Leading academic slams an education system which ‘prohibits’ teachers and promotes a fear of mistakes
An internationally renowned academic this week criticised the government’s “19th century” approach to education and the curriculum, warning of a system that “prohibits” teachers.
Sir Ken Robinson, an international expert in developing creativity and innovation, also labelled the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) as “baffling” during an address to teachers and heads in London.
Furthermore, he slammed our obsession with university, which he said leads to a “catastrophic waste of talent”.
Sir Ken is Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick and now works with governments and education systems across the world helping them to develop creativity and innovation.
He was speaking at London’s City Hall during the first of a series of events hosted by school leadership charity HTI to mark its 25th anniversary.
He used the address to argue that a curriculum which teaches skills of creativity and innovation is essential to prepare students for life in a constantly changing world.However, he said that our current system promotes a fear of making mistakes.
He said: “I find it depressing that we have a new administration which is trying to lead our schools into the 21st century by means of a detour to the 19th century.
“The big problem I see is that education systems were created for the 19th century – it’s really a factory system; about conformity and standardisation rather than diversity.
“I have been around long enough to have seen this wheel keep coming around. What happens is that politicians of all parties come to office with a cry of let’s get back to basics. It is the battle cry of new secretaries of state. The problem is that what they mean is a group of subjects that they took when they were at school.”
Sir Ken criticised the focus on what he called a “hierarchy of subjects” which he said was down to the influences that shaped education in the 19th century.
He pointed to a recent study by IBM of CEOs from across the world which showed that their main concerns were coping with the complexity of business in the 21st century, adapting to change, and creating and promoting a culture of creativity.
He said: “We are living in times of revolution. Forces are shaping the world now for which I believe there is no precedent. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next week, let alone by 2050 or 2070. We need a different form of education to engage with this – one that puts creativity at the centre.”
Sir Ken said the skills of creativity would be essential for young people in the future workplace, and a diversity of talents would be needed.
“We have to think differently about human talent. I am convinced that a great many people have no idea what their talents are – a lot of people think they do not have any talents. Many people do not discover their possibilities and ironically one of the reasons they do not is education.
“We all have natural capacities for creativity. We all have different aptitudes. Our education systems are not built on the celebration of diversity but on conformity – a certain set of standards and abilities are promoted above all others.”
Sir Ken also argued that focusing on creativity would raise attainment across all subjects. He added: “When people get to discover things they enjoy and love to do, they tend to get better at everything because their confidence rises with it.”
He also criticised the EBacc, a new government measure which ranks schools on students who achieve A* to C grades in GCSE English, science, maths, geography or history, and languages.
He said: “I find it incredible that a government can put together a framework that makes arts optional by default. The EBacc sets out what we believe to be the priorities for education and many schools are cutting the arts. There is no mention in the EBacc of PE or health, I find it baffling.”
Sir Ken spoke of common misconceptions about the idea of creativity, including that only “special people” can be creative. He said: “This is not true. Everybody has profound creative abilities. The trick is to develop them – it’s like saying only a few people are capable of being literate.
“People think it’s all about the arts, about special things. You can be creative in anything – science, maths, technology and of course in music and drama and other arts. A creative curriculum is for everybody and it’s about the entire curriculum.”
Sir Ken refused to criticise schools, but referenced the focus in the government’s recent Education White Paper on the importance of teaching and freedom for headteachers and issued a rallying cry to teachers.
He said: “It’s not because our teachers do not want to (teach creativity), it’s because we have a system in place which is prohibiting and promotes a fear of making mistakes.
“Schools have far more freedom than they seem to think. I know lots of brilliant schools and they all have visionary heads and they recognise the need to empower the teacher. I have been around long enough to see the political conversation go through cycles but there’s always great teachers and headteachers making it happen.”
On the morning of his speech, Sir Ken visited the Department for Education where he met with schools minister Nick Gibb. He said he used this meeting to argue his case for the importance of creativity.
He continued: “The programmes that are designed to get kids back into school are all based on personalising the education process to them and all the great teachers know this. I was trying to argue this point this morning at the Department.
“It worries me when people are put in charge of education who have no background in it. The political system itself is not well suited to the challenges we face. Most politicians have a very narrow window to affect change so they go for the low-hanging fruit.”
Sir Ken also criticised our system’s obsession with university, which he said leads to a “catastrophic waste of talent”.
He said: “The secretary of state (Michael Gove) said that of the 600,000 children who start out, 80,000 are on free school meals and that of these only 45 get into Oxbridge, as if this was the ultimate indictment of education. I cannot abide that attitude.
“Some people want to go straight to work, some people want to take vocational programmes – university was always intended for a particular type of activity. It sends the signal to kids that if you do not go to these places that you are the also-rans of education. It leads to a catastrophic waste of talent.
“It’s about differentiation. There’s an assumption that everybody has to go down the same route and that if you do then everything will be fine. It’s not a guarantee anymore and a lot of people are being diverted from what they would prefer to do because of well intentioned advice that they should get a degree first.”