Monthly Archives: January 2018

Creativity matters and not just to the privileged

I grew up in a house with few books. I think I can probably recall them all: Reader’s Digest editions of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, a battered paperback copy of Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness’s bespectacled face on the cover, and a collection of Roald Dahl short stories called Kiss Kiss. There was also a four-volume collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. All of them mattered to me in some way – my recollection of them is extremely vivid – but it was reading Wuthering Heights as a teenager that really opened up the world of books to me. Although in some ways completely removed from the life I was leading at the time, it also felt incredibly relevant and compelling to me. The rawness and violence of the connection between the two main characters set sparks flying in my teenage brain.

There may not have been many books in our house but I did grow up with a sense that creativity and culture were important. My mum loved jazz and painting – was and is still a very gifted amateur painter, now running her own informal learning group for other artists – and we grew up to the sound of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. All of this fed my love of literature and culture. Leaving school at 16 and being forced to join a YTS, I would head into Liverpool each weekend and scour the book shops, devouring the Penguin Modern Classics series: Kafka, Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir were bringing me to life, connecting me with other worlds but also making me feel somewhat out of synch with my own. Music was important too, especially literary bands such as The Fall and The Smiths, whose work, particularly the writing of Mark E Smith, set my mind on new, unvisited pathways. The door was open.

Without this early exposure to culture, I doubt I would have taken the choices I subsequently took – to become a journalist, to go to university, to try my hand at writing, to undertake research and editing – or to do any of the jobs I have been employed to do. I would have accepted the verdict of my teachers. More than that, I suspect I would never have known about the world of books or felt comfortable in it. None of this, I should note, was stimulated or reinforced at school. I couldn’t relate to Shakespeare. I didn’t respond to John Steinbeck. I wasn’t given a chance to study music having failed a test intended to identify musical aptitude (not having understood what we were doing I copied my answers off the girl next to me – I can still recall the sick feeling I had on realizing that something I hadn’t attached any importance to was in fact very important indeed – there was no second chance). And my audition for the school choir lasted only a few bars into ‘Morning has broken’. So disengaged was I that, despite having a half-decent brain, I left school without any qualifications; in most cases not even turning up for my exams. Had I not found my own way in I would never have got to explore this new world or discovered in it some talent and interest of my own.

I mention this because I believe that everyone has talent and creativity and that it is only through exploration and discovery that they have the chance to find it and, if they are fortunate, find a way of living in the world that also satisfies them and answers their passions. This, to me, is so important. It is what, I believe, education is primarily about. Education opens doors: it shows us the world, it pulls back the curtain, it lets the light in. The thing that struck me most on my first experience of university was the latitude, the openness of it all, the chance to switch subjects, learn different things, the bloody amazing library. If you wanted, you could spend the day reading a novel you had picked up off the shelf. And the next day you could enroll on a short course about the author. One of my best experiences at university was a brilliant short course on Chekhov’s plays. Reading them aloud really brought them to life.

Of course, books and literature are not for everyone. But everyone deserves the chance to find that out for themselves. I have written elsewhere about how anxiety drives our education system – that anxiety is driven by the relentless sound of door after door closing on the future prospects of children and young people, far, far too early. We have created an educational culture which is characterised by high-stakes risk – for students, teachers and institutions – and which discourages experiment and discovery and leads inevitably to a narrowing of the curriculum and a consequent loss of opportunity. Access to a wide, culturally rich education is hugely important for everyone, but particularly for those least likely to encounter the creative arts at home. This was captured eloquently by David Blunkett in his famous foreword to the 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age, for me still the high watermark in policy thinking about education in my lifetime (it also lends this blog its name). Mr Blunkett wrote:

As well as securing our economic future, learning has a wider contribution. It helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation. It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake as well as for the equality of opportunity it brings.

Sadly, the Learning Age Green Paper has proved less of a blueprint for subsequent policy-making and more of a marker for how far our ambitions have declined, for our country, for ourselves and for our children. In the 20 years since it was published, we have seen the education system gripped by a wholly wrong-headed utilitarian focus on skills, conceived narrowly as skills for work or economically useful skills. Adult education is now unrecognisable. Opportunities for adults to study creative subjects have dried up, to the point where such opportunities are now very few and far between, a trend only to a limited extent addressed by a growth in self-organised learning. At the same time, non-elite universities have been under pressure to narrow their study options and focus on subjects with direct employment outcomes.

