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David Puttnam visits the dMEC

Creativity in Schools and the Importance of the Creative Industries

A speech by Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, CBE
given at
The Exeter Picture House, Devon
Thursday 18th April, 2002


Lord Puttnam, chair of the General Teaching Council, addressed teachers, governors and artists on the theme of creativity at a special conference at the Exeter Picture House on Thursday 18th April. His lecture was both informative and entertaining. 

"The work of the Devon Curriculum Services is acknowledged across the country as exemplary, a beacon showing others the way forward. That work together with partners such as Film Education, or City Screen through their unique partnership with the Media Education Centre, offers unique insights for all of us into what can be achieved; most especially if industry practitioners have the imagination and vision to really get involved."

Lord Puttnam of Queensgate . 18th April 2002

It’s a genuine pleasure to have been asked to speak to you this morning; and I say this as someone who, throughout their life, has been passionate about creativity and the arts. Not just cinema, but music, photography and painting.

I’m now well and truly retired from the film industry and as you heard I’m now devoting much of my energy and what’s left of my imagination to my role as chair of the General Teaching Council for England. For the past four years I’ve also been chair of National Teaching Awards and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, more popularly known as NESTA. So one way and another my life is now thoroughly embedded in the ‘Public Secto. But this morning, I’d like to speak in a more personal capacity, and, precisely because of my own enthusiasm and passion for the creative arts, to speak from rather closer to my heart.

Over the next twenty five minutes or so