Window of Opportunity (by Ken Baynes)

It seems very clear that something is seriously amiss in what might be called ‘cultural’ education. We have already reviewed the manifestos from NSEAD and the Crafts Council. Now we have a substantial report on the wider value of culture and the importance of cultural education. It comes from the Warwick Commission set up by Warwick University. (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture)

Ken BaynesAs well as looking to the future it charts the decline in provision and take-up which seems to have affected every field from music and drama to design and technology. Their judgement is that this is catastrophic for the future health of Britain.

Of course elections call forth plenty of special pleading. A window opens. If you can get your message through, the first year of a new government is a period when change can happen.

At LDP we were wondering who was going to make the case for design education when John Mathers, CEO of the Design Council called for ‘re-imagination’ of the education system to ensure design is valued. He said we need to put out ‘ a real call for making sure that design education, arts education and cultural education is valued as much as STEM subjects’.

It needs a lot of people to get behind this idea to make it happen. Design still suffers from the difficulty that it seems to have one foot in the world of function and utility and another in the world of fantasy and expression. This apparent disadvantage is in reality the very reason why design is so important.

To begin with it is wrong to place technology and culture at opposite poles. We live in a technological culture. At the same time, the cultural values of society give a powerful direction to technology. To a large extent the values at play are the imperatives of consumerism. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the case that these values, if unadulterated, may lead to a swift end to civilization.  It is the young of today that will, in their lifetimes, need to imagine their way through this conflict. The ability to think and act in a designerly way is one of the accomplishments that they will need but they will surely also need a very broad educational experience crossing the barriers between art, science and technology.

I could describe a nearby school which provides a broad education that showcases the cultural experiences of its pupils. The programme for the Summer Term includes concerts by the school orchestra and Big Band, several stage productions by the students, thematic exhibitions by different age groups and an end-of-year show of design projects, some highly technological. The school magazine is edited by pupils and contains poetry, stories and journalism: many of the photographs are by students. Here’s the point: this is a well-known public (private) school. Parents pay for a broad education and they want their children to be culturally savvy. The young people enjoy it too.

There certainly are state schools that could compete with this kind of commitment. However the figures of declining support and take-up speak for themselves. State school pupils are in danger of becoming an excluded majority when it comes to cultural education, including design education. I would guess that this is not what parents want but they don’t seem to have been asked. In spite of all the political talk about ‘choice’ successive governments have presided over a dramatic narrowing of educational experience. We could be back with Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Coketown: ‘Fact, fact, fact everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact everywhere in the immaterial’.

The problems afflicting general education go far beyond any one subject or group of subjects. Although cultural education has particularly declined, there has also been a truly extraordinary growth in educational paperwork, testing, examining and inspecting which has affected the freedom of teachers in all subjects. It is far from clear that politicians and civil servants (even if advised by ‘experts’) are the best people to dictate what and how teachers should teach. What is clear is that excessive dictation from on high cuts off creativity from other directions. Class teachers are a valuable source of well-founded knowledge and expertise that is almost totally neglected.

Not only are teachers neglected as a source of change and development in education, they are also often overwhelmed and exhausted by the system of assessment and inspection.  A recent investigation by File on 4 (BBC Radio 4, 8.00pm, 17 March 2015) revealed extraordinarily high levels of stress and depression leading to extensive sick leave. Much of this is simply due to workload. The mountain of paperwork now required has actually taken the focus off the classroom and placed it instead on defensive record-keeping. Teachers reported that a sixty hour week was not uncommon. Heads reported on the unbearable stress of Ofsted inspections and the constant struggle to maintain a place in the top ratings.

Ofsted emerged as an all-powerful bully. It is sobering to realise the influence wielded by this organisation, specially when ministers boast of the large number of schools reaching particularly good Ofsted ratings. This is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ofsted is set to inspect what politicians want. Are Ofsted inspectors looking for the right thing? We ought at least to wonder.

Since design education, like the other ‘cultural’ subjects, thrives on such unpredictable elements as imagination, making skills, individuality and thinking for one’s self, it is almost impossible to fit into the straight-jacket of tick-box teaching and assessment.  The hard truth seems to be that a revival of design education depends on there being a much more general re-imagination of educational values.

Possibly the most extraordinary thing about the present situation is the inability of politicians and civil servants to take on board either the results of new research into children’s learning or the experience of global companies into how to run an effective organisation. The one body of knowledge would suggest it is effective to work with the grain of children’s learning, making it both entertaining and challenging, the other would say that overwork and tiredness lead to wasteful inefficiency and needless mistakes. Fear is not helpful in either situation.

If there really is an open window after the election, it is nationally important to go for a dramatic change in educational policy.

Ken Baynes’ LDP book page can be found here and many of his other publications are listed on his Amazon book page here.

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