Why creativity must be fostered

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Speaking in a debate at Warwick University the other night Chris Woodhead, the chief schools' inspector, outlined his view of what education was all about, saying, among other things, that it was "definitely not about unlocking and fostering the child's natural creativity".

He said it with an air of great self-satisfaction, as if he expected to be agreed with, and indeed, no one took him up on it, though they took him up on quite a lot of the other things he said. And I thought well, this is the knell of doom all right for all of us irresponsible trendy types from the Sixties and Seventies. No more fun and games: Mr Gradgrind's back in charge.

But hang on. We don't really agree, do we? Of course education has to be about fostering creativity, and unlocking it, if it needs to be unlocked. Yes, we learn to read so that we can "partake of the best that has been thought and written" (Chris certainly sticks to his principles and eschews originality both in thought and language) but we learn to read and speak so that we can (among other things) express ourselves. Express our own uniqueness, in our own idiolect. Say the things that no one else can say for us. (Are we allowed to go on in this embarrassingly hippyish way any more?) But, I mean, look. (I love Tony Blair's style, don't you?) Look - don't they still have things like art and dance and music and movement in schools? How would you teach them without harnessing the student's creativity? Actually, I know the answer to that one. I was once taught fencing by a wonderful old ex-Army instructor. When anyone asked him why we should do things in a certain way, he'd reply, "because I tell you to and because it is the right way to do it!" His certainty was delightful and I loved his classes; but if you followed his instructions perfectly you'd never win a fencing match - winning's about seeing the chance to break a pattern, rather than following one.

And surely that's true in other fields as well - science, maths, history even; you can achieve a mediocre competence by absorbing and reproducing the received wisdom, but the real advances come from challenging accepted notions, asking questions that no one's thought of asking before - unlocking and fostering creativity in fact.

We heard a lot about "the international market place" the other night, too, and it all sounded terribly serious and earnest, how we had to prepare ourselves to compete in it. Actually, I've been doing a bit of that myself recently, Hollywood and that, and I've more than once thought how lucky I was to have had my creativity unlocked all those years ago by teachers who believed in all that sort of thing, so that now I can do my bit for Britain's dollarpound balance.

I'm not saying it's got to be all self-expression and poetry and brainstorming and discovery learning, but I am saying that these things are vitally important and if we don't cherish them we might as well pack it in. And Chris Woodhead used to agree with me, too. What happened to the man? When did the iron enter his soul?

Well, I think something must have happened in the Seventies which brought about this sudden change. God knows what it was, but it clearly made poor Chris the man he is today. Who knows, if he had stuck to his liberal guns and nurtured his own creativity a bit more, he might now be sitting in his attic happily turning out reams of harmless bilge, instead of . . . Well, we all know what he does instead.

Andrew Davies is a writer and former teacher-trainer. His work includes adaptations of Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice for television. His screen version of Vanity Fair is due to be televised by the BBC next year. He is currently writing four Hollywood screenplays, including The Count of Monte Cristo, to be directed by Roman Polanski.

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