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.

Reading in prisons – why it matters

The Ministry of Justice’s decision to ban serving prisoners from receiving books from outside is one of those deeply (and I suspect, often, deliberately) polarising interventions which will be as enthusiastically welcomed by some as it will be roundly condemned by others.

Those who see the purpose of prison as being wholly or in large part punitive will applaud the justice secretary for taking steps to make the prison experience less ‘cushy’. Those who see prison as being, in the main, about rehabilitation and reintegration into society will see this as, at best, an unnecessary and unhelpful ‘extra punishment’ and, at worst, as a serious infringement of prisoners’ human rights.

This is a hugely divisive issue and I think it’s important to write about it in a way that does not make it more so (we won’t get far here without informed public debate). If you (or someone close to you) have been a victim of serious crime it can be difficult to think of prison in terms of rehabilitation, particularly in cases where the prisoner has shown no sign of remorse (the thought that prison might give offenders the chance to better themselves, to advance in life, can be hard to take). The apparently kneejerk sympathy of people on the left can open up old wounds. People like to see politicians being ‘tough’ on prisoners and, while it can be easy to point to the often highly calculated (and frequently counterproductive) nature of this kind of posturing, I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss those who applaud it.

Nevertheless, I think we need to be realistic. Most of the people serving prison sentences will at some point return to society. They will live in the same cities, towns and villages as other people, work alongside them, send their children to the same schools and vote in the same elections. It makes sense therefore that we, as a society, take steps to ensure that when people do emerge from the prison system they do so better equipped to play a useful part in their communities than they were when they entered it.

This is why education and access to reading materials in prisons is so important, and why restricting this is likely to prove, in the long term, extremely costly, both socially and economically. Prisons are full of offenders with very low educational levels, often lacking the most basic literacy and numeracy skills. These people will need help if they are to successfully reintegrate into society. To send people back into society without that help is to send them out with no hope of anything better for themselves, and makes recidivism much more likely. It is also a huge waste of resources.

It is unsurprising that education reduces the risk of reoffending (though, evidently, its impact depends also on interventions in other areas, for example, in employment and housing, and of course in access to education once people leave prison). Access to books and other reading materials is particularly important. Last year, Adults Learning reported on the impact of a prison reading project which has been supporting reading groups behind bars for 14 years (led by Sarah Turvey and Jenny Hartley, of the University of Roehampton). It showed how involvement in reading groups not only improved people’s literacy but also opened up new horizons for prisoners, built empathy, strengthened family and community ties and gave offenders hope for the future, improved confidence and the ambition to do something more useful with their lives after prison. A quote from one of the participants indicates how reading and participation in reading groups helped prisoners develop a sense of community, of shared values, and a different appreciation of the people around them:

For one hour a month the walls of my confinement crumble to dust and I feel respected. Not just by fellow inmates, but by citizens from the wider community, members of the society into which I’ll one day be released – by the two women who run the group, and by the visitors they invite. For one hour a month my opinion is valid, I am listened to and others care what I have to say. In the book group, everyone is given a voice, all have an equal say. For one hour a month, I am allowed to be the individual I used to be and am not defined by my crime.

It is difficult to think of any other activity that could give people in prison such a sense of other possibilities, a chance to rethink and revaluate (themselves and their relationships to others), to put themselves in others’ shoes, while also developing critical basic skills which everyone needs in order to function adequately in society. As Sarah Turvey and Jenny Hartley argue, it is the development of ‘imaginative capital’ – the capacity to think differently, particularly about other people – which makes reading so uniquely valuable.

It’s easy to see why people react so strongly on issues like this – and why the thought of offenders gaining advantage of some sort while in the prison system is offensive or hurtful to some. But we must also realise that offenders are a part of society too and, with a very large and growing prison population (and high rates of recidivism), we simply cannot afford, either economically or socially, to support a prison system which does people only harm. Rehabilitation and reintegration must be important dimensions of any prison system, and education must be a key part of that. Restricting the opportunities for offenders to learn, to develop empathy, to connect with the wider community, really doesn’t make too much sense.

Ensuring an inclusive, informed and unclouded debate on these issues is perhaps another challenge for lifelong learning.




