home Cirriculum Creativity In Schools: Their Failed Empires In Our Minds

Creativity In Schools: Their Failed Empires In Our Minds

At the risk of over-generalisation I wish to assert that the creative arts are now notable by their near extinction in primary schools and under great strain in secondary.

At best in primary they will be the privilege of wealthier postcodes where the priorities in Maths, English, Science and IT are more comfortably met, securing respectable league table positions.

In the latter phase there is a contradictory tension.  On one hand  the arts are a popular haven for students from their otherwise life of drudgery. They tend to be over-subscribed and high-achieving options. Yet it’s also a debilitating truth that even then SATs have robbed many students of any spark of dissent, inspiration, insight, enthusiasm, generosity or ingenuity that the arts and their teachers would hope to work from and articulate with technical assistance. In addition syllabuses are cramping creativity in favour of accountability.

Students’ internalisation of an instrumentalist belief that study is merely for the purpose of passing to or over the next level or grade has made learning something that is done to students rather than created by them. It’s of some irony that a kid in KS2 may be superficially familiar with the “passive voice” in literacy without realising that it is also a definition of their role in life. By KS3 and 4 they will also develop the blinkered knack of being unable use a skill, or bit of knowledge, from history in a drama or music lesson.

Nevertheless, the nation still, somehow, produces artists of all types and they can be excellent models of achievement for our students. But what is the government’s attitude to this matter? How much can we use official thinking to lever more space for a return, even an expansion, of the arts at all school levels?

So. Quiz time.

“We cannot be like the head teacher in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys who is so hell-bent on measuring attainment that he dismisses inspiration as unpredictable and unquantifiable.”

Who do you think publicly uttered these thoughts in a conference keynote speech to teachers last November 27? An artist, comprehensive campaigner or teacher even? They were never reported, at the time or since, but I have the evidence on video!

The same person, talking about current schooling, added that: “Creativity and standards go hand-in-hand”, going further to insist that, “We must stand up for creativity as a good in itself.”

This speaker bemoaned the facts that: “The UK is 24th out of 30 OECD countries for share of 17 year-olds in training or education. 6M UK adults cannot read. 17M UK adults not functionally numerate.”

By now, of course, UNICEF’s damning report placing the UK at the bottom of 21 rich nations ranked for childrens’ well-being could also have been added.

However, the same orator insisted that:

” Knowledge is our most precious resource. And it was Winston Churchill who said that ‘The empires of the future are the empires of the mind’ ”

He may well have done so at Harvard in 1943, but his speech was about  matters much grander than curriculum design!

Never mind because… “The UK is the 6th largest world economy with 56 consecutive quarters of growth and the highest employment in G7 nations. 1.8M workers in creative industries are earning 4% of export income. Knowledge industries have grown in value from £27bn in 1995 to £76bn in 2006.”

OK. Teasing over.

The source is Tony Blair’s trusty Minister of State for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell. She was opening the first Creative Partnerships (CP) conference on the theme of Exciting Minds in Manchester.

Jowell’s presentation summed up all that is infuriating about neo-liberalism in education.

On the one hand schools should indulge in, at least, a rhetoric of freedom and enterprise, but just as long as it is firmly focussed on market criteria and needs. Blithely ignorant of the word HYPOCRITE flashing through listeners’ minds as she hectored us to embrace the “unpredictable and unquantifiable” – as if Ofsted and SATs had never existed – this contradictory tension ran throughout the whole two-day event.

Jowell’s two succeeding opening speakers reinforced this.

Hugh Balfour from Unilever brought howls of derision by claiming that childhood obesity can be tackled by kids eating more of his Birds Eye products – after all, as their latest ad campaign goes, “Frozen is the new fresh”. He insisted on this without the slightest irony, I kid you not! MC Mike Rosen couldn’t conceal his own hisses of derision!

By contrast Professor Stephen Heppell, explicitly mocking his predecessor, was utterly inspiring, both with detailed proposals for classroom activity and his overview of how the internet has thoroughly undermined the purpose and future of education in ways governments still don’t appreciate. His somewhat anarchic but polytechnical approach has brought him commissions to design physical and virtual learning spaces, advise Ministers where they are going wrong in many countries, and evaluate the current state of aggregate world governmental education policies – see box opposite. Thus, for example, his is perhaps the most persuasive formulation of the vagaries of ‘personalised learning’ on offer in contrast to a ‘one size fits all’ strategy.

Then there were wonderful workshops showcasing how, for example, Theatre Cap-A-Pie ran a project based on Waiting for Godot with a Years 3 and 4 group in Clavering Primary School, Hartlepool, in Tees Valley local authority.

