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.

Taking a line for a walk

On 7 May 2015 the UK electorate voted in a majority government on a platform of more austerity and increased hardship for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society, precipitating, among other things, Labour’s almost immediate resignation as a true party of opposition – convinced, seemingly, that it is only by endorsing the Tory fiction of its fiscal irresponsibility in office that Labour can restore the country’s faith in it as a party of, erm, fiscal responsibility. Like many other left-leaning voters, I feel trapped in a bad dream in which it is always 10pm on election night and that exit poll in replayed, over and over again, forever, to a soundtrack of Michael Gove endlessly congratulating himself.

Two things particularly struck me during the general election campaign. First, the narrow and impoverished nature of the debate and the utter failure of the mainstream media to do anything to dispel the statistical fog of claim and counterclaim or to take a step beyond the confining narrative established by the coalition in its first few months in office and enthusiastically taken up by its friends in the press. And second, the way fear – whether of economic ‘chaos’, a disgruntled business community or a minority Labour government controlled from Edinburgh – was endlessly and very effectively stoked, in the end trumping any sense of hope or solidarity. In politics, as in life, it is fear that prevents us taking creative chances, whether that is a leap of imagination or a leap of empathy and understanding.

Labour’s subsequent capitulation in the myth that it overspent in office and caused or (in a more nuanced spin for the economically better-informed) exacerbated the economic crisis (a capitulation with qualifications, I know, but who has time to read the qualifications?) could be said to make a very effective case for more political education. But it also, it seems to me, represents an implicit concession that the language of empathy, informed compassion and solidarity have little place in modern politics, and that only tough-guy posturing, usually in the face of imagined or invented demons (‘uncontrolled’ immigration, benefit cheats and Greek-style economic collapse are three of the most popular phantoms), can win over the electorate.

Politics, of course, is not the only area of life where empathy is in short supply. The hostile and at time callous language used by the media (and, indeed, by politicians) to describe asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants is another case in point, stereotyping and scapegoating migrants while overlooking their positive contribution and over-reporting the problems they create (it is telling that while people’s perceptions of the extent of these problems diverge ridiculously from reality, they are broadly in line with the priority given them by the parts of the media). Social media too, for all its virtues and possibilities, seems at times almost a test lab for every kind of meanness, closed-mindedness and spite, often in the guise of some sort of moral crusade; usually one fatally detached from any sense of human sympathy or fellow-feeling. As Adam Smith argued long ago, it is this sympathetic imaginative effort to put ourselves in other people’s shoes that is at the heart of morality and virtuous behaviour.

If, as Smith believed, the imagination is the faculty responsible not only for populating our moral world but also for the entire creative sphere of commerce and the arts and sciences, it is surely something we should cultivate. This was something strongly hinted at by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, in an interesting interview on the Today programme in May. Productivity, Carney said, was the way forward for the UK economy, yet it was faltering because of under-investment and the disproportionate number of low-paid, low-productivity jobs created by the economy, prompting the Bank of England to downgrade its growth forecasts. Productivity, he went on, could be improved through investment in skills and innovation, empowering people at work, and more creativity. This reiterated points he was able to make at greater length in a speech about pay and productivity at the TUC congress last year. ‘Skills levels need to be raised continually,’ he said. ‘That is, of course, first and foremost about education. But crucially it also means access to lifelong learning, both on and off the job, available to all.’

What I particularly like about these comments is the link Carney makes between creativity, education, skills and productivity. We need a school curriculum that is geared to delivering the skills and resources young people need to thrive in the modern world, and that includes, critically, creativity, resilience and imagination, and, perhaps just as importantly, a willingness to think of themselves as learners throughout their lives. We also need a system of lifelong learning that unlocks people’s creativity later in life, when and where they need it. As John Dewey wrote, ‘the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth’. The alternative is a continued decline in productivity relative to our competitors and an economy characterised by poorly paid, low-skilled jobs and calcified patterns of inequality.

