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1 October 2020

Covid-19 is a case to expand the curriculum, not diminish it

The last six months have shown there is a desperate need for more creative education in our schools system.

By Tristram Hunt

“Schools may consider it appropriate to suspend some subjects for some pupils in exceptional circumstances” was the worrisome guidance that emerged from the Department for Education in early July. Some less progressive academy chains may have taken this as a green light to strip out creative subjects from the curriculum as schools return

But this would be exactly the wrong lesson to conclude from the Covid-19 crisis and its lingering aftermath. For what the last six months of lost schooling, anxiety, communal endeavour and collaborative responsiveness has taught us is that there is a desperate need for more creative education in our schools system.  

“Rebalancing the curriculum now to make creativity, critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, collaboration, resilience and adaptability as prominent as English, maths, science, history and philosophy is what we need to do,” said education reformer Bill Lucas, writing on the BigEducation.org website. At the V&A, this has been our mission since the mid-19th century and I think it is now more urgent than ever.  

“Can we please ditch the idea that creativity is a self-contained attribute that can be taught in isolation?” pleaded Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, at a recent teachers’ event at the V&A. This understanding of creativity as the strand that weaves together all forms of human ingenuity is at the heart of our collections, which span over 5,000 years of incredible history across art, design and performance.

During lockdown, we have seen so many inspiring acts of creative generosity, from design and technology departments’ makeshift production of PPE, to colourful drawings of rainbows, to the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine series, as well as the informal acts of making and playing which have enlivened so many streets and estates.

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At the same time, we have seen the creative economy suffer exponentially as a result of social distancing regulations. From dance and theatre to cinema, literary festivals, choirs and museums, Covid-19 has brutally severed the communal gathering that underpins so much creative endeavour.  

It is particularly galling and damaging as, pre-pandemic, the UK had one of the most successful creative industries in the world, worth £111.7bn to GDP. And if we consider creativity as a key pillar of innovation in all its forms, then the impact extends exponentially.

Sadly, education policy has, in recent years, rarely served to support the long-term provision of such world-leading culture. Over the last 15 years there has been a steady fall in the number of young people taking creative subjects at GCSE, with design and technology recording a 67 per cent drop between 2010 and 2019.

[See also: The arts play second fiddle to Stem – and it’s bad for the economy]

Creativity has too often been pigeon-holed in the curriculum, and increasingly sidelined with the prioritisation of English Baccalaureate and Progress 8 subjects. And such a stripping out of art, drama, dance, and design is clearly not taking place in the independent sector, where creative provision is marketed as a key attraction for pupils and parents.  

So, in the cacophony of competition over what to prioritise now that the new school year has begun, we at the V&A are making the case that vital arts education and creativity does not slip further off the curriculum. Our galleries are filled with extraordinary examples of material innovation from textiles to future technologies and digital design to ceramics, and we want students back in the museum wrestling with all its myriad meanings. Pre-lockdown we delighted in welcoming hundreds of thousands of school children, from Penzance to Penrith, to marvel at our Cast Courts, Chihuly Chandelier and world-famous South Asia Galleries.

But the understandable reluctance to plan school visits because of the pandemic means we need to be more imaginative in how we share our collections, our expertise and our time to ensure our founding mission to inspire the next generation does not slip away at the moment we are needed most.  

We are in the final stages of preparations for Year 2 of our national programme for schools – V&A Innovate – which has been shaped this year to meet the new needs of teachers and young people. Starting in September, we have been offering support to every secondary school in England – with a focus on supporting young people to confront real-world issues through design principles used in industry – to inspire the creatives and designers of tomorrow.

Studies show Key Stage 3 is a pivotal moment in young people’s education. It is the last time they study a broad range of subjects yet is considered the poor relation to GCSEs and so is often deprioritised. By stepping in at this point, when young people begin to think about their GCSE choices, we hope to help inspire a new generation of designers and innovators who might otherwise have fallen away.  

[See also: The A-level debacle shows why coursework and AS-levels should never have been scrapped]

Reports from the Cultural Learning Alliance, the Durham Commission and many others over the last 20 years, show that through studying arts subjects, people develop vital skills, such as judgment and problem-solving, fluency of ideas, active learning, learning strategies and originality. More than ever, these are the skills young people need for the world of work, with knock-on benefits for social skills and wider study.

Which makes it all the more devastating to see the months upon months of learning ripped away from young people, topped off by the frustration many must have felt at the regrading crisis in August. This is one of the most challenging times the education and creative sectors have faced for many generations, but as term restarts, we must restate the case for a rich curriculum.

It is the key to unlocking the creativity and ingenuity that has fuelled human innovation and, in turn, filled the galleries of the V&A with some of the greatest works of imagination. We do, it is true, have something of a vested interest in this debate.

Tristram Hunt is director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and a former shadow education secretary. For more information about V&A Innovate, click here.