Stretching young imaginations

Robert Fisher

We need less testing and more originality, writes Robert Fisher

IIt is five years since Ken Robinson's seminal report on creativity and culture was published and then promptly shelved by Whitehall. Like a depth charge, its impact, although delayed, has been profound. Professor Robinson recommended that "teachers should raise the priority they give to creative and cultural education" and called for more funding and support to help them do it. Since then schools have been increasingly aware of the need to build such ideas into their planning. However, in England, the national curriculum, the literacy and numeracy strategies, secondary subject divisions and the regime of testing, tables and targets continue to block innovation.

Charles Clarke says: "Creativity isn't an add-on. It must form a vital and integral part of every child's experience of school." The Government has supported the Secretary of State for Education and met one of Robinson's recommendations by allocating at least pound;110 million over six years to develop the Creative Partnerships programme as well as funding research and curriculum development in creativity.

Research by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority found that the quality of pupils' work can improve dramatically when they have a chance to develop their thinking skills and have time to explore, to play with ideas, solve problems with others and get feedback on creative tasks. Inspectors have found much the same. The authority supports arts education through the Arts Alive! website (see end), but creativity is not just about the arts: Professor Robinson's report made the arts its prime focus and ignored, for example, creativity in maths.

Creativity certainly involves the whole curriculum, but the packed timetable remains a problem. Junior pupils spend half their classroom time learning English and maths. More than half of primary heads say too little time is devoted to art, music and design and technology. Some schools spend as little as half an hour a week on music and do not offer art in Year 6 so they can devote more time to practising for tests. The Government's music manifesto is a response to this problem; in fact, its commitment to providing instrumental tuition for all can be seen as a late acknowledgement of one of Professor Robinson's recommendation.

The national primary strategy's emphasis on creativity has been welcomed by teachers. Its new pack on learning and teaching, out this term, offers schools support in developing ideas. But What can be done to overcome the remaining blocks to creativity? Here are five suggestions towards realising Professor Robinson's vision:

* We need to define the curriculum, not just in relation to its external function - preparing the workforce of the future (the Government view), but to its internal purposes - enabling children to develop their creative potential and lead worthwhile lives. We need to connect children not just to the culture they inherit but to a future yet to be created - from the earliest years.

* We must cut down on prescription. We need more space for the creative curriculum - projects that surprise, energise and enthuse pupils and their teachers; sustained pieces of research in which children can express their findings not only in writing but through graphs and pictures; opportunities to communicate experience, and engage through enterprise and imagination.

We need to move towards a curriculum that is half set by government and half creative, devised by schools, as in other innovative countries in Europe and the Far East.

* Let's develop more creative partnerships. Not only in the arts but with local business, health workers, scientists, students and whoever can add an extra dimension, bring outside knowledge, act as models of inspiration and have worthwhile passions to share. As a child said during one schools industry project: "I like it because one day I shall be in the real world."

* Let us cut the culture of continual testing. It is not testing that raises standards, but teaching. We need more time to teach, less time spent on test preparation. We need to rely more on teacher assessment, and our targets and learning objectives should relate not only to curriculum content but to learning skills. Inspection should focus on how learning skills are developed through creative teaching.

* We must listen more to the voice of teachers, pupils and others in the community. What do they want from their schools? What energises them? A good education system is a place of inter-connections and shared enquiry, not a place of continual and unconnected demands. It is a place of communication, with space to question, to experiment and to respond to others - a real community of enquiry. It builds intelligence by making creativity and communication the heart of our shared enterprise.

Teaching is, as the educational thinker Lawrence Stenhouse said, "an art of high ambition". There is no more important task than preparing our children for an uncertain future. More of the same is not good enough. Let us have the courage to make humane creativity the central purpose of education, revitalise Robinson's vision and build environments where creative teachers and learners can thrive.

Dr Robert Fisher is director of the Centre for Research in Teaching Thinking at Brunel University. He is to speak on creative minds at the NasenTES special needs exhibition, October 22-23 at the Business Design Centre, Islington, London: read 'All our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education': Curriculum in Action: Alive!:


All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, was published in May 1999. It called for a major restructuring of the national curriculum to ensure parity for arts and humanities. Its recommendations included:

* Teachers' in-service training to include specific provision on creative and cultural education.

* Urgent action to remedy the decline in arts and humanities specialisms in teacher training.

* A national programme of in-service training for artists, scientists and other creative professionals to work with schools.

* Tax incentives for businesses to provide expertise or funds to develop creative and cultural education.

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Robert Fisher

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