A new and surely important report from the University of Warwick – Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth – suggests that we cannot become the nation we want, economically, socially and culturally, unless there is a fresh and holistic approach to promoting art, culture and creativity.
What does this means for schools? Should we be teaching something called “creativity”? Should head teachers be saying: “Starting today, I’ll be checking your planning for creativity on a four-point scale?”
I suggest not. My own view is that creativity is only tangible in terms of what it brings about. Author Kurt Vonnegut writes, in A Man Without a Country: “Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
For him, creativity is about making and doing. And, he implies, even if your artifacts are lousy, there is satisfaction in their creation.
Teachers, though, have more responsibilities than do witty authors and commentators, and believe it important that young people are taught the skills, techniques and knowledge that enable them fully to realise their creative potential.
A pianist I know likes visiting toddlers to explore his piano, but his hope is that their childish enjoyment will support them into the rigours of serious learning.
Trying to get a handle on this, I think of a young woman I met when, researching an article some years ago, I visited York Minster to see stonemasons making replacements for acid rain-damaged external features.
She was working, in centuries-old style, with mallet and chisel, to make a stone pinnacle which was also to be her apprentice masterwork. About a metre high, carved in gothic-style from a solid block, it was so ornate and delicate that I was moved to ask the young woman: “Do you ever worry that you’ll make a slip and spoil it?”
She paused, gave me what my mother would have called an “old-fashioned look”, and said: “No. I know what I’m doing.”
She knew, of course, because she had been taught, over a long period of time, by expert practitioners.
And there, we begin to find something about creativity that we can hang on to. The work was the woman’s own creation. But it was based on a wealth of accumulated and transmitted wisdom.
She had learned the gothic conventions and the three-dimensional geometry within which she had to work. Most, importantly, she had to know the stone, its strengths, weaknesses and response to the chisel.
Surely, too, despite her confident reply, the task, chosen to be at the limit of her capability, had an element of the risk which is part of creativity. But this was a risk well understood, controlled and managed. Creative risk-taking is not the same as gung-ho recklessness.
Now let me mention yet another person, a headteacher whose thinking echoes much of what I have said about our stonemason apprentice.
I met her 20 years ago in her primary school, and what interested me was her method of teaching art. Quite simply, rather than focus on what her class was going to depict, she concentrated on the how. She taught established techniques, methodically, in whole-class lessons – colour-mixing, drawing, the ability to control a line. Few lessons ended with a finished work, but the children enjoyed mastering their exercises and when they did move on to put them into action, the results were exciting and satisfying.
Of course, good teachers know that children are naturally creative – funny, ready to challenge orthodoxy and try something different; they will encourage and build on that. But the same good teachers will also want to impart the skills and knowledge that make the fruits of that release all the richer and more exciting.
This, however, presupposes the guidance of expert specialists, and in truth they are, in our schools, a declining species.
The Warwick report reminds us of the depressing 11 per cent drop since 2010 in the number of arts teachers in schools, with correspondingly fewer teaching hours. So, increasingly, parents who wish and can afford to do so will buy creative and artistic experiences for their children, bringing about what the Warwick Report calls “a two-tier creative and cultural ecosystem”.
That won’t do, will it? If art, culture and creativity are necessary for the health (in every sense) of the individual and the nation, then the task cannot be left to out-of-school providers however welcome and necessary their often brilliant contribution. No, the roots of our creative and cultural future belong in school, where every child can be equally reached. There, the necessary disciplines can be taught, inclusively and methodically, by specialists.
A government that professes to believe in “rigour” surely must see that.
Further informationYou can down the Warwick Report at www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/finalreport/
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1