Perhaps most criminally of all, schools – state-maintained schools at least – have seen creative arts subjects progressively squeezed out. A BBC survey of secondary schools found that 90 per cent of schools had had to cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject. Extra-curricular activities were also being cut back on, as schools dealt with real-terms cuts to their budgets, the report said. The latest cuts only reinforce the direction set under Michael Gove, who combined the characteristics of being the worst education secretary in living memory with being also the most arrogant. He believed that creativity had to be grounded in formal learning, failing to see what is obvious to any teacher: that creativity is a part of learning, and a vital part at that.

Depressingly, many are prepared to greet this grim, utilitarian reduction in opportunity as progress. Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted, told the BBC this week that a focus on core academic subjects represented the best route to higher study, particularly for working-class children. It is a depressing coda to our society’s failure to develop a fit-for-purpose twenty-first century education system that children are considered a resource to be only selectively invested in. I object to this on grounds of social justice. Why should the already privileged horde these opportunities? Why should millions of people have to live their lives with limited understanding of creative culture or the arts, forever at the window looking in?

But even from the narrow perspective of those responsible for the shameful devaluation of our educational offer, it makes no sense to squeeze the arts out of education. The creative industries bring billions into the economy and represent one of the few areas in which Britain might be said still to lead the world. Furthermore, creativity and the willingness to learn are key to our future economic competitiveness, in a global market that is changing, fragmented and transnational. As Ken Robinson argues, creativity is, at bottom, about ‘fresh thinking’, finding different ways of thinking about and doing things. It is also highly diverse – different, indeed, in every case – which means that only a truly broad, all-encompassing curriculum can hope to capture and develop every talent. It also means jamming each door firmly open and ensuring opportunity is genuinely lifelong.

For much of the twentieth century, the adult education movement in Britain sought to correct the imbalances of an education system that prepared the wealthy for a long, rounded, fulfilling life and the working class for work (and a much shorter, less commodious life). Not only do those imbalances remain, they have been getting wider. The pioneers saw an opportunity to create a better society without the need for massive political upheaval. Perhaps that is what those who disparage the role of the arts and creativity fear. Do we want a stale society in which privilege is endlessly reinforced and the fruits of culture restricted to an elite, albeit under the guise of meritocracy, or do we want a vibrant culture to which people of all classes contribute, freely and fully, and have an equal opportunity to lead active, engaged and creatively fulfilling lives? I know which kind of society I would prefer to live in.

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Social mobility: A puzzle the government has no desire to solve

For those who believe the UK government cares about addressing inequality or promoting social mobility these must have been a disappointing past few days.

Justine Greening resigned as education secretary in the midst of a botched cabinet reshuffle, only a few weeks after launching a ‘plan for improving social mobility through education’. Explaining her decision to turn down a lesser role and leave the government, she tweeted, ‘Social mobility matters to me and our country more than my ministerial career. I’ll continue to do everything I can to create a country that has equality of opportunity for young people’. It is a depressing footnote to the story of the Conservatives’ dreadful and ongoing mismanagement of the education sector that Ms Greening felt this was something she was better placed to do outside government.

A new education secretary, Damian Hinds, was appointed, a politician whose chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility appears to have done little to blunt his enthusiasm for selective schools. Mr Hinds’ appointment is widely seen as an attempt to get the Prime Minister’s plans for the education sector – derailed by her colossal misjudgment in calling a snap election – back on track. Notably, Mr Hinds shares Mrs May’s enthusiasm for grammar schools, frequently styled by Mrs May as an engine of social mobility when, of course, they are nothing of the sort.

One of Ms Greening’s most endearing qualities as education secretary was her lack of enthusiasm for this strand of Tory thinking. She has also resisted the dismal spread of free and faith schools. Her scepticism is well founded. A 2016 report on grammar schools and social mobility by the Education Policy Institute found that the gap between children on free school meals attaining five A*–C GCSEs, including English and Math) and all other children is wider in selective areas than in non-selective areas – at around 34.1 per cent compared with 27.8 per cent. The report also found that high-attaining pupils perform just as well in high-quality non-selective schools as in selective schools. And while faith schools can boast greater exam success, this is largely down to social selection.

But, of course, the Prime Minister knows all of this, as I am sure does Mr Hinds, who has called for an ‘elite’ grammar school in every major conurbation and has advocated the expansion of faith schools. Despite this, they seem set to continue defending ideologically driven interventions, which do nothing for the life chances of the poorest children and help ensure privilege is passed on from generation to generation, as levers to address the very social problems they help cause. Evidently, this is not what Ms Greening had in mind when she wrote of ‘putting social mobility at the heart of education policy’. And that helps explain why Ms Greening had to go. Her genuine commitment to social mobility posed a threat to Mrs May’s own regressive, dangerous and evidence-free plans for education.

