How on earth will we create the next Steve Jobs?

Matching demand in the education system.

A child that begins primary school this year will not finish their working life until around 2075. It is hard to imagine what society will be like then: the only certainty during his or her life will be change.

Two skills that are essential to be able to succeed in an uncertain world are creativity and resilience. Labour introduced reforms to give more freedoms to schools, giving heads and teachers the space to foster creativity and resilience. While many schools have taken advantage of this, at a system-wide level schools, colleges and universities can be doing more to promote these skills, and the Government should be encouraging this, not stifling it.

One of the challenges is that our education system was founded on an Enlightenment belief that a core of so-called “academic” subjects are somehow superior to practical, vocational or creative skills.

This conceptual hierarchy has been codified in the Government’s “EBac” – the English baccalaureate. While literacy and numeracy are rightly critical bedrocks, it places no value on subjects such as music, religious education, engineering, design and technology, and art,  showing that the Government does not understand their social or economic value in today’s world. This may have dire consequences for Britain’s economic future if it is not addressed.

The technological advances of today’s digital and creative industries require Britain’s education system to be at the cutting edge. What is creativity? The educationalist Ken Robinson has argued that one element of creativity is “divergent thinking” – the ability to make the associations and lateral connections between ideas.

About ten years ago, George Land and Beth Jarman published their research on divergent thinking. They gave a series of tests to 1,600 three to five year-olds. If they achieved above a particular score they would be considered “geniuses” in divergent thinking. An amazing 98 per cent scored at the genius level or higher for divergent thinking. They gave the same tests to the same children five years later at the ages of eight to ten. Then only 32 per cent scored at the genius level. At the ages of 14 to 15 and the result was 10 per cent. They gave the same test to over 200,000 adults and the figure was 2 per cent.

It is extraordinary that, at the age of four, we have the ability to “think outside the box”, in a way that decreases as we go through the education system. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Too much of our education system teaches children not to take risks, and that there is only one answer (it’s at the back of the book – no peeking!).

Many schools and teachers already promote creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Take, for example, Paddington Academy in central London. Through its focus on the importance of developing speaking skills, to its excellent entrepreneurship programme, innovation and creativity are being harnessed. However, we need to understand how to encourage the entire system to follow the lead of Paddington and other schools that are leading on this agenda.

If we are to break down the barriers that stop some bright young people succeeding, then being articulate and confident is critical. Employers’ organisations such as  the CBI have long argued for speaking, communication and presentation skills to be given a higher priority. Labour is looking at how we could do things differently if we were in government.

As part of our policy review, we are looking at how we can promote a stronger focus on spoken skills and creativity in a revised national curriculum, as well as trying to ensure that we increasingly build the link between skills and industry so that our education system matches demand.

As any business leader will tell you, most great learning and most great ideas happen in groups. Collaboration is critical to a successful and confident education system. This involves the collaboration of pupils – and yet our assessment system is almost entirely predicated on testing individuals; it involves the collaboration of schools and teachers – and yet the Government is encouraging a greater fragmentation and atomisation of our school system; and it involves the collaboration of ideas – and yet our curriculum and pedagogy is too often based on a strict delineation of subjects and lessons.

Let’s take just one of these – the collaboration of ideas. Steve Jobs understood its importance and turned it into a multi-billion dollar business model. Instead of simply hiring the best coders and programmers for his IT business, he hired artists and designers to make his products appeal to the human instincts of consumers. His own background in calligraphy gave him an unusual perspective, which helped transform the world of technology.

Creativity isn’t about a certain type of subject such as art or music or design, it’s about a way of thinking. As Jobs put it, “Creativity is just connecting things”. It’s not just about improving thinking though, creativity can help by channelling energies into productive outcomes, improving attainment even in ‘non-creative’ subjects.

An Ofsted report from 2006 found that creativity could help improve how pupils behaved. Pupils who had worked with creative people, such as writers and fashion designers, were more punctual, better behaved and worked better.

It said pupils developed skills such as improvisation, risk-taking, resilience and collaboration.

Labour’s academies programme, which provided greater freedom for schools to innovate, and develop partnerships with businesses, including creative businesses, helped to raise standards in some of the toughest and disadvantaged neighbourhoods across the country.

Two examples embody Labour’s commitment to promoting creativity. In Harmony is a music scheme for disadvantaged youngsters, inspired by ‘El Sistema’ from Venezuela, and championed by the then education minister, Andrew Adonis. With projects in Liverpool, Lambeth and Norwich it provides a chance for children to take part in symphony orchestras.

The Henley Review of Music Education reported last year that “there is no doubt that they have delivered life-changing experiences”.

Creative Partnerships was a flagship programme developed by the Labour Government to bring creative workers such as artists, architects and scientists into schools to work with teachers to inspire young people and help them learn. The programme worked with over 1 million children and, apart from the cultural and creative benefits, it was expected to generate nearly £4bn for the UK economy – the equivalent of £15.30 for every £1 of investment. Bizarrely, funding for Creative Partnerships has been massively cut by the current Government.

Sadly, the Government’s approach is stuck in the 1950s. The O-level and CSE system was designed over half a century ago, when our economy needed far more unskilled jobs and where people were expected to “know their place” in a divided education system. We need to encourage entrepreneurship and creativity in our schools, to keep up with rapid changes in the labour market, not aspire to a rose-tinted view of history.

Celebrating and encouraging creativity is also a way to play to our strengths as a nation. In the last ten years, the creative economy was the second fastest-growing economy in the UK behind the financial sector, generating significant numbers of jobs and providing huge earnings to the economy through exports and revenue.

Yes, employers and parents want young people to have a firm grasp of the basics – this is crucial, but it’s not enough by itself. Young people also need to be encouraged to think critically, in a way that enables them to solve problems and develop rewarding lives and careers.

Collaboration is the key to creating the jobs of the future.

Stephen Twigg MP is Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary and Dan Jarvis MP is Labour’s Shadow Culture Minister


Classroom. Photograph: Getty Images

Stephen Twigg MP is Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary and Dan Jarvis MP is Labour’s Shadow Culture Minister.

Getty Images.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.