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The ACE and Durham University collaboration says that prioritising exam technique over deep understanding is “far from ideal for government, regulators, heads, teachers or parents”.

A photo of a young person's hands drawing

The Durham Commission has called for an England-wide network of hubs to help schools nurture their students’ creativity, potentially supported by funding from businesses.

A report from the two-year research collaboration between Arts Council England (ACE) and Durham University calls for a national network of “Creativity Collaboratives”, in which “schools collaborate in establishing and sustaining the conditions required for nurturing creativity in the classroom, across the curriculum”.

It proposes a three-year pilot of nine hubs, before the rollout of a national network from 2023. Funding for the pilots would come from “a consortium including the Department for Education (DfE), ACE and educational trusts”. The pilot period would be used “to explore the possibility of attracting funding from partnerships between DfE, industry and commerce”.

An accrediting body would be responsible for monitoring the quality of the Collaboratives, distributing funding, and selecting lead schools for the scheme. Leaders from these schools would be trained in teaching for creativity through a series of conferences, implementing the methods they acquire in their own schools and throughout local networks of other schools.

The Commission also urges schools to nominate a “champion for creativity” with responsibility for promoting creativity across the curriculum. “This champion should have a voice at the level of senior leadership and exposure at the level of school governance”.

Déjà vu?

At the report’s launch, some arts sector stakeholders expressed concerns that the proposed hubs seemed to echo a previous creative learning initiative, Creative Partnerships, that began in 2002 but had its funding cut in 2011. A representative of one of ACE’s bridge organisations asked ACE Chair Sir Nicholas Serota – who is also Chair of the Durham Commission – why the proposed initiative would fare any differently to the Creative Partnerships, saying that “the sense of déjà vu is striking”.

“What did the Durham Commission learn from the Creative Partnership process that means that the recommendations here are going to stick a bit longer than we were able to make them stick with Creative Partnerships? What’s going to be different in 17 years’ time so that we are not hearing about the same issues and same solutions that I’m sure we all know about?”

Serota replied that “Creative Partnerships were always very successful at working within one sector of the school. I think what the Durham Commission is trying to do is recognise that creativity exists in all disciplines.”

He added: “Ultimately Creative Partnerships disappeared because there was a change of administration…We have to work across parties and across government to persuade people that creativity is absolutely fundamental.”

Another ACE-backed educational partnership scheme – Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs) formed between schools, arts organisations and local government – has struggled to get off the ground in the past four years. But Serota told ArtsProfessional that the LCEPs were “very different” to the proposed Creativity Collaboratives because they are focused on culture rather than creativity.

Review of exam system

The Commission was announced in 2017 to examine “the role creativity and creative thinking should play in the education of young people”. It was conducted by a team of researchers at Durham University and overseen by 18 Commissioners including Lord Kerslake, Chair of the Peabody Trust, architect Sir David Adjaye, and the filmmaker and charity founder Baroness Kidron.

Its report also calls for a rethink of England’s current schools exams system, to halt what the Commission sees as a stifling of young people’s creative growth. Researchers found “significant concern” about current teaching approaches, saying that “accountability and performance tables, curriculum content and teacher capacity” are constraining the full development of students’ creativity.

The report says that in some schools, teaching prioritises the ability to answer exam questions over achieving a deep understanding of subjects. “This style of teaching reduces opportunities for genuine scholarship, craftsmanship, a fascination with ideas and absorption in a discipline, all of which are key conditions for the development of creativity,” say the authors.

‘Far from ideal’

The Commission says that the consequences of the current exam system are “far from ideal for government, regulators, heads, teachers or parents”. The report also highlights concerns that since the introduction of the EBacc performance measure, there have been fewer students choosing creative subjects at GCSE and A Level. “This, in the opinion of the Commission, results in a serious imbalance in the all-round education of students”, it says.

“The current consensus is that we need a period of stability in the exam system,” adds the report. “The Commission believes this should be seen as an opportunity to review the system.”

The Commission recommends that “Government, the exams regulator Ofqual and the awarding bodies should work together over the next two to three years to establish approaches to setting and marking exams that reduce incentives to ‘teach to the mark scheme’. They should also develop an accountability system that discourages this style of teaching.”

It adds that the schools watchdog Ofsted should “continue to refine its inspection framework” to “make clearer that it is looking for teaching for scholarship and craftsmanship, not merely exam-passing”.

Despite the report’s concerns about the impact of the EBacc, Serota told ArtsProfessional that it was “not a panacea to kill the EBacc”, saying that simply scrapping the performance measure would not automatically lead to more creativity in schools. He said that while he would personally like to see the EBacc reformed, it was more important to encourage teaching activity that supports young people’s creativity.

Other recommendations

Other recommendations from the Commission include calls for:

•    Creativity Collaboratives to work with higher education institutions to develop approaches for evaluating creativity
•    DfE to support English schools’ participation in the PISA 2021 evaluation of creative thinking
•    DfE to “seek additional funding for training for teachers in digital literacy and digital creativity”
•    DfE to set up and fund a National Plan for Cultural Education to ensure cultural opportunities for all school children
•    DfE to integrate creativity into the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum
•    ACE to work in partnership with youth sector organisations and social services to develop existing out of school opportunities to be creative
•    The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to review opportunities for developing creativity in T levels and Apprenticeship Standards.

‘Educational slow lane’

The Commission’s investigation consisted of a literature review and original research including round-table sessions with stakeholders such as teachers and business leaders. Through this process, the Commission developed a “vision for promoting creativity in education”.

It argues that schools should be better enabled to promote creativity across the curriculum. Teaching for creativity should not be “confined to certain subjects or phases”, says the report. “Creativity in science is different from creativity in drama but is valuable in both”.

It is hoped that these measures will empower young people to “negotiate the changing nature of the digital world and workplace” and sustain England’s “cultural and industrial sectors”.

Through an analysis of other countries’ education systems, the report makes the case that encouraging creative thinking “is becoming central to the education systems of our economic competitors”.

“Unless the English system recognises the importance of creativity, its school students may be left behind in an educational slow lane, with consequences for the country’s future economic and society as a whole. There has therefore never been a more vital time to address this pressing need.”