CD19: What does a culturally educated, design-literate 19 year old look like? - RSA

Blog: CD19 - What does a culturally educated, design-literate 19 year old look like?


  • Creativity
  • Curriculum
  • Schools

I’ve always been a fan of a mixed metaphor. Puns have never done it for me, but the welding of two clichés to create an entirely new meaning, whether by accident or by design, has always tickled my juices.

They are the perfect English alternative to those long multi-purpose German words. Whether you are clutching at hairs, a wolf in cheap clothing, or sticking out like a sore throat, bring them on. My all-time favourite, from a friend who was spending his twenties in various bits of bother, was when he told me one hungover Sunday morning that he had been ‘burning his bridges at both ends’.

Nicky Morgan’s strange speech to the Creative Industries Federation last week feels like a case of wanting to have your cake and cut it. It appears that this government can’t decide whether the arts in schools is the icing on a cake, or the yeast.

Morgan pinned her rationale for cultural education to its contribution to pupils’ understanding of Britishness. This is probably the worst kind of instrumentalism. The arts also, apparently, “fosters an understanding of Britishness around the world”, whatever that means. Frankly, if that’s all that culture did, I’d probably not only exclude arts subjects from the ebacc; I’d confine them to a Friday afternoon treat. Trivium author and RSA Associate Martin Robinson’s terrific response is the best treatise I’ve ever read on the true value of cultural learning.

Although Morgan also linked cultural education with character education, it’s instructive that, of the 14 projects chosen for character education grants from over 1000 that applied, none focus on cultural provision. The DfE’s view of character education feels artless. As I said in a recent speech to Character Scotland, “character without creativity can be conforming; creativity without character can be irresponsible”.

Morgan’s justification for a quasi-compulsory Ebacc is no justification at all:

“The reason I think every child should do the EBacc, that is GCSEs in English, maths, a humanity, a foreign language and a science, is because for too long, certain pupils have been told that these subjects aren’t for them.”

If this is true, and the evidence on a decade of declining participation in these subjects before 2010 does back this up, then it still doesn’t justify making these subjects compulsory. Such a move undermines this government’s sensible approach to ensure equivalency of difficulty across all GCSEs, and the Best 8 accountability measures which ensure that ‘every child matters’, to use a much-maligned term, as will most subjects.

The continued presence of the Ebacc essentially says to schools “all GCSEs are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Morgan’s view that “I don’t think those who care about the arts have anything to fear from the EBacc” is disingenuous. Whether a subtle information for parents nudge or an Ofsted ‘can’t be outstanding without it’ sledgehammer, the point of the Ebacc is precisely to incentivise schools to prioritise some subjects over others.

Journalist Laura Macinerney has, for over two years, been waiting for the DfE to provide evidence to show that Ebacc subjects are more difficult or more useful than others, with no response. Nick Gibb’s assertion last week that schools “can't 'force' students to study music & art if it’s not their thing” simply adds to the hypocrisy and intellectual vacuum behind the Ebacc. Thankfully, Ofsted has used its independence well so far to resist the Conservative Manifesto’s calls to limit their Outstanding judgement to schools where all pupils take Ebacc subjects. The Ebacc, above all, represents a soft bigotry of narrow expectations.

Although Morgan pulled a statistic about increased arts GCSEs from a hat last week, this needs further interrogation (the CLA is on the case), as the data that the CLA and the Warwick Commission gathered, both from GCSE and Taking Part data, reveals a more concerning story: significant reductions in children’s weekly cultural participation, in and out of school; a 13% reduction in uptake of arts subjects at GCSE since 2010; a fall since 2010 of 10% in the number of hours the arts were taught in secondary schools, and of 11% in the number teachers, with a more rapid rate of decline since 2013. My conversations with primary and secondary teachers are revealing tales of reducing provision, especially at Key Stage 3, and departments in a spiral of atrophying capacity. Perhaps the most salient question we can ask government, in addition to ‘where is the evidence?’ is “Is this what you wanted?” Again, the CLA is doing important work to understand the frontline realities – email them with your tales of creative destruction.

