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.