Don't be so artless

7th August 1998 at 01:00
The Government's pledges for education appear to have squeezed out creative endeavours. Christopher Price discusses how and why they should be returned to the curriculum.

With a new Education Act about to become law and the national curriculum up for review next year, there are still pieces of unfinished business in school policy which need ministers' attention; and the most uncomfortable of these is the growing fault line between the competing priorities of the Government for raising standards and developing creativity.

There is no real reason why these two priorities should be incompatible. They were never seen as doing so in the days of the old ''broad and balanced'' curricular culture, once the domain of HM Inspectorate and the predecessor bodies of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. But this culture has now been superseded by one of inspection and ''standards''.

An assumption has grown up both in the public mind and that of the teaching profession that ''standards'' of achievement (as laid down by Parliament and interpreted by the head of the Office for Standards in Education) matter more than the development of creativity. Education, education, education, the New Message now goes, is about measurable basic subject standards; it has become a static rather than a dynamic concept.

Since the election, however, a new government priority has become discernible. The Prime Minister has set up a creative industries task force and David Blunkett a national advisory committee on creative and cultural education - which is due to report after the summer holidays. Both are peopled by highly distinguished individuals, for some of whom their failure to attain conventional standards within the school systems of their day is as significant as their success in exploiting their native creativity in real life.

This particular fault line must now be resolved by ministers before the cracks in the policy concrete become dangerously wide. Any change in the leadership of OFSTED next year might signal the new balance of priorities.

The problem is not new: it was noticed by Kenneth Baker, the former education secretary, when he inserted the word ''cultural'' into the statutory purposes of the 1988 Education Act to try to expand the narrow ''mental, physical and moralspiritual'' objectives of the 20th century into a more comprehensive and creative context for the 21st.

But, in allowing all the existing uncreative subject baronies to swamp his compulsorily inspected and tested curriculum with their pet syllabuses, Mr Baker made this cultural objective quite impossible to achieve. Even the recruitment of Sir Ron Dearing five years later as a school Dyno-rod engineer to remove the curricular gunge from the system came too late; by 1993 a new queue of subject specialists was waiting to inject sex, technology, religion and careers into the freed-up curricular spaces, a queue which citizenship has now joined.

Just as too much undergrowth strangles a garden, subject incrementalism strangles a creative curriculum. It is worth remembering that independent schools, because they understood that standards were nothing without creativity, refused to shackle themselves to the inflexibilities of the national curriculum 10 years ago.

So while we should heed the Jeremiahs who keep telling us that the arts, creativity and culture are at risk in state schools, it is important not to exaggerate the influence of government policies and committees in putting matters right.

The whole culture market is now a powerful influence as Cool Britannia has its effect on the popular psyche and the mechanistic classroom regimes of Japan and Taiwan suddenly seem less attractive pedagogic exemplars; pupils themselves can see that the creative industries have a lot going for them and many teachers continue to make heroic efforts to find space for imagination in the timetable; beyond all this, national pride in creativity is difficult to stifle; the seeds of artistic endeavour become positively counter-cultural as they did in the 1960s and conformist school regimes are often the anvil upon which young people forge their own creativity.

So Mr Blunkett's creativity and culture committee can help these trends by reporting with panache and confidence in the knowledge that the spirit of the age is on their side and obsessions with testing are on the wane. If their report gains the full-hearted support of the Secretary of State, it could boost both the morale and the professional confidence of those teachers who want to emerge from the negativities of yesterday's league table culture into a more creative and positive curricular environment.

* Christopher Price is chair of Yorkshire and Humberside Arts and editor of the Stakeholder magazine. He is a former director of Leeds Polytechnic.

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