Carney’s remarks point to a great deal that is wrong about the government’s approach to education. This is in some ways typified by education secretary Nicky Morgan’s comment that studying an arts subject ‘holds pupils back for the rest of their lives’, but it is also evidenced in the government’s more general denigration of arts and culture in the curriculum, prompting the Warwick Commission last year to wonder why it is that ‘the English educational system is not focusing on the future needs of the cultural and creative industries and the broader needs for innovation and growth in the UK?’ Not only is the curriculum narrowing, with arts subjects steadily downgraded and excluded, but the pressures brought to bear on teachers and school leaders are making it increasingly difficult for schools to bring a creative ethos to teaching and learning. Morgan used her first public appearances following the general election to warn that ‘failing or coasting’ schools would have their head teachers removed and be forced to join an academy chain (though she failed to specify why this would help – for the very good reason that there is no evidence that it would). It is doubtful whether the threat of this kind of punitive intervention is the best way to improve teaching and learning outcomes for pupils, particularly in a context of declining funding and rising costs, where teachers and school leaders already struggle with excessive workload, driven by an inspection system that encourages them to value looking good above doing good. Little wonder schools are struggling to recruit and retain teaching staff.

But perhaps the most vivid example of the short-sightedness of the government’s approach is in adult further education, which has seen the deepest cuts of any part of the education sector. Further education as a whole is having a tough time. The coalition’s near-obsessive focus on apprenticeships, combined with a willingness to put the interests of other sectors ahead of those of FE, has seen courses cut, staff made redundant and sector morale plummet. As a result, options for students are narrowing. Further education appears to have few friends in parliament – and has one supporter less with the significant loss of Vince Cable. Adult further education has seen the most devastating cuts of all, reduced by 25 per cent between 2009-10 and 2014-15, with a further 24 per cent cut to non-apprenticeship adult learning planned for 2015-16. The Association of Colleges is warning that adult further education could be a thing of the past by 2020.

As Mark Carney suggests, the loss of these opportunities is nothing short of disastrous. It represents the continued prevalence of a narrowly conceived economism in education, an approach which is a failure, even on its own terms. Opportunities to learn should be available to all, at every age, on and off the job, with funding following the learner rather than the prejudices of ministers. Instead, we are moving towards a two-tier, one-chance education system in which most children are trained for employment, with a fully rounded creative and cultural education available only to those following the gilded path to an elite university – overwhelmingly those who start out privileged – and few opportunities to return should things not work out first time around. Education should not be about joining the dots of a picture someone else has already sketched. It should be about (to borrow Paul Klee’s phrase) ‘taking a line for a walk’, gaining the resources we need to learn and develop in our own way – and that, above all, demands a wide curriculum and a creative one, as well as opportunities for second, third and even fourth chances. To quote Dewey again, it is ‘illiberal and immoral to train children to work not freely and intelligently but for the sake of the work earned, in which case their activity is not free because it is not freely participated in.’

Sadly, our schools and colleges increasingly resemble factories churning out young people with the requisite qualifications to gain employment and not much more (and often failing to do even that). The economic pay-off at the end is everything, the consequences of failure enormous and second chances are increasingly squeezed. As the OECD reported recently, the skills gap between young people not in employment, education or training and those in work is significantly wider in England and Northern Ireland than in other developed countries. The scale of social inequality makes the consequences of slipping down the ladder still graver, as every good middle-class parent knows. And we make sure our children feel the pressure as early as possible through a regime of testing that begins ludicrously early. As they get older, study further, and take on the huge debts now associated with a decent education, the pressure to remain on the treadmill, to work not reflect, to accept not criticise, grows greater. We are a society increasingly governed by our private and public fears, unwilling to take risks or think creatively, unable, seemingly, to expand our moral horizons, even to include people in mortal peril. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we are stuck with the education system we have rather than the one we need.

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.