Great imaginings: how creative thinking may have come of age

5th June 2009 at 01:00
A decade ago, a landmark New Labour report argued that Britain's future success depended on moving teaching beyond narrow academic parameters. The response has been slow, but with a clutch of initiatives getting into their stride all that might be about to change. And, as Helen Ward reports, the benefits could be more far-reaching than originally realised

"Our aim must be to create a nation where the creative talents of all the people are used to build a true enterprise economy for the twenty-first century - where we compete on brains, not brawn." - Tony Blair, foreword to All Our Futures, 1999

en years ago a report was published that in many ways defined the optimism that characterised much of New Labour's early approach to education. All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education argued that Britain's success in the 21st century would be dependent on the intellectual capital of our creative sectors: the nation's schools needed to make creativity a cornerstone of its teaching

As the financial pillars of economic success have crumbled in the global economic downturn, the legacy of All Our Futures has become increasingly important. Has it made any difference?

The report argued that in order to meet the challenges of a post-industrial economy, schools needed to teach pupils how to be creative and to think imaginatively about solutions to problems.

The idea made headlines around the world and few would doubt that its impact on educational thinking, but changes in practice have been slow. At best, they have trickled through the system, which still largely rates pupils on their capacity to memorise chunks of knowledge. But the signs are that the pace of change is about to step up significantly.

Paul Collard, chief executive of Creativity, Culture and Education, a charity set up earlier this year to run creative and cultural programmes in schools, said that while the report had some impact, there is still a long way to go.

"The sector of the economy that will work for us long term is the creative industries. It is that ability to invent jobs from nothing, from ideas, that we need. We are not exporting copper and we are not competitive in manufacturing.

"When the report came out in 1999, this was the cutting edge of thinking about teaching the workforce for the 21st century. Now there is a real sense that we were ahead of the pack and that the lead is being eroded.

"We need to educate people to invent jobs. We should be spending billions unlocking the talent of young people. That is where our wealth is. That is the only wealth we have left."

One of the largest schemes to emerge directly from All Our Futures was Creative Partnerships, launched in 2002. It gives pupils opportunities to work with creative professionals, such as fashion designers, writers, artists and entrepreneurs. Originally targeted at schools in the most deprived areas in England, it is now open to all and has been praised by Ofsted.

Creative Partnerships has worked intensively with over 2,700 schools across England, and more than 12,800 schools have had some involvement in the programme.

In 2006, Ofsted found that the programme stimulated children's creativity, improving their ability to take risks, show resilience and collaborate. However, it said pupils were often unclear about how they could apply these skills independently.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) discovered that young people involved in Creative Partnerships activities achieved GCSE results two-and-a-half grades better than similar young people in other schools. The projects could also be linked to a reduction in truancy in primary schools.

Caroline Sharp, who directed the NFER research, said it was not possible to say definitively that being involved in the scheme was the cause of the better grades, but that other obvious factors had been ruled out.

"I think All Our Futures has had an impact. Certainly, schools took account of the ideas in it, that creativity and cultural education are things that schools can teach children. It has recognised that creativity is not something that children either have or not, but is something education can help facilitate and foster. That has become accepted now.

"I think all sorts of agendas are coming together now that relate to it, such as community cohesion and creativity for economic reasons, alongside the fact that it is fulfilling and part of lifelong learning.

"Where it should go now is an interesting question. There continues to be an argument about creativity across the curriculum. It seems to have located itself very clearly with the creative arts - and that is a natural partnership - but in a way it is better to see what it means across the curriculum."

The recommendations of the primary curriculum review by Sir Jim Rose, scheduled to be adopted in schools in 2011, will go some way to achieve this, believes Sir Ken Robinson, chair of the national advisory committee on creative and cultural education that produced All Our Futures.

Indeed, five years ago Sir Ken wrote in The TES that he had spotted what he thought was a brightening of the prospects for creativity. But the Rose review presents a significant opportunity, he says.

It recommends six areas of learning to replace the current 11 statutory and three non-statutory subjects. The aim is to provide more flexibility through prescribing less.

Sir Ken has long argued for schools to go beyond shoehorning creativity into the timetable as another school subject. It is about making changes to the system itself, he says.

"The problem, particularly in Britain, is that all discussions about education become a variation between traditionalists and progressives, which is code for grammar vs comprehensive. We want a new conversation that is not about traditional vs progressive.

"It is important that kids learn to read and write, understand science and history. But it's also important that they develop their individual talents, that they all have their imagination stimulated, that education reflects the different ways they learn, that they leave school feeling confident not humiliated."

In a recent talk, Sir Ken concluded that the education system was set up to reward academic skills which were most important for work at the beginning of the 20th century. Now, he says, we have to go beyond tinkering and rethink its fundamental principles.

"We were all disappointed at the time (of the publication of All Our Futures) at the degree of government's lack of response to the report," he said.

"We were not disappointed with the professional response. That was fantastic. We were articulating arguments they knew to be true. But I think at the time the government thought the report went further than they were expecting.

"I think they missed an opportunity.

"I would not hesitate to publish it again, and I would publish it in bold with underlining," he said.

So, while creativity is a more significant element of the curriculum than ever before, there can be little doubt that the step change that many had hoped for in those optimistic days of 1999 has yet to happen.


- All Our Futures published 59 recommendations for improving the "creative and cultural development" of pupils in school and outside.

- It argued for a national strategy to help young people cope with cultural diversity, respect different values and face an "uncertain future".

- Concerns were raised that pressures in education inhibited the creative abilities of pupils and teachers. In particular, there were worries that science was losing its "vitality".

- The report called for closer relationships between schools and museums, galleries, theatres and orchestras.

- Its main message was to demand a new balance in education - in national priorities, the curriculum, teaching methods and assessment.


- Creative Partnerships programme: founded in 2002 with initial funding of Pounds 110 million over four years. Aims to build long-term sustainable relationships between creative professionals and schools. Relaunched in 2008 as three specific programmes.

- Space for Sport and Arts programme: to build 300 facilities in primary schools for Pounds 130 million. It concluded after building 269 new or refurbished facilities at a cost of Pounds 134 million.

- Artsmark: seeks to recognise schools offering a wide range of arts provision. In 2008, there were 4,128 Artsmark schools.

- 'Find Your Talent': a Pounds 25 million scheme launched last year as part of the Government's ambition to give young people in England the chance to experience high-quality arts and culture, offering five hours of cultural activities per week.

- Early years: creative development has been one of the six areas of learning since the introduction of curriculum guidance for the foundation stage in 2000.

- QCA: launched its guidance on creativity in 2003.

- Ofsted: the new Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) for schools, introduced in September 2007, includes a reference to creativity in the section on quality of provision.

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