'A narrow focus on English and maths stifles creativity'

A sixth-form college principal says government policy makes him fear for the future cultural fabric of society

John Abbott

maths english art creativity sixth form college

I count myself as very fortunate. I am generally in good health, I have a beautiful family, I am principal at one of the best sixth form colleges in the country, I work with a group of fantastically talented and dedicated people and to top it all I have had the privilege of welcoming friends and colleagues to five new building opening ceremonies.

I spent some time quietly preparing for the customary celebratory words that I would share with the gathered guests for one of these events. As I did this, I was left feeling more concerned about the future of our education system than I was jubilant about the amazing new building we had created.

English and maths

My concern is that our current education system seems to have lost its way somewhat. Now you could point the finger to various places that might have brought me to this conclusion, but my particular angst is the continued focus and importance placed on English and maths education, and how they are perceived to be the panacea to all of our country's ailments. This would appear to me to be at the detriment of other equally important subjects and the whole concept of a broad comprehensive education for all.

Let me be clear: English and maths are important. Being able to communicate effectively through a variety of mediums and a good numerical understanding are crucial life skills. But the way in which we focus on and celebrate these subjects in the way we currently do creates a number of negative consequences. I have two very personal examples to demonstrate this.

Firstly, and apologies – I appreciate using family to make a broader point is straying well into dangerous territory – but being a relatively new parent does give you a different user's view of our education system. 

Different strengths

I am blessed with two daughters, aged 8 and 10, who attend an outstanding primary school which is doing a fantastic job. My eldest is what might often be described as a typical first child: a pleaser, hard worker, sensible and academically bright. She revises and studies diligently and does well in her weekly school tests on numeracy and literacy. Her starred and stickered test sheets regularly take pride of place on our fridge.

My youngest, as all children are, is different. She is much more outgoing, socially confident and very creative. She is making reasonable progress in literacy, but she really struggles with numeracy. No matter how long we spend on the kitchen table with toes and fingers in the air, she finds it hard to visualise the numbers and any success is largely down to rote learning. She just isn’t very good at maths.

What she is particularly good at is painting and drawing. This comes easily to her and is something she just loves to do. She will spend days on end modelling "junk" into "art" and loves to dance or sing in a carefree, crazy way that her elder sister would never dream of. Through her reports and weekly tests she already knows that she is "below expected progress" for numeracy, and she has been like that for some time. The impact of this is that she doesn’t think the creative stuff is important because it’s not celebrated or valued. 


I’m not sure she will ever be that great at maths, I think she will probably get better, but the scary thing as both an educator and a dad is that she is likely to spend at least the next eight years being repeatedly told about her shortcoming in this subject without equal compensatory praise for the things she is good at.

My second example relates to the current regulations of post-16 study around GCSE English and maths resits. There are students blessed with exceptional creative, musical or athletic talents, who have probably spent over five years being told they are no good at English or maths before having this publicly confirmed by their GCSEs. These students are now being required to resit the subjects as part of their post-16 studies.

Progressing to post-16 education is supposed to be a watershed event. Imagine the disappointment when it is explained that these young people will need to continue with subjects that almost certainly were their least enjoyable and the further anxiety it creates by having a different timetable to the majority of students.

Mental health crisis

I just cannot accept that there is not a link between all of this and the epidemic of mental health issues we are currently having to deal with. If we the educators and policymakers are not able to recognise, celebrate and reward the broader range of skills, talent and abilities that we all possess beyond English and maths then I fear not only for the broader physical and mental health of our children and young people, but also for the future cultural fabric of our society.

I am delighted that at Huish we continue to make the strategic decision to invest in improving our specialist resources not just for students who are likely to pursue occupations in these fields, but for all students through the provision of activities beyond their academic studies. Activities that they just enjoy, that aren’t assessed and that we can celebrate. By doing this we will promote a broader positive health and help develop a lifelong interest in the arts, music or sport.

John Abbott is principal and chief executive of Richard Huish College in Taunton

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