Sir Lenny Henry has told headteachers he wants to see paintbrushes in children's hands instead of knives, and that arts clubs can help to keep pupils out of gangs.
The actor and comedian also challenged school leaders about the lack of ethnic diversity in the profession, but praised the “superheroes” who work in tough schools.
Sir Lenny, who played an idealistic headteacher in the BBC drama Hope and Glory, spoke at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in Birmingham today.
He noted that in recent weeks “there have been a lot of conversations about young people and knife crime”.
He said no one had all the answers, but added: “Arts education can provide safe spaces like clubs or after-school groups that can keep young people out of trouble and danger and a gang.
"Because, let’s think about this, isn’t ‘gang’ just another word for a company or a cast? Isn’t it just the wrong type of collaboration?"
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He added: “I want to see a world where young people are encouraged to collaborate in a positive way, to dream, play, improvise, doodle and be creative.
"I want to see paintbrushes in their hands, not knives. I want to replace ‘stop and search’ with ‘shut up and dance’.”
Sir Lenny told the audience that everyone should have access to the arts, not just those in public schools, saying that “if only rich kids are exposed to it, we will never have a truly diverse arts community”.
He added: “Cutting arts in schools is reductive because true diversity means no one gets left behind. It shouldn’t be about how much money your parents have. Remember: if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
“If I had done arts at school, or drama at school, I probably would have come to the realisation that I was an actor, a character actor, more than I was a comedian.”
'What are you going to do?'
ASCL president Richard Sheriff asked Sir Lenny about the lack of ethnic diversity in school leadership.
To applause from the headteachers, he shot back: “Don’t include me in this. What are you going to do?”
He added: “Everybody wants to have a chance to see themselves up there. The more you can make it diverse, the more children can see themselves in their teachers, the more likely they are to want to learn, I think, to want to attend school."
Asked if he would like to become a headteacher in real life, he responded: “I went to talk to a few of you guys. I don’t think people realise the amount of work that goes into that job. I was very happy to learn the lines, but I don’t want that job.”
He concluded by telling the headteachers: “I really felt the people in the tough schools were superheroes. I didn’t know how they were doing it every day, so I salute them and I salute you guys.”