How else should the arts community respond? Led by the Cultural learning alliance and the Creative Industries Federation, we are sensibly moving away from the short-term and doomed attempt to include the arts in the Ebacc. Such an inclusion would make a bad idea marginally better, but I still couldn’t justify the exclusion of, say, sociology over photography, or psychology over dance.  

I believe that we should now do what the arts does best; rise above the short term fray to put a broader, more complex and doubtful perspective on the world. In this instance, this means trying to capitalize on the biggest missed opportunity in England’s recent education history. The raising of the participation age to 19, introduced by the Labour Government and consolidated by the Coalition, was a chance to think carefully about Richard Pring’s question: “what does an educated 19 year old look like?’ However, to employ my colleague Anthony Painter’s useful distinction, it was seen simply as a technical challenge – largely focused on the reduction of NEETs - rather than a political question, one to which the education sector could provide some adaptive rather than technical solutions.  Yes, 16, and possibly some qualifications at 16, can be a useful staging post for achievement and choice-making. But as the CBI’s John Cridland recently argued in a brilliant valedictory speech, the high-stakes nature of exams at 16 no longer makes sense, and prevents schools from doing "what is necessary to deliver long-term outcomes, rather than meeting the short-term demands of the system”. In short, 19 is the new 16.

So as well as contributing to brilliant initiatives such as the Headteacher’s Roundtable’s National Baccalaureate,  I think it’s time for the arts and culture, design, and design technology communities – professionals, educators, pupils and parents – to consider the following question:

CD19: What does a culturally educated, design-literate 19 year old look like?

The answer will reveal itself through a mixture of assessed and non-assessed opportunities, formal and informal experiences. It should be designed around the concept of a negotiated canon which treads a careful line between a constructivist and traditional approaches to knowledge, and sees the reductive Hirschian ‘cultural literacy’ model (which a recent EEF evaluation has been found to have minimal impact), as a necessary but very insufficient element of cultural learning. There is much to build on, including the cultural offer programme I led in the last years of the last government.

If we can create a reasonable consensus around this question, we can then mobilise everyone – education, industry, arts organisations and civil society, to support a common entitlement for all young people to continue their learning and experiences of arts and design until the age of 19, regardless of the qualifications they choose, and committing to using their resources to support this ambition.

An alliance of the cultural and design communities will be crucial to this goal, as will a connection to the maker movement. Once the CD19 commitment is agreed, all organisations will need to think differently about their practices. Questions which might emerge include:

  • How can schools and FE colleges recognise their role as cultural assets for wider community engagement, rather than just providers and recipients of cultural opportunities for their pupils?

  • How can schools develop  partnerships with arts organisations to enhance a continually improving core arts offer, rather than as fig leafs to hide declining levels of provision?

  • How can arts, cultural and design organisations target resources more carefully at need and at stimulating new kinds of demand – for instance, reaching out to supplementary schools?

  •  How can Industry and universities demonstrate a commitment to the value of cultural learning through their admissions and hiring decisions?

None of this activism should let government or its agencies off the hook. Accountability measures still need changing. Funding for cultural education has declined hugely since 2010, is largely focused on music tuition, and is miniscule in comparison to other subject support, and various whimsical ministerial priorities (anyone for £50M for cadets?). The Arts Council is proud of its ‘Goal 5’ around children and young people, yet is far too passive and unprepared to be robust in its relationship to government, its influence over its funded NPO organisations, and its strategic funding.

Over the next few months, we will be talking to leaders and others in all sectors to see whether there is an appetite for the RSA convening and leading an CD19 movement, Although, as Chris Mitchell,  from Elstree UTC said at our recent Occupy your Curriculum event, ‘the arts are at their best when they suffer’, there’s a thin line between creative suffering and the long term degeneration of England’s globally renowned cultural and design learning provision. Now is the time to act to prevent our nation’s creative decline. A rolling stone may well be worth two in the bush.

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