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