Lighten up, Mr Clarke

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Writers and artists join The TES in urging the Government to free up the primary curriculum to let a beam of creativity through. Nick Pyke reports

Last week we launched our Target Creativity campaign to liberate primary schools from a regime of relentless test preparation and arbitrary targets.

According to a TES poll, nine out of 10 headteachers believe, with us, that creativity has been driven out of the primary classroom, and that the targets for 11-year-olds will prove impossible to achieve. Four out of five heads want Education Secretary Charles Clarke to abandon the key stage 2 targets altogether.

We interviewed prominent educationists and award-winning teachers who were unanimous in saying there must be more official encouragement for creativity, both through the arts and through imaginative approaches to teaching. Now they have been joined by an impressive range of writers and musicians.

They are hugely concerned about children's access to the arts, and a number will be making their point in person to the Education Secretary.

Flautist Sir James Galway, composer Michael Kamen, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and Poet Laureate Andrew Motion will all be paying visits to the Department for Education and Skills later this month. We look forward to the response.

Do you support the campaign? Tell us about creative approaches and alternative targets at your school or your ideas for these. Email us:

Philip Pullman Author of The Amber Spyglass, winner of the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year

Something has gone wrong with education. Somehow, over the past quarter of a century we have seen confidence leaking away, and something else slowly seeping in to take its place. I think this something else is poisonous, and we ought to get rid of it at once. The glowing, radioactive core of the whole is the national curriculum and the literacy strategy and the national tests.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority thinks that reading consists of using a range of strategies to decode and comment on the structure and organisation of texts. That's it. That's what it wants children of 11 to do when they read.

It doesn't seem to know that reading can also be enjoyed . You don't even read a whole book. You read bits, which are extracted and photocopied.

I can't say clearly enough: writing doesn't happen like this. It is telling children a lie to say that this is the way you write stories.

The danger of tests and league tables is that they demand clear, unequivocal, one-dimensional results. As a result, the children who are supposed to be at the heart of the educational process are turned into little twitching cells of response, like the nerve in the leg of Galvani's frog.

James Galway International flautist

Our concern is that music is being squeezed out entirely, even though it is at the cutting edge of what makes a human being. We're talking about producing a human being with more facets than a grasp of the 3Rs.

Singing is terribly important. What are you going to do when your child is born, sing to her or repeat the two-times table?

Sometimes we need inspiring people teaching us, rather than ones who are just going along, doing the job. When I go around the world, particularly in Germany or Italy, I find ordinary people have a real feeling for art and a vision of life. They are just normal people. But it is missing in our classrooms.

Michael Rosen Poet and children's author

I'm distressed by the way in which we find that Year 5 and 6 teachers, under pressure from the national tests machine, end up tearing pages out of novels and using them as worksheets, instead of reading whole books. This runs totally contrary to what books and literature are all about. At the heart of every piece of poetry or drama are ideas which involve human beings and their foibles and fears and excitements. Writers for children are interested in engaging with the child as a whole human being. Test papers are concerned with chopping literature up. I call it 'the Long John Silver question'. National tests would ask which leg was wooden. Yet that is so trivial compared to what a novel like Treasure Island is about. We have to do all we can to get rid of this tests machine.

Antony Gormley Artist, creator of The Angel of the North and Field for The British Isles

All I know is that in terms of the projects I have done, it is the children between the ages of five and nine who often become the engine of the entire thing.

I've just come back from doing Asian Field in China, and they were the most responsive of all. This is the age to catch them in terms of imagination.

The language of "you can't do that" that one says to oneself as one gets older, those valves of self-criticism haven't yet been exercised. It is just fantastic. One of the saddest things is when you go into school and see that everyone's been doing butterflies that morning - creativity by rote, which isn't creativity at all.

The reinforcement of the authority of individual experience at an early age inculcates a powerful message of self-determination. That's the tragedy of the way schooling has gone with the assessment and clipboard mentality.

Doris Lessing Novelist

In a week when the headteachers are in uproar because of the Government's muddling of the funding system for education it seems almost frivolous to persist in asking "just what kind of person does the Government aim to turn out", remembering that at one point its prescription was to give a computer to every child. It used to aim at producing well-rounded individuals.

Perhaps the interminable tests that are driving the poor teachers mad could be abolished in favour of freeing time for drawing lessons, singing or music appreciation, reading, drama and even the dear old-fashioned nature studies that used to enliven classrooms.

Andrew Motion Poet Laureate

My feeling is that there isn't enough time in the national curriculum as it exists to allow the development of pupils' imagination, and not enough time for the teachers to work on that if they wanted to. I recognise that it is not only a question of fiddling with the curriculum, but that a lot of teachers themselves suffer from a lack of self-confidence.

If we were to get writers going into schools on a much more regular basis, they could do a tremendous amount of good. But it can't be left at that.

When they are not there the teachers need to continue developing whatever the writers have been doing. We need to think about teacher training and refresher courses for teachers.

More time needs to be given to imaginative work in general. There is no doubt in my mind about this whatsoever. We must allow the imagination and the education of the imagination to become part of the educational process.

