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Away with orthodoxy

Creativity needs to be fostered and prescriptive education is its enemy, says John Steers

Creativity" is shorthand for a raft of multi-faceted abilities and predispositions that should be fostered throughout the curriculum. Creativity is not the exclusive prerogative of the arts, although it should be much in evidence in school arts departments. Creative individuals may display characteristics that include a tolerance for ambiguity and a certain playfulness with ideas, materials or processes; an ability to concentrate and persist, to keep on teasing and worrying away at a problem rather than seek premature closure.

They are likely to recognise, or have a willingness to explore, unlikely connections. They may be particularly self-aware and have the courage to pursue their ideas in the face of opposition. Most of all, the creative individual - teacher or student - must have the confidence to take intellectual and intuitive risks in the cause of innovation, breaking or pushing back the boundaries of what is known or thought possible, or in achieving new aesthetic conjunctions.

The Qualifications and Assessment Authority, in response to the report All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, 1999), has convened a working party to advise on guidance for schools about ways to promote pupils' creativity. It will be deeply depressing and antithetical if the QCA solution is to present schools with yet another template to evaluate or list the supposed competencies associated with the inherently elusive and individual qualities linked to creative behaviours.

In recent years many arts educators have expressed concern about an increased orthodoxy of approach and lack of experimentation in arts education and a very limied view, from the Office for Standards in Education among others, of what constitutes "good practice". Orthodoxy involves uncritically following generally held beliefs or views - the statutory prescriptions of curriculum and assessment. By contrast, creativity is allied with the pursuit of ideas that are the antithesis of orthodoxy, ideas that are innovative, radical, liberal, and sometimes heretical or revolutionary.

Creative pupils need creative teachers with the confidence to take creative risks. This takes exceptional commitment and vision in our increasingly high stakes education system with the pressures to conform created by the national curriculum, formal assessment, league tables, OFSTED inspection, limited resources and large teaching groups in schools. Performance-related pay provides a further incentive for teachers to avoid being seen as "out of line".

The concept of high-reliability schools, analogous to air traffic control, where any failure of the system is potentially disastrous, severely limits the scope for individual teachers to innovate or push out the boundaries. Instead, subjugated to successive governments' vain search for a "teacher proof" education system, teachers are often reduced, in TES guru Ted Wragg's haunting words, to "curriculum delivery operatives".

If the QCA wants to encourage creativity the solution should be obvious: eliminate prescription and provide teachers with vastly more autonomy. Above all, government must learn to trust teachers and give them permission to take creative risks.

John Steers is a senior research fellow at the University of Surrey Roehampton and general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art amp; Design, The Gatehouse, Corsham Court, Wiltshire SN13 0BZ. Tel: 01249 714825Web:

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