Arts disciplines are under threat

Professor Simon James

As we move into the second year of our work at the Foundation for Education Development (FED) and following the launch of the FED National Education Consultation Report, we hosted a roundtable discussion seeking to answer the theme ‘What is creativity and why does it matter?’. The discussion centred on the Durham Commission on Creativity in Education. 

We asked Professor Simon James, Principal Investigator for the Durham Commission on Creativity in Education, to share his input into this roundtable discussion. This powerful thinkpiece is a stark reminder of the importance of creativity, how we need ‘to frame creativity more broadly and ambitiously’ and the need for a long term strategy to turn around the decline of arts disciplines within our education system.  

Arts disciplines are under threat

We have long known that certain Arts disciplines – historically thought of as the ‘creative’ subjects  – are in decline, even under threat, in English state schools. Drama, Art, Design, Dance and, especially, Music have been the victims in recent years as government and the regulatory framework in which schools operate have squeezed resources and priorities – and this loss in arts learning should be of grave concern to anyone who cares about young people and their wellbeing, and about the arts and culture. 

These disciplines, however, are not the only ‘creative’ subjects. The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education, in partnership with Arts Council England, for which I am the Principal Investigator, seeks to frame creativity more broadly and ambitiously. In looking to investigate whether there is a dearth of teaching for creativity in schools in England, and to identify examples of best practice, we considered creativity across all subjects: in science teaching in primary schools, for example, in Early Years Settings, in training and apprenticeships. 

The Commission’s report defines creativity as ‘The capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before’, and axiomatic to our work is the finding that everyone is, or can be, creative. The capacity of ‘little c’, or everyday, creativity is not held exclusively by artists and entrepreneurs, by the gifted, or by the affluent – we can all be taught to be more creative, and to think more creatively. It seems easier to argue that every five-year-old is innately creative than every fifteen year-old – but what if we are talking about the same child over ten years? How has their creativity been nurtured by their education? And what are the benefits of teaching young people to be creative, and to think creatively? 

Our first report, published in November 2019 looked to answer these questions. We argued for the benefits of teaching for creativity under the themes of wellbeing, identity and community, and mobility: creativity is good for you, good for where you live, and good for future sustainable and ethical economic growth. We made ten high-level recommendations, including the launch of eight Creativity Collaboratives in 2021: networks of schools across the country which will pilot and test models of teaching for creativity, evaluated by Durham University. The Commission is a part of Arts Council England’s 10-year strategy Let’s Create: like the work of FED, we aim to improve education in the long term. 

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