I must say the noises coming out of the Department for Education and Skills are much more receptive of that kind of idea. There is a real sense that something might change, fundamentally. I'm much more optimistic than I have been.

Jacqueline Wilson Author, whose novels for children include The Suitcase Kid, The Lottie Project, Bad Girls and The Illustrated Mum

If you speak to any Year 6 child now the word SATs comes up. It is a shame that for many children these last glorious years are used up revising for them. I have nothing but respect and sympathy for the teachers themselves.

But it is very difficult to squeeze everything in. There was a time when, if something had happened to one of the children, good or bad, a teacher could use this, talk it out with the class and take it as the basis for writing stories. Now if it is not part of the curriculum it doesn't get done. I do think it's a shame. I like going into schools.

They're fun places. But teachers are having to cope with so much at the moment I don't think the children get a chance. The sheer joy of getting cracking on doing something spontaneous has gone by the board.

Adrian Mitchell Poet and playwright

It is a disaster at the moment. Education has become dominated by tests and exams. Teachers are trying to teach still, but they are chained up, and the children are chained up. I think it is pathetic. The children I know, like my grandchildren, they are very creative in the way most children are. But when I see their school work, it is forced into little modules, tiny boxes.

I haven't got enough anger to express it all. Schools should close down until we have worked things out.

Julian Lloyd Webber International cellist

Education involves more than two or three key subjects. It should be a rounded thing. This Government is trying more than most to do something about music education. They realise there is a problem, and that music has gradually disappeared from schools. I compare this with the Far East and the difference is astonishing. I find it part of the school curriculum, which puts us to shame. Western classical music is taken up by a big, big way by these kids. A city like Seoul has six professional symphony orchestras.

The main problem is that there is no protected time for learning music at school.

Evelyn Glennie International percussionist

Our concern is that not enough pupils are having the oppor-tunity to pick up an instrument and participate in music. The reason that is a problem is that a lot of peripatetic teachers are no longer in schools.

I had terrific teaching at a normal school, with percussion lessons provided by the school. My peripatetic teacher has now retired and he has not been replaced. So hundreds of pupils in the north-east region of Scotland have been prevented from having the same opportunity.

There is still a good amateur music scene, and a good professional one as well. But we are rapidly losing that because the listening skills of our young people have changed dramatically. It is so easy for them to have an interactive musical experience. They are dealing with technology. They can push a button instead of rolling their sleeves up and getting their hands dirty. I desperately want to put forward the idea that music is central to art, to science, to movement, to maths, to language.

Michael Kamen Composer whose credits include film scores for 'Band of Brothers' and 'Robin Hood-Prince of Thieves'

Pop music in England is pervasive and in comparison I think the study of classical music in England is very "straight". It certainly doesn't focus on the joys of music, which it should - a principle that I adhere to. The school system is not as open to helping young children enjoy music, and doesn't really explain the wonderful history of music before our own time.

I'd like to ask Charles Clarke to "lighten up". The window is open to helping kids be responsive to all creative activities.

Darryl Jaffray Head of education, Royal Opera House

It is wonderful that music, drama, art and dance are in the national curriculum. Unfortunately, however, these subjects have suffered because of the pressure that teachers and students are under. When we reach the point where teachers say 'we can't do a creative project with the RoH because we have got to meet these targets', then it's a problem for everybody. Schools in difficult circumstances are suffering disproportionately - those which most need to be offering a rich experience are the ones under the most pressure to meet the targets. They could gain an enormous amount from the arts. We have seen it time and time again.

Larry Westland Founder and executive director of Music For Youth which runs the TES sponsored Schools Proms and the National Festival of Music for Youth

I think we have seen a squeezing out of creative activity from the curriculum. I consider creativity to be almost the foundation stone to being any good at things like the 3Rs. I didn't get much education growing up in Islington, and what I did get came late. The key for me was getting involved in creative activities, particularly drama.

It is all about results, results, results now. In trying to help teaching, they have done something detrimental to the children.

My first really creative experience was being taken as a child to Sadlers Wells on an education day. The D'oyly Carte gave a performance and I saw things I'd never seen before in my life. It changed my life completely.

I don't think that I would have got anywhere if I hadn't had a very heavy involvement in creativity as a kid. I couldn't concentrate. There were all sorts of things going on in my life. If academic work had been the most important thing, I would have been a complete failure.

Anne Dudley BBC concert orchestra's Composer in Association and an Oscar winner for the score of The Full Monty. Currently working on the music for Stephen Fry's directing debut, Bright Young Things, a film version of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies

Everybody agrees there is too much testing. It has become quite unnecessary at this age, especially at Year 6 where they're revising. There is no time for anything now, and certainly no time for creative stuff.

Children should be getting into plays and music. Doing all these things is fun, and they get so much out of it as well. Learning a musical instrument helps development of every aspect of their academic work. We have all been to school concerts. It is excruciating but it doesn't matter because it's quite a special thing.

This is an area where the independent sector scores heavily. My daughter's primary school has a lot of music because they don't have to adhere to this dreadful regime of national tests.

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