Do we still need creativity in schools?
26 May 2009 BBC News Online
Benefits of creative classrooms
Ten years ago this month a 243-page report on the importance of promoting creativity and culture in schools landed on ministers' desks.
It had been commissioned in the heady early days of the Blair government to recommend ways to make progress in the "creative and cultural development of young people" both in and out of school.
The review was led by Sir Ken Robinson and included leading scientists, business leaders, and key figures from the arts world.
It was widely acclaimed.
It argued that creativity was a skill that could be taught.
It was not about progressive teaching or loose discipline. Nor was it in any way an alternative to the essential skills of numeracy and literacy.
Rather it was about encouraging pupils to be innovative and to develop the ability to problem-solve in all areas of the curriculum, from maths to technology.
It argued that such skills were essential to individuals, employers and the whole economy.
But what has happened since?
There has certainly been cultural activity in schools but even the strongest champions of creative and cultural education would have to admit that the report - called All Our Futures - has not dominated schools policy.
That's because it came out just at a time when the new Labour government was investing its energy in boosting standards in the "three Rs".
Determined to show it was tough in standards, Labour's drive was focused on the Numeracy and Literacy Hours.
Ask a primary school pupil in England what numeracy or literacy is and they will have no hesitation in describing what they do in class for an hour each day.
But creativity? Even if All Our Futures had suggested a "creativity hour" it would probably have been seen as a distraction from the key message on standards.
Of course, it did not recommend anything as gimmicky, since the whole tenor of the report was that creativity and culture are not some sort of bolt-on activities, but are skills that should be developed throughout all aspects of teaching and learning, in science as much as in the arts.
In some ways the report was ahead of its time.
It called for a reduction in the burden of assessment and said the national curriculum should be reduced to take up no more than 80% of the timetable.
The latter recommendation probably now seems too modest, an indication of how far the call for greater freedom for schools has been reflected in subsequent reforms of the curriculum.
But any satisfaction the authors of All Our Futures may draw from subsequent events must, surely, be tempered by recognition that there is still a long way to go before creativity is seen as fundamental to teaching and learning in schools.
The current fierce debate about the national tests, or Sats, at age 11 hinges on whether they contribute to a narrowing of the curriculum, with many teachers and schools feeling they dominate the final years of primary school.
Indeed, the accountability criteria that determine success or failure for schools and teachers are overwhelmingly based on formal tests, particularly covering English and maths, not on indicators that reflect pupils' creativity.
So you could not blame head teachers if they felt it was more important to secure their school against league table failure - or the triggering of an Ofsted inspection - than to promote creativity.
However, a report published this week by the new charity Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE) highlights research suggesting that a focus on creativity in schools need not be at the expense of achievement in the basics.
Indeed, it claims the very opposite: that creativity boost exam results and attendance.
The report looks at the record of a programme called Creative Partnerships.
This programme - which fosters collaborative partnerships between schools and creative professionals including artists, performers, architects and scientists - has now engaged almost one million school students and 90,000 teachers.
According to research from the independent National Foundation for Educational Research, which covered 13,000 young people, pupils who have taken part in Creative Partnerships' programmes have often outperformed others who have not been involved.
The NFER research found many of the differences were relatively small but it did conclude that "The results of this study suggest that Creative Partnerships is contributing to improved levels of attainment."
In particular, it found that "Young people who have attended Creative Partnerships activities made, on average, the equivalent of 2.5 grades better progress in GCSE than similar young people in other schools."
While the NFER is at pains to point out that from the evidence so far the gains are small, this is clearly an encouraging sign for those who argue that creative and cultural education is not just some sort of woolly feel-good effect.
Perhaps more important, though, is the NFER evidence which suggests Creative Partnerships programmes have been associated with an "educationally significant reduction in absence rates in primary schools".
Ofsted has also monitored Creative Partnership programmes.
It found "improvements in literacy, particularly writing, and speaking were significant in the majority of schools visited".
Educational research is rarely definitive as there are always so many other variables involved in pupil attainment.
But the evidence so far seems to back the view that putting a real emphasis on creative and cultural education in schools has broad benefits.
However, getting all schools to take this route will continue to be difficult when the accountability measures that determine the success or failure of schools continue to emphasise short-term improvements in formal qualifications.
Perhaps the government's proposed new School Report Cards can find a way of indicating whether a school is successfully promoting creative and cultural education?