                      TRENDS IN WORLD EDUCATION

From 20th century………… to 21st century



Quality controlled……….…..………quality assured

Subject based…………………….…..project based

Delivered wisdom……….user generated content

One size fits all……..…………….….personalization



One to many……….…………………..peer to peer


Curriculum centred…….…………learner centred



This summary is based on systematic monitoring of world governments’

emerging education policies.      More at:  www.heppell.net

Impossible as it might seem given the challenge of that particular text, the students had clearly learned an enormous amount about the processes of writing, directing, set designing and performing. This was helped by going back to the painted source for the work – Caspar David Friedrich’s Man and Woman Observing The Moon (1824) and improvising from imagined comments by and about the people in the picture. Their literacy, communication, team-working and planning skills were a delight, but their head then had the ache of resuming normal service with a bunch of highly motivated kids, wanting and expecting so much more as an everyday norm in their schooling, as Cap-A-Pie departed.

Tim Boyes, head of Queensbridge Secondary School in Moseley, Birmingham, reported similar challenges in having to re-calibrate the whole of his school’s KS3 design following the astonishing progress made by Year 7 students. He talked of his 3 Rs for work with students – relationships, relevance and responsibility. In a school with previously regular enquiries from police about miscreant Year 7s he claimed not to have had one in the last year whilst the Creative Partnerships course was running.

In such cases the creativity was not geared to a market outcome. It was a truly liberating and empowering learning experience, in and of itself, proving what huge potential is customarily repressed by the straight-jackets of National Curriculum, testing, OFSTED, league tables and performance-related pay.

Sadly, other workshops displayed an excruciating other side to this “creativist” coin, taking the notion of enterprise at its most vulgarly materialistic. The results were mini-versions of those horrendously cheap TV shows where wannabe entrepreneurs prostitute themselves for validation at the feet of market saints.

A Merseyside project entitled ‘Hotshots’, lead by a small local business, sought to emulate with school students the achievements of the likes of:

  • Jamie Oliver (a brand with complete ownership of intellectual property!)
  • Sir Bob Geldof (makes things happen regardless of obstacles!)
  • Lance Armstrong (positive mental attitude)
  • Steve Jobs (great product – 5M iPods expected to be sold pre-Xmas!)

I felt very sorry for the dyslexic, guinea-pig student who had been led to regurgitate such hokum in describing himself as coming from a “family of serial entrepreneurs”. He had nothing more than a failed idea for a new card game to show us!

In between these extremes there was some evidence of genuine potential partnerships between business and education. Andy Pickles from Rotherham, now a successful media businessman, has created amongst similarly motivated local entrepreneurs You Explore, an on-line and interactive service for students to assess what might be needed to work in such industries, and motivated by his own poor experience of education locally. Somewhat unfortunately for the government Andy agreed with me in discussion that testing and OFSTED and league tables underpinned a culture of fear in schools, with conservative school managers frustrating his attempts to initiate projects.

Lastly, there was a recurrent and troubling expectation that the government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme would be the key to facilitating much wider use of the Creative Partnerships model, in so far as the Local Education Partnerships (LEPs) to be established at arms length by local authorities can be delegated full responsibility for not just the building work but also the curriculum. Given that  the LEPs will be constituted with 80% representation from the private contractor, 10% from the local authority and 10% from the government’s Partnership for Schools agency, the chances are pretty good that a Hugh Balfour conception of creativity – crass, populist and aesthetically degraded – will predominate over a Stephen Heppell approach.

All of this strikes me as a microcosm of the anarchy of government education policy in this period of post-Blair transition.

The vanity and conceit of empire in its foreign policy, myopic and shot through with contradiction, is being similarly exposed in the empires envisaged for teachers’ and learners’ minds. Our brains are expected to become their new raw materials for profiteering. How do I know?

A perspectives paper by MP James Purnell of 16 June 2005, when he was still at the DCMS, gives a flavour of the more excitable versions of this political fantasising.


“We want to return to the ideas behind Cool Britannia, but this time without the parties.  We want to do everything we can to support these vital sectors of our economy.  They are a key part of Britain’s manufacturing future.  They are growing markets.  We are good at them.


So, next time I ask you if I can pick your brains, I hope you won’t think I’m after a souvenir.  I don’t want a gold disc, what I do want is Britain to be the world’s creative hub, to be a golden circle for creativity.”


Purnell can be confident in seeking such a blatant incorporation of the creative mind into a business agenda because western capitalism has proved so successful at doing so over the last fifty years, largely through advertising, and especially with those icons and symbols denoting insurrection –  the hammer and sickle, Che, the red star, the very notion of social revolution.

So, it’s a hard time for radical pedagogy.

