished by an ideologically driven programme of austerity measures can afford to support is education that has an economic return.

It was this thinking that, under the previous government, drove the introduction of the ‘ELQ’ rule denying funding to anyone studying in higher education at a level equivalent to or below the highest level at which they had previously studied. And it is this thinking that has driven the current government’s attempts to introduce a market into the skills system by putting money directly in the hands of employers and in its recasting of university students as consumers. It is felt by primary school children as young as five who face inappropriate tests and selection at an age when children in most developed countries haven’t even begun formal schooling and are learning in other, less pressured ways. And it is experienced by every prospective adult learner who finds that the opportunity to return to education has either disappeared, narrowed beyond recognition or relevance, or become prohibitively expensive.

Of course, all of this is part of a bigger trend towards the marketisation of parts of our lives in which, formerly, the market was thought not to have a place – or at least to have only a marginal place. As Michael Sandel argues, once we begin to put a price on goods such as education, health and political influence it becomes much harder to be poor. Increasingly, wealth determines access to health, good schools, higher education (especially the elite universities) – and, of course, politicians. In a society such as ours the poor are not only poor, they are disenfranchised, excluded, without access to many basic goods (not just material ones), and, for very many of them, also without hope (the absence of hope is perhaps the greatest unexplored public health issue of our times). Perhaps worst of all, when markets become an end rather than a means, political debate is stifled, it becomes trivial, managerial and, for the vast majority of people, incidental. The gap between politics and the people politics is about – those, at any rate, who are not in a position to buy access – grows ever greater.

Behind all of this, justifying everything and making the impossible possible in policy terms, is the spectre of austerity: an unnamed threat so amorphous and ill-defined, so universally endorsed by the mainstream parties and political journalism, that it can make almost anything seem a price worth paying. And because the implied cause is excessive public-sector spending – and not, of course, the financial crisis and reckless rich so seldom mentioned in connection with austerity – it is here that cuts must be made: disfiguring, anti-society cuts which penalise the poorest and most vulnerable (those whose reckless demands for decent schools and health care have put us in this mess), and in which all three main parties are to varying degrees culpable.

The impact of this trend can be seen very clearly in education, where it has distorted our values, our ways of talking and our sense of value as professionals – even our capacity to articulate clearly what it is that we think valuable about what we do. This is no better illustrated than in adult education. Since David Blunkett, in his foreword to the 1998 Green Paper The Learning Age, stressed learning’s ‘wider contribution’ in helping ‘make ours a civilised society’, developing ‘the spiritual side of our lives’ and promoting active citizenship, strengthening family, neighbourhood and nation in the process, there has been a steady attenuation in policy thinking concerning the benefits of education (despite large amount of evidence to the contrary). Skills and employability became the order of the day as funding focused increasingly on young people and shifted to provision that was expected – in some magical way, almost – to secure our economic future. The results included a much narrower and more expensive offer for adults, the closure of university lifelong learning departments across the country and the loss of well over a million adults to publicly funded provision. Despite our decade-long pursuit of ‘world-class skills’, under Labour and the coalition, the UK continues to show poorly in international league tables, with productivity proving equally resistant to improvement.

Labour’s ambition had narrowed so much that shortly before the 2010 election, when I approached the three main party leaders to set out their position on adult learning, David Cameron was able to position his party in the space the Labour government had lately abandoned, expressing a view of learning as being ‘about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community’ – values, he added, that ‘Labour don’t seem to get’ – and citing its wider benefits, particularly in boosting active citizenship and helping make savings in other areas, such as health and crime. Despite the warmth of the Prime Minister’s words, the reality has been rather different. The coalition has continued to press for ‘world class’ skills, making employment and economic demand the drivers of their education reforms – and, like Labour before it, choosing to focus on the supply side of skills rather than address underlying issues concerning the demand for skills and skills under-utilisation. Despite playing well in the context of the coalition’s early emphasis on ‘big society’, the wider benefits of adult education were quickly forgotten.

This trend has been reinforced by the onward march of austerity, which has seen funding cuts in all areas of education, but particularly in adult education. Funding for adult qualifications not considered economically useful has been withdrawn, while further education colleges have had to cope with massive cuts – amounting so far to around £260 million – to the adult skills budget. Promises to protect schools funding will make this budget even more of a target in the next Parliament.

In higher education, mature students have been the main casualties of the coalition’s reforms to HE in England. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13 the number of first-year mature (21-plus) students in the English system fell by 37 per cent, with post-1992 institutions, which traditionally cater for more mature students, hit particularly hard. The story is even starker for part-time students, the vast majority of whom are mature. Part-time student numbers in England fell by 46 per cent between 2010-11 and 2013-14, according to HEFCE. And while it has performed better than national trends, the Open University has lost more than a quarter of its total student numbers. The causes of the decline in part-time and mature study are complex, but involve a toxic combination of increased fees, debt aversion among older people, wage stagnation and the prevailing economic climate, employer reluctance to invest in the education of their workers and the ineligibility of part-timers to maintenance support.

Elite higher education remains geared to young people and, in particular, to highly privileged young people who understand how to work the system and are supported by state-sponsored private schools in doing so. Despite the sterling work of outreach teams within many of these institutions, the in-built advantage they offer to pupils from wealthy backgrounds ensures that they continue to maintain privilege and perpetuate disadvantage. Sadly, this division is characteristic of the whole education system, where, increasingly, a rounded, liberal education – one that encourages creativity and cultivates an interest in literature, culture and the arts – is largely available only to the rich, who can afford it. The Warwick Commission report found that creativity and the arts are being ‘squeezed out’ of schools, with big drops in arts subjects at GCSE. Pupils from families with the lowest incomes fare the worst. Children from these families, the commission found, are least likely to be employed in the creative industries, while people from privileged backgrounds are overrepresented. This divide was reflected in the lack of diversity in arts audiences, the report said. The wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse eight per cent of society make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatre-goers. There was a danger that we were creating a ‘two tier creative and cultural ecosystem’, one commissioner warned. What happens at school is reinforced by the internship system which effectively denies a start in many creative industries to any but the most affluent.

As the Warwick Commission points out, this is bad both for the economy and for society. It is difficult to see how we can thrive as a nation while we deny so many the opportunity either to discover or develop their talents. But we lose more than this. A rounded creative education makes people more open, critical and tolerant. It helps them engage as citizens and fosters an interest in equality and democracy. It makes people question and it makes them hope. Crucially, perhaps, it makes them want more, for themselves and for their communities – something governments may be reluctant to encourage given how unequally social, cultural and economic goods are currently split. These are all critical functions which, for much of the twentieth century, adult education helped provide for many of those who were failed by the education system first time around. I think we need this more than ever. Children require an education which prepares them not only for the workplace but for civil society and democracy, which helps them become good parents, good neighbours and active citizens. And adults need spaces in which to access second chances and the resources they need to stay engaged – they need creativity and context as well as workplace training. I don’t say government should be paying for all of this but it has a role and responsibility which it shouldn’t be permitted to duck. To talk as though these things don’t matter or are not a crucial part of what makes us who and what we are is a kind of betrayal. To respond to the challenges we face as a society and as an economy we need to be smart, resilient, creative, open and engaged, as well as literate, numerate and job-ready. And, as the Warwick Commission argues, everyone has a right to a ‘rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life’. Our failure to cultivate and support these capabilities, in our adults and young people, is a much more dangerous legacy to pass on to our children than the legacy of public debt.

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