China is waking up to the power of creativity

16th December 2016 at 00:00
With a culture shift at the country’s private schools and an increasing number of Chinese students taking arts courses abroad, the UK risks being left behind

China, and more specifically Shanghai, has long been judged as one of the big winners among the triennial Pisa runners and riders. This has inevitably brought admirers, who are keen to understand the secret to this success.

The education system in Shanghai – an urban pocket in which 80 per cent of students receive private tuition on top of their state schooling – has been popularly characterised as having a focus on a narrow core curriculum with emphasis on traditional pedagogic practices, such as rote learning. It also has a reputation for imposing strict discipline on its students in an environment where teachers are revered as “generals”.

These aspects have been hailed as the key to success in schooling, and one could attribute some of the changes in English educational policy to the influence of the “Shanghai effect”. In particular, the reform of the national curriculum in 2014 attempted to refocus schooling on to a set of core subjects, while measures such as the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) further cemented this by applying pressure on school performance in core subjects.

If China is investing in the arts and creative subjects, what about the UK?

While it is true that English, maths, sciences, humanities and languages are essential components of a good education, is this really the best way to equip diverse young people for an uncertain future? Can this style of education promote the skills and competencies needed at a time when the gap between rich and poor, skilled and unskilled, is widening? As we stand on the brink of Brexit and the era of president Trump, these issues are increasing the pressure on educators in schools.

Flexibility and resilience

Professor Yong Zhao, former director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, argues that the education system is geared towards turning out employees who do not have the flexibility or resilience to respond to the challenges already manifesting themselves in our society and the economy. The economy is divided between knowledge-based jobs at the top end for the best educated and service jobs at the bottom for the rest. He calls for creative education to encourage learners to have an entrepreneurial spirit, where their experience of education engenders autonomy and practical making in a context that looks beyond the walls of a school building.

In his book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Zhao, who was raised in Sichuan Province, says: “What those admirers (of the Chinese approach) ignore is the fact that such an education system, while being an effective machine to instil what the government wants students to learn, is incapable of supporting individual strengths, cultivating a diversity of talents, and fostering the capacity and confidence to create.”

But China is awakening to the need for creative thinkers. It is building a more creative, consumer-driven economy, with Chinese creative industries growing annually at almost 17 per cent. The number of Chinese students taking creative arts and design courses in the UK has almost trebled, from about 1,500 in 2008-09 to around 4,300 in 2013-14.

The EBacc is a narrow lens through which achievement is measured

In the six years since then premier Wen Jiabao said that China’s economy needed more creative citizens if the country was to continue to prosper, creativity has become a hot topic. It has been embraced by top private schools, to which the growing middle class is sending its children, who then go on to study at the world’s top universities.

If this is where China is going next, through investment in the arts and creative subjects, are we also emulating this in the UK?

In his report The Digital Revolution, Lord Baker makes a case for educating young people to embrace the rapid changes taking place in our economy; the impact of new technologies is dramatically changing society and the jobs market, he says. The paper highlights the essential need to include practical making skills and digital technology in the education of our young people.

Organisations such as the Cultural Learning Alliance, the National Society for Education in Art and Design, and the Design and Technology Association report that the number of GCSE candidates in these subjects is falling dramatically. The reasons cited are complex, but at the heart of it sits the EBacc – a narrow lens through which school achievement is measured and valued. The King’s College London report A Curriculum for All?, commissioned by the NUT teaching union, suggests that teachers believe the EBacc has squeezed creative subjects, and that schools no longer provide the level of practical education students need.

The Creative Industries Federation points to the continuing growth of creative industries in the UK and around the world. New jobs are emerging daily, and the interaction between technological innovation and human creativity is driving this change: my work at the Design Museum, through projects such as the design and enterprise challenge Design Ventura, gives 13-16s an insight into this exciting industry, providing opportunities for creative thinking, practical making and real outcomes.

If our young people are going to top the Pisa chart, excel at education and emerge into adult life with the skills and competencies to face an uncertain future, we need to get on the right track by investing in creative education. The Chinese government knows this is true and we must recognise it, too.


Catherine Ritman Smith is head of learning at the Design Museum, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a director of the London Design and Engineering UTC

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