The 2006 Education Bill had huge Labour and Tory consensus. KS3 is being overhauled by the QCA, yet how far will the shackles of testing and tables be removed to make change meaningful? Testing itself seems to have an utterly laissez-faire future – lots for some, little for others, depending on local





CP propaganda

decisions. Then there is the “British-ness” we are being called on to instil in students who are largely disgusted with Britain’s role in world affairs, and coping with the divisive privatisations of their public services by the same demagogues.

Lord Adonis, the neo-liberal ventriloquist operating successive ministerial dummies, is expected to depart with Blair this summer, but will the signature City Academy and Trust Schools be going with him? The new KS4 Vocational Diplomas will be far from creative, except in their entrenched replication of class relationships within education, especially if they become compulsory up to 18.

But one of many lingering unanswered questions for Blair & Co.’s harnessing of schools to the “knowledge economy” concerns the myth it peddles about work and capitalism. Profit is not made by generously rewarding highly-trained skill but by driving down and down the price at which workers sell their manual and mental labour skills. Why, for example, are corporations not rushing off to set up production in Finland or Cuba, with the best national education systems, rather than China and elsewhere with much poorer achievements? Might it be that less educated workers are less likely to set up unions or question means of production in other ways?

Meanwhile, where can we look for signs of hope in our schools? Is there any working model inside the UK that shines a guiding beam of light in our darkness? Is there any prospect of education playing a constructive part in social justice for students? In unreservedly answering affirmatively I would suggest three reasons.

Firstly, despite the rigidity of UK neo-liberalism’s current prescriptions in education the flip side of its propaganda does mean that “good” schools will emerge, especially where staff and managers are strong enough to mould their work to the real needs of their communities, often in opposition to Whitehall diktats. These will tend to be primary schools where the SATs-determined culture will be minimalised, so that kids are treated as such, not Key Stage levels, and the creative and collective aspects of learning cherished. Music, sport and art will still be happening, maybe even some second language teaching and humanities as well.

Secondly, for some pretty obvious reasons to do with kids’ own futures, I estimate that concern about and responses to climate change and sustainable development are much more advanced in schools than we realise. ‘Walking buses” (pedestrian snakes along local streets ‘picking up’ kids as they go) are replacing the cars parents previously used across most of Hammersmith and Fulham local authority, Eco Clubs are springing up in schools to co-ordinate arts, media, literacy and numeracy work on local and global concerns, re-cycling of paper, glass and metals in schools is pretty normal with local authority help.

Then there are exemplary projects. St. James secondary in Barnet where students attended a European Eco-Parliament in 2006 has erected their own wind turbine. Prestwich College, Bury has set up School Students Against Climate Change at www.ssacc.org.uk. Howard of Effingham School in Surrey has set up Youth Against Climate Change. Obviously these are not exclusively arts projects, but they have the important quality of self-determination, reclaiming learning from bureaucratic centralised diktat.

Lastly, I would argue that the best of the Creative Partnership projects do represent such hope and proof that another education is possible which is inclusive, humanist, and truly creative. This is in spite of the PR for BSF, the twaddle about the “knowledge economy” and the “cool Britannia” posing. As ever it will have to be fought for, by cutting an ideological swathe through such bankrupt forests of rhetoric, but it can work and it is happening. A Year 10 visual arts project in 2004 at Kingswood High School, Hull entitled A Safer Place To Live, linking community housing issues to those in Palestine via the work of local photographer Rich Wiles, produced images discussed on Radio 4 and featured in a TES supplement.

As an Expressive Arts teacher I would say that wouldn’t I, but don’t just take my word for it! You can exploit the following official promo to boost such work in your school…

“The most effective programmes had a real purpose that motivated teachers and pupils, regardless of their prior experience. For many pupils, the high quality of the experience was directly related to the unpredictable approaches taken by creative practitioners working with teachers and the different relationships that developed. Pupils were particularly inspired by opportunities to work directly in the creative industries. Such involvement gave them high aspirations for the future, informed by a clear understanding of the relevant skills.”

From Executive summary in

‘Creative Partnerships: Initiative and Impact’ Ofsted 2006

More info and contact details at: www.creative-partnerships.com

Key CP policy document is: Nurturing Creativit

  For a good laugh see the whole text at:


This “conquest of cool”, as Thomas Frank labels it, is summarised for North America in his book of that name. It was published in the very year Tony Blair was partying with Noel Gallagher et al in 10 Downing Street, explicitly hiking Cool Britain to his ambitions.

University of Chicago Press  1997. ISBN 0 226 26012 7


at:  www.youthagainstclimatechange.org

Many other green school projects and contacts are at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/specialreport/page/0,,1807829,00.html

For an excellent demolition of the ‘knowledge economy’ in education see Alex Callinicos’ pamphlet Universities In A Neo-Liberalist World available from: www.bookmarks.uk.com

Full document at: