What are the arts for? Why do we encourage creativity? Why do we teach children to play, to perform, to paint?
There is no single answer to these questions – culture and creativity permeate every aspect of our education and our lives. But that very ubiquity means it is difficult to articulate the value of creativity. We come closest to understanding its importance when it is absent, when for example we see children denied the chance to play – to be spontaneous, to have fun and to enjoy themselves. Life seems diminished.
It should go without saying that art and design, dance, drama, music and other creative subjects should be an important part of every child’s school curriculum. We must never underestimate the value of the knowledge, skills and experiences that these subjects introduce into children’s lives. They also bring an added bonus with them in the way in which studying these subjects enable the next generation to enrich our society as a whole.
The American academic ED Hirsch coined the term "cultural literacy" to describe the canon of ideas and cultural references which he argues a person needs in order to fully understand what is said and written in their society. It’s easy to see this concept in action – watch a TV programme, listen to a politician speaking, or chat to a relative about their holiday, and you will more than likely be faced with some sort of allusion to culture, whether that is Romeo and Juliet or Harry Potter.
Although these references seem obvious to us, at some point everybody needs to be told what they are, and to ensure that every child is literate in this way that needs to happen in schools. Without this sort of education, children lack a connection to our shared cultural history. This is a key component of citizenship, one which gives us a sense of having a stake in society.
Equally as important as learning about the arts, however, is learning how to use the arts; how to create rather than only to consume what others have created. This should be one of the core components of every child’s education, not just those whose families have an economic or geographical advantage.
The economic value of creativity will only become greater as we head into a future where our repetitive tasks will be taken over by machines – creativity gives humans the edge, and that’s where the jobs will be. As economic progress comes to rely increasingly on technological and scientific innovation, creativity will be just as essential for chemists, engineers and software developers as it is for sculptors, dancers and musicians.
Some people are still quick to dismiss arts education as being irrelevant to the world of work, but they are out of step with the evidence and with the opinions of business leaders. Silicon Valley would be nothing without creativity, and its leading lights know it and say it. Earlier this year Google’s director of engineering Dr Damon Horowitz told a conference that it is as important to hire arts and humanities graduates as those with business and technology degrees.
Meanwhile leading American venture capitalist and presidential innovation fellow Scott Hartley, has argued that specialists in the humanities or social sciences will drive forward the most creative and successful new business ideas.
In the future, it will not be enough to simply know how to operate a piece of technology. The role of humans will be to use these techniques to create new products and services. This is already happening – new industries involving virtual reality and video gaming fuse creative skills with technology. The UK is already a world-leader in these fields, but we need to invest more in the future if we are to stay ahead. In 2017, UKIE, the trade body for the UK’s games and interactive entertainment industry, pointed out that our education system is failing to supply the talent pipeline quickly enough. If we want to maintain our position at the forefront of these emerging industries, we have to equip students with both technical knowledge and the creative skills to apply it.
For our long-term prosperity and our happiness, there is no better investment than to give all children the opportunity to play, to explore their curiosity and creativity by making art of every sort as a part of their education. As the pace of technological change quickens, schools must give children the capacity to be resourceful, to adapt to disruption and to dream of new solutions to the problems we all face. Today’s young people will face challenges their grandparents could not have imagined and, if they are to thrive in an uncertain future, a creative education is not a luxury – it is the greatest gift we can give them.
Darren Henley OBE is the chief executive of Arts Council England
Creativity: Why It Matters by Darren Henley is out now, published by Elliott & Thompson