Kids deserve creativity

As the new school year starts, I always find it shocking how poorly many schools develop children’s creativity. Although creativity and innovation is fundamentally important for economic growth, in most schools it has become totally subservient to the need to push kids through ever more tests.

In the UK, our public sector educational system has become obsessed with testing, even though as one experienced teacher pointed out to me, many of the assessment systems that teachers now operate seem largely, if not entirely, divorced from the central purpose of helping pupils learn.  Instead they are primarily focussed on collecting data so that the school can be held accountable for pupil’s achievements. Indeed, the Department for Education’s definition of effective assessment systems starts by stating that they are the ones that “give reliable information to parents about how their child, and their child’s school, is performing”  Schools that don’t meet their targets get put into punitive Special Measures.

Obsessive testing benefits the businesses that supply the tests (it is worth well over £1B pa), but it is a disaster for developing the creative young people the country needs.

Some years ago, I was in discussion with the senior manager of the department responsible for curriculum development at one of the UK’s leading examination boards.  I commented that it seemed to me that curriculum design must be an exciting opportunity to inspire teachers to excite the creativity of the kids.  His scathing reply? “Inspiration, that’s a bit idealistic.  And creativity- that can come later

I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say.

Without creativity, how are young people to participate in the exciting world of innovation and development  that those of us involved in RADMA find so satisfying and profitable? How are they to cope with the challenges and uncertainty that lie ahead for them, whether that’s  dealing with the implications of Brexit, coping with climate change or simply paying off their student debts?

In the best schools with good leadership and where they feel safe from Special Measures, teachers are confident enough to teach the way they know it ought to be done, and to use their creativity to try out new ways of helping children learn.  But in far too many, there’s huge pressure on teachers to focus only on moving pupils through narrowly defined levels: to their distress they feel forced to “teach to the test”.  Horrifyingly the Department of Education wants to start testing kids at age 4.

In subjects like Art or Design Technology (DT), when a student leaves school and tries to get a job, they find that creativity is a fundamental part of what employers are looking for. But in schools it seems to be being squeezed out by the pressure to design curricula that let you prove that a child has made the required progress through pre-defined levels.  It’s easy to understand how a DT teacher, faced with the question “what do we expect a pupil who has done DT to know by the end of year 7“, would pick nice tangible facts like the properties of wood.  Assessing the quality of a design, or the creativity of a painting is a much more subjective business, so is being squeezed out.

This has consequences: I was puzzled and horrified when an artistic young friend of mine told me that she wanted to stop doing GCSE Art because it was boring.  However I totally understood when she explained that instead of just being allowed to paint a horse, they had to spend much their time studying how other people had painted horses.

So…. if we want to see a steady stream of bright, young innovators coming out of our education system, what should we do about it?

  • Firstly, I think we should all personally support kids in undertaking creative and adventurous activities outside school. One great example is to movement towards “wild play
  • Secondly, we should speak out in support of teachers and schools when they take risks and try something new, even if it doesn’t initially work out quite right.
  • Thirdly, we should support teachers in demanding that the Department of Education ends all statutory assessments in primary schools.

These may seem like simple things, but as innovators know, simple things can lead to big changes.

For a longer article on this theme see here