Reading is for everyone

For many of us, as children, it is through reading that we get our first glimpse of a wider world, of difference, of beauty, darkness and danger. We read to escape, to discover, to laugh and to connect. We also read to learn. Reading can teach us to think and imagine, as well as developing more basic skills and capabilities which are pretty much essential in managing our day-to-day lives.

Yet, reading remains, for far too many of us, something that is for other people. This is partly to do with the failings of our compulsory education system – one in six adults of working age in the UK is estimated to have difficulty reading – but it is also a cultural issue. The problem is that, for very many people, reading has not been a source of joy and inspiration. It may well have been a lifelong struggle, associated, often, with feelings of anxiety, shame and humiliation. Or it may simply be they have never found the right sort of book (my Dad, for example, a lifelong Liverpool fan who has never felt much of an urge to read, recently devoured David Peace’s brilliant but difficult – and very, very long – Red or Dead).

It is little wonder that so many people simply do not see reading as being for them. They have never found a way to relate to or be comfortable with books. For these people, reading for pleasure can be hugely daunting. Entering a bookshop can be an intimidating experience. I remember how I felt at 16, on a YTS, taking one of those lovely, orange-and-white Penguin Modern Classics to the counter of Dillon’s bookshop in Liverpool. I assumed everyone who worked in the shop had read everything on the shelves. I also thought that, with the education I imagined they’d had, they knew far more than I did and had a far better understanding of books than I could ever have. I felt (wrongly) judged and inadequate. It felt better buying books in Woolworths or Boots.

For people who feel uncomfortable with books, who feel reading may not be for them, it often isn’t enough just to create an opportunity for them to be with and learn about books. They need support, encouragement and, perhaps above all, a place to start. In many cases this won’t be a bookshop. It will be in a classroom, the workplace or somewhere else in the community where they feel comfortable. Two remarkable initiatives illustrate how important these venues can be, and how much difference the right kind of support can make.

The first, Quick Reads, is a partnership of publishers, authors and adult education providers dedicated to improving literacy and engagement with reading. It has produced dozens of high-quality, short and fast-paced books by best-selling authors aimed at people who lack confidence as readers, and ensured they get into the hands of the people who can benefit from them most – those least likely to pick up a book.

An impact evaluation, carried out at the end of last year, demonstrates the overwhelmingly positive impact Quick Reads have on adult learners’ confidence and attitudes to reading and on their literacy skills, making literature accessible to more and more learners, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds associated with low participation in learning. The books are used year-on-year by practitioners in settings as diverse as prisons, libraries, family learning groups and workplaces, turning, as one tutor put it, ‘non-readers into readers’.

 The second notable project is The Reader Organisation. I’ve written at length about The Reader before. It’s an amazing project which demonstrates how great literature can be for everyone. I remember my last visit to the project, going out to a mental health centre where a group of young men who had probably never heard of Norman Mailer were reading The Fight, his barnstorming account of the 1974 boxing title fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. It was brilliant to see not only how the book resonated with these men, but how they grew in confidence through reading and listening. I also visited a reading group at Toxteth Library where it was obvious how members of the group relished dissecting a poem and how they benefited from the mutual support and encouragement of the others in the group.

The two approaches are different but I think they complement each other. Both have succeeded in making readers – and learners – out of people who had little interest in books before. They show that no-one should feel that reading and books aren’t for them. I know that from my own experience. Finding the right books for you, and finding people you can talk to and share your passion with, is incredibly important. I overcame my fear of bookshops and have since worked in a fair few myself. I can still happily spend hours browsing the shelves of Waterstone’s or breathing in the dust of a second-hand bookshop.

Reading opens so many doors. But first you need to be comfortable enough to think books can be for you. There need to be places and people who can support and signpost. As last year’s PIAAC report highlighted, the challenges in this area are huge, and there is a very significant job to be done in ensuring there is support out there for people taking that first step into reading. Critically, we need to ensure that there is well-funded adult education provision out there for people to access, in ways and in settings that suit them. For so many people, that is where they make their start, where fires are set that last a lifetime. As everyone who has discovered a love of reading will know, it is a wonderful thing to plant a seed. But flowers do not grow by themselves.