Creativity by numbers

The UK Creative Partnerships scheme for deprived schools seems more interested in exercising children’s bodies rather than their minds.

‘School should be anything but uniform’, says Creative Partnerships (CP), a £140million scheme brought in by the UK government in 2002 to put the arts back into the timetable for schools in deprived areas. CP was conceived because many teachers were complaining about the straitjacket conformism produced by grade targets, literacy hours and league tables. As former arts minister Estelle Morris said in 2003: ‘It is often said that arts and creative work in schools have been squeezed out…. There is a need to build on that and to recognise the place of arts and culture in our curriculum.’ (1)

Schools play a vital role in bringing cultural experience to the next generation. But a closer inspection of CP raises serious questions about what ‘creativity’ has come to mean today, and how teachers are supposed to engage with young people’s minds.

CP’s stated aim is to widen pupils’ cultural experiences and ‘develop imaginative ways of thinking and learning’. Its focus has not been on strengthening traditional subjects, such as art and design, drama or music, but on the more vague concept of ‘creativity’. The scheme has worked with 2,500 schools, setting up partnerships with organisations so that pupils can have the experience of working alongside creative practitioners, such as writers, designers, entrepreneurs, artists and performers.

But a glance through a sample of projects shows that while there is much stress on creativity, risk-taking, innovation and imagination, there is very little attention given to the importance of cultural knowledge. This seems to lead to a preoccupation with how to develop students psychologically, rather than how to give them greater knowledge of the world in order to engage in it.

For instance, in one CP project, Reigate Primary School in Derby took 120 children from years four and five off timetable for a whole week to run an imaginary recycling plant, ‘taking on different roles and responding to events in a rapidly unfolding narrative, with the help of a theatre company’. Sounds like fun, but is this creative learning or play-acting? What are students learning except how they, as inexperienced children, might react to a slightly unreal situation?

CP also seems to be about telling students how to live their lives. CP Black Country sent pupils to a nightclub where they worked with a theatre company to ‘get students to talk about what a bad night out might be like’. After flashing lights and loud music, they were given talks by the police and community safety officers about the risks of carrying weapons, getting home safely, drink-spiking and teenage pregnancy. Usually young people will do anything to get out of the classroom for a day, but it is hard to believe their imaginations are really ignited by this stuff.

Although the original idea of CP was to return arts and culture back to the school timetable, the word ‘creativity’ has become more about a particular style of education, rather than an understanding of arts practice. One London-based filmmaker I spoke to was very positive about CP but stressed that her role was more about encouraging creative thinking and ‘school change’. She said it didn’t matter if the creative person was an artist or a doctor or a scientist – so long as they were ‘creative’. She valued CP because it showed that not all pupils learn by pen and paper; in other words, not all students can be expected to achieve good academic standards because they have different kinds of ‘intelligences’.

The fascination with creativity reflects the influence of modern educational theories since the 1970s, which privilege the psychological process and ‘student-centred’ education. The thrust of these theories was to suggest that each child has a different way of learning, which makes them more or less receptive to different kinds of knowledge. Probably the most influential in popularising this approach is Howard Gardner’s 1983 book Frames of Mind, which promoted the notion of numerous ‘intelligences’ (linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal). Implicit within this approach was a belief that some students were inherently unsuited to academic teaching.

The importance of personalised learning has been rapidly institutionalised under New Labour (see for instance the Department for Education and Skills’ policy document Every Child Matters), with dramatic effect. As Mark Taylor, a history teacher and commentator on educational trends has noted, ‘The re-orientated education system is increasingly interested in diagnosing the intelligences of the particular child rather than educating the general child to be intelligent’ (2). The particular mind of the child determines the teaching content, not the general body of knowledge judged to be worth imparting. Teachers are preoccupied with the process of engagement over what the child is actually learning.

With this in mind, creative education projects are now self-consciously designed to be the opposite of ‘conventional’ teaching methods – getting children out of the classroom, talking and moving around, using mixed media, relaxing with teachers, and even in some cases asking the children what they want to do. The assumption is that children are more engaged if they’re moving around and talking than if they are sitting quietly and learning from a book.

It is certainly difficult to get young people to sit down and read without distraction, but to give up on this as a form of education and act as if it is ‘second best’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the process of learning. Engagement is ultimately gauged by what goes on in the head, not the classroom.

Few teachers want to admit this to their students, but acquiring knowledge often requires self-discipline, working quietly, memorising information, and repeated practice. Without some of these elements, it is impossible to give young people the ability to grasp complex ideas, deal in abstract thought, and remember vast amounts of information. These capacities are not opposed to creative experiences; they are a necessary part of creative experiences. Indeed, it is this ability to master language that makes literature interesting, or listening to an orchestra a newly discovered pleasure.

In fact, scanning the CP projects, one has to wonder whether they are actually more interesting than normal lessons. Year threes at Accrington Peel Park Primary School are designing banners which will ‘illustrate the themes of aspiration, creativity, communication and play’, as well as providing an ‘experience of working in the creative industries’ and ‘developing their team work skills’. CP projects often seem more like training to become a New Labour citizen: decision-making, consultation, risk assessment, emotionally engaging with others, participating and developing dialogue. Yet while personal development is important in schooling, it is hard to see how this can be taught as an end in itself. As Oftsed’s report into CP noted, the students ‘were often unclear about how to apply these qualities independently to develop original ideas and outcomes’.

It would be wrong to dismiss CP altogether – many of the projects are impressive, ambitious and seem enjoyable for all involved. For example, schools in Manchester have teamed up with the prestigious Halle Orchestra to ‘adopt a player’ so that children can experience (often for the first time) a visit to a music concert. Schools in Plymouth have teamed up with the Plymouth Symphony Orchestra to give their A-level music students a chance to hear their digital compositions played on string instruments. These are no doubt valuable experiences pushed through by teachers and artists who are passionate about art. For many headteachers, CP can offer a much-needed pot of money that allows them to run imaginative schemes they could not otherwise afford. Yet at the same time, CP reinforces the notion that ‘creativity’ is something one does outside normal learning, as a wacky project in a different environment and not something that can be developed through teaching itself.

And while the CP machine rumbles on with praise, other areas of musical instrument training, technical drawing and art history are practically non-existent in schools in deprived areas. For instance, half of all students in the independent sector learn a musical instrument, while only eight per cent of students in the state sector do so. The government has made some positive moves to address this problem, but there is still a long way to go.

Everyone agrees that young people need access to varied cultural experiences and should be taught in a way that stretches their hearts and minds. The better projects of CP might allow some teachers to do this, but the overall philosophy of ‘creativity’ and personalised learning might make things worse.

Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London, and a co-founder of the Manifesto Club.

(1) Creative Journeys, Estelle Morris, The Guardian, 24 June 2003

(2) Victims of murder by the neo-infantilist state? A critical review of and guide to contemporary trends in British school education, Mark Taylor, January 2006 (not published)

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