That vision thing

24th March 1995 at 00:00
Ken Robinson outlines issues at stake in a forthcoming TES conference on culture, commerce and the curriculum

In The TES last December, Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, offered a meditation on life after Dearing. His main theme was the need in education for vision. It had not been Ron Dearing's brief, he said, to have a vision. His job had been "to refine the national curriculum to . . . the minimum which by law must be taught". How the essence of education can be defined without a vision for education is hard to say. But it is now up to schools, said Dr Tate, acting within "a broad statutory framework", to "create and pursue their own vision". Since Dearing had battened down "the basics", Dr Tate suggested some other areas that schools "may also wish to take into account" in setting priorities.

This list of more discretionary interests proved rather startling. To begin with there was moral education, spiritual education and sex education. Noting a MORI poll report that 66 per cent of young people felt their generation was having a moral crisis, he suggested that some school might want to look again at moral relativism. And then there was the larger question of cultural identity. In this context, many schools might want to ensure that the arts continue to be part of the curriculum for "most or all pupils". Now that the national curriculum had been revised, Dr Tate hoped, with no apparent irony, there might be "a lively debate about the curriculum, both in its own right and as part of a much-needed national debate about culture, society and identity".

Dr Tate is right to say there is a need to debate these issues. The revised national curriculum, vision-free as it seems to be, is reinforcing some implicit priorities in educational policy that work against the very objectives it is meant to achieve. My particular concern is the persistent misconceptions about the roles and place of the arts in the curriculum. This concern is widely shared, not only within the arts and education but also in commerce and industry - the very sectors which the present dominant emphasis on science and technology is meant to please.

On May 3, at the Central Hall, Westminster, as a contribution to this debate, there will be a national conference on Culture, Commerce and the Curriculum. The conference is organised jointly by The Times Educational Supplement and the National Foundation for Arts Education. The principal speakers will include Sir John Harvey Jones, on "The real business of education" and Sir David Puttnam on "Education, culture and technology". The conference is prompted by three related concerns about national educational policies, and in particular the divisive prioritising of science and technology over the arts in education.

The first concern is that the present priorities fail to recognise the fundamental role of the arts in general education. A major priority of educational reform is to improve standards of attainment. This is a concern throughout the developed world as all nations contend with the growing demands of economic competitiveness. It is a proper concern. The problem is that the dominant conception of achievement promoted to schools is based on a disabling view of human intelligence. In most political rhetoric on education, intelligence in general is equated with academic intelligence in particular.

There is now overwhelming evidence and argument - in physiology, psychology and in philosophy - that human intelligence is multi-faceted and includes many different modes of understanding and communication. The arts are living evidence of this richness of the human mind. Through, poetry, music, visual imagery, movement and narrative, human beings contend with some of the most profound experiences of their own humanity. The relative neglect of the arts leaves untapped whole areas of every child's intellectual capabilities. This is bad education: it is also bad economics.

The second concern is that the predominant emphasis on the so-called basics will fail to meet the real needs of the economy. The common political assumption is that the subjects of the core curriculum are more important than the rest because they are directly relevant to young people's future economic activity and to the nation's long-term needs. The arts, because of the limited conception of ability that prevails, are not seen as useful in the same sense. The evidence from commerce and industry is that this view is no longer adequate.

The profound changes in the patterns and nature of employment mean that education must promote adaptability, creativity, and a wide range of social skills in all young people. They will also need the self-confidence that comes from finding their real strengths through education, rather than the sense of defeat that comes to so many from narrow conceptions of success. There is a growing recognition throughout the developed world that the most valuable resources of a country are its people. As Hywel Ceri Jones of the European Commission has argued, without the development of so-called "human capital", the natural endowments of nations, their financial power and fixed capital will become dwindling resources. No grouping of nations can nowadays claim to have achieved a high quality of growth if significant elements of its human potential remain untapped or under-utilised. The pursuit of economic growth "must first and foremost recognise the need for an ambitious view of human potential". An essential step in curriculum terms is to recognise the equal importance of the arts and sciences in realising our educational objectives.

The third concern arises from this point. The different status of these disciplines in schools fundamentally misrepresents the dynamic relationships between them outside education. The new information technologies have explosive implications for all fields of social, cultural and economic life. Old occupational and professional categories are collapsing. Some of the most extraordinary innovations in contemporary culture are being driven along by the merging of arts, science and technology. Visual artists and designers work with computer programmers, and their roles blend. Theatre directors and musicians are working with the designers of virtual reality systems and multi-media programmes. All of them are turning to the Internet as a new field of social and cultural exchange. The old bets are off. Culture is merging with commerce and technology as never before and generating some of the most vigorous fields of new employment in the world economies. On the way, we are faced with new issues of cultural identity and moral relativism that are simply without precedent.

There are immense implications both for the methods and the content of education. Schools have to take stock of all of this, and so does the Department for Education. But in place of vision, we have a curriculum framework that perpetuates all the old hierarchies, and leaves to discretion the most pressing issues of the day. We do need a debate about all of this: not just to sort out the options, but to look again at what is basic in education and what is not.

Dr Ken Robinson is professor of arts education at the University of Warwick Institute of Education, and chairman of the National Foundation for Arts Education.

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