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Changing the world with creative subjects

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Abigail's blog

We’re cruising towards the end of another summer’s long school holiday. Bookended by the excitement of completing another year with the long holiday stretching appetisingly ahead and the anticipation of a new year and the promise and progress it holds. Not to mention the childhood memory of the appeal of seeing more of friends and less of adults every day!

The late June/early July run up to the school holidays is my favourite time of year at The Glasshouse International Centre for Music. It’s a month-long, pretty high-octane succession of end-of-year showcases in our halls, music education centre and concourse. The decibel level is high and the range of music which young people are showcasing to their friends, families, communities is so wide. There are 18-year-olds whose next step is specialist music training in one of the country’s world-renowned music colleges and KS1s (primary one, two and three) who are taking their first steps and experiencing the slightly scary thrill of performing in front of others for the very first time. And it is all genres – you can step from big band jazz in one hall to electronica in another – made by young people of all walks of life and with all kinds of needs.

What connects this rich and diverse whirlpool of music-making? Witnessing this annual celebration over the years, I am always struck by three consistent characteristics in the music making by young people. Ownership – so much of the music they perform they have also written and they always introduce their performance to their audience. Big themes – the environment, a fair world, human understanding – these themes run like a lightning bolt through the music they choose to create. And joy – of all kinds and complexities – from doing something new and often hard, doing something well, making mistakes and realising that the world hasn’t ended, waving at your gran from the stage, experiencing the elemental enjoyment in music.

Make Music Young People

What do all of these young people do with their music? A tiny number will pursue it professionally. The vast majority won’t. But all will use it in their lives – one way or another. Overtly or indirectly. It will make their whole lives more fulfilling.

Yet in state schools creative subjects have been receding in the past decade.  Entry to GCSE and A-Level in arts subjects is dropping through the floor and more fundamentally creative subjects are being squeezed out of the core school week. Meanwhile the fee paying sector is prioritising more than ever the creative arts both within and on top of the curriculum – citing how young people need the skills from these subjects to shape our future world.

In the state sector the priority has been to make way for literacy and numeracy. And there is some evidence that this is yielding results in reading levels. But does it really have to be one or the other and are we really providing the right mix for our young people for the 21st century?

The evidence suggests not. Learning to sing or to play an instrument helps underpin literacy, numeracy and oracy: cutting creative subjects to make way for more times-tables isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem. The crux of the matter is that creative education and creative subjects are fundamental to the future.

Make Music Young People

Won’t we need creativity to navigate our digital revolution? To design a way out of our climate emergency. Surely we’ll need it to find new kinds of international relations in complex geo-political shifts.  In short, the 21st century will surely need creative solutions in order to find ourselves a new set of values and ethics for a sustainable and fair world. Those countries and systems which prioritise creativity will succeed and the rest will fail.

What does this mean in relation to creative subjects in education? Three things. First, we need artists to help us understand and navigate the world, to look at it differently and to ease our path into an unknown future. Look at any moment of change, look at any turning point in human history and we’ll remember the artists and what they created.

Secondly creativity as a core skill will be a fundamental to solving, designing, making new ways to do things. Being able to look at things differently will be the defining human skill of the 21st century. Whatever subject or context they are applied to, skills developed in creative subjects will help change the world. Creativity is the rocket fuel of the innovation that drives sustainable economic growth.

Thirdly we will need everyone. An inclusive world means inclusive education. A creative education is not just for the mind, but for the whole body. Creative subjects involve learning differently, allowing young people to flourish and advance their intellectual, emotional and physical development together. Our school education system is arguably preparing young people for a world which has passed and all evidence is that for the 21st century this needs redesigning. Creative subjects have this built in.

So as the 23/24 school year comes into view and with it the likely prelude to a next general election, hopefully we can look at how we educate. It will be fundamental to our success in navigating the big issues of our time. Let’s hope we don’t fall into the wedge issues but can look at the big picture. Now is the moment.

Putting creative subjects back into the school week, training in and resourcing these subjects would be a simple but fundamental start to building a better future.