The challenge of social mobility, of course, is huge, as Ms Greening admits in the foreword to her plan. The Social Mobility Commission’s last state-of-the-nation report noted ‘a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today’, arguing that the country seemed ‘to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division’. A week later, of course, the Commission resigned en masse over the Prime Minister’s failure to make progress towards a ‘fairer Britain’. This should have been a very public disaster for the government, particularly as it has repeatedly pledged to make Britain fairer and ensure no-one is ‘left behind’. But, in the context of a still supportive, Brexit-hungry media and in the absence of well-organised, effective opposition, the government has continued to function in an almost frictionless way, despite lurching from crisis to crisis, propelled by its own internal dysfunction.

Against this backdrop, Ms Greening’s plan was an opportunity for the government to seize the social mobility agenda and demonstrate its commitment to it. And while the plan does not live up to its promise to provide ‘a framework for action that can empower everyone – whether educators, government, business or civil society – to help transform equality of opportunity in this country’, it nevertheless offers welcome recognition of the need for a radical shift and for greater policy coherence in our approach, and of the ‘vital role’ of education in delivering meaningful change. But instead of backing the plan, and placing social mobility at the heart of education policy, there is every indication that the government will return to the ancien régime of free and faith schools and selection, which benefit the already advantaged at the expense of the rest, while pursuing its ongoing programme of cuts to state-maintained schools and FE colleges, which have resulted in plummeting learner numbers and a crisis in teacher recruitment.

While the ambitions of the plan are radical – there really is no ambition in politics greater, or more important, than to ensure that where a person starts in life does not determine where they end up – the recommendations are not. There are some good ideas and welcome recognition of the potential contribution of technical and further education to improving social mobility (though it neglects adult education), but the scope of the plan is too narrow and, of course, there is no new money to deliver on its ambitions to ‘reverse these negative spirals and generate a virtuous cycle to unlock talent and fulfil potential’.

One point on which Mr Hinds and Ms Greening agree is that social mobility interventions should focus on early years. This is essential, of course, but it cannot be the whole story. We need a much more joined-up and comprehensive plan to begin to address these issues, and we need to realise that education can only do so much and that widening inequality makes social mobility much more difficult to achieve. The gap between the rungs on the ladder make failure to difficult to countenance and gaming of the system far too tempting.

That said, while education cannot address all of these entrenched issues, it still has a big role to play but we need to be much bolder in thinking across the education system. We need to boost early-years provision, but we also need to ensure parents have the skills and capacities to support their children’s development, and that means investing in adult education and the millions of adults who left school without decent basic skills. We need strong, diverse higher education sector, with fair access, diverse providers and flourishing part-time provision, but we also need to reshape the system so that the range of routes to a good career and decent life are as diverse as people’s aspirations, and that means improving technical and vocational routes and taking some of our eggs out of the academic basket. It also means focusing not just on the talented few but on how to create a system that offers opportunity for all, a system that is properly fair and comprehensive.

To do that, we need to think about the education system in the round and not in silos and ensure that opportunity is evenly spread and is open to all, ensuring place and community are at the heart of the education agenda. No community should be considered ‘left behind’ when it comes to education. As Ms Greening’s plan urges, effort and resource should be directed ‘towards the places and people where it is most needed to unlock talent and fulfil potential’. And we need to recognise that a culture of constant reform, cost-cutting, poor pay and escalating workload, as we have seen for many years now in the further education sector, is not conducive to improving educational performance. None of this is possible without a flourishing, well-funded further education sector. Nor will it be possible while educators are underpaid, overworked and overburdened with the demands of accountability.

What, perhaps, we need most of all is to talk, really talk. Never has British politics been more in need of dialogue. Labour has some good ideas on education but it needs to convince voters and that means talking to people who do not agree with them. Stable government is only possible through the effort to find common ground with our opponents. It is also through dialogue that we can begin to change mind-sets, overcome echo-chamber politics and dispel some of the myths of the instinctive, kneejerk populism of the right. A big problem, from national to neighbourhood level, is the loss of public spaces where we can meet and reduce the gap between us. Flinging brickbats from behind the barricades just widens that gap. Until we begin to close it, find our common ground and develop inclusive, evidence-based policies that command wide support, we will a struggle to find stable solutions to the problems that haunt us.


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