You could be right and creative;Opinion

30th April 1999 at 01:00
AS THE Government never tires of pointing out our creative industries add substantially to the economy. We export our creative know-how in design, film, drama, music - the list goes on. And this trend is set to continue. In her book the The Weightless World, Diane Coyle, the economics editor of the Independent, shows how the country's economic health will be increasingly dependent on creative thinking rather than simply the manufactured goods we can export.

Her book is very upbeat about the potential that we have to compete in the global economy, but her message has clear educational implications. As she wrote in one of her columns: "Modernising Britain is about improving basic literacy and numeracy but it is also about encouraging the imagination and creativity that will form the key resources in the most successful economies." All policy-makers have to ask: are we getting the balance right?

This is a difficult question to answer. Part of the problem lies in the way in which the basics and creativity are often seen either in opposition - an emphasis, for example, on creative writing leads to poor spelling; or as a sequence - get the basics right first and then learn how to be imaginative. Yet a report commissioned last year by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority showed the two may well be complementary. The research compared the written performance of English and French pupils at key stage 2. It found that primary pupils in this country not only wrote more confidently than their French counterparts but that they spelled better too, despite the more formal methods of teaching the basics in French schools. Indeed the report went on to suggest, albeit tentatively, that part of the explanation for the better performance on this side of the Channel, may lie in the British pupils' willingness to have a go and not worry about making mistakes.

The latter half of this explanation may hint at another reason why we persist in opposing the basics and creativity. The basics are always easier to measure. It is easy to see when someone has got something wrong, to spot simple errors. Creativity is so much more amorphous a commodity; the imagination harder, though not impossible, to gauge.

The very measurability of the basics, however, has always led politicians to focus their attention on them. This was never more true than in the current climate of accountability which depends on giving everything a numerical value. Yet the danger with such an emphasis is that the precarious balance between the basics and creativity will tilt towards the former and away from the latter. This is because the political will to assess creativity, which may need more time-consuming, and so more costly methods, simply is not present.

There is evidence that many feel this imbalance has already occurred. The long-awaited commission on creativity in education is due out next month. It looks likely to suggest that the arts are being neglected at the expense of literacy and numeracy, not least because they were made non-statutory in the primary sector. The commission is likely to recommend that the arts should be accorded the same status as the core subjects, English, maths and science.

But the argument for the arts needs to be extended beyond art and music. English is an arts subject too. The failure of successive governments to recognise this has reduced still further pupils' access to the arts and caused many a battle with English teachers. Almost all the arguments over testing centre on English teachers' attempts to resist the policy-maker's desire to reduce assessment to the easily quantifiable.

If the Government is serious about encouraging our creative industries, and not simply interested in the empty rhetoric of cool Britannia, it needs to create an educational environment in which the arts can once more thrive.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in education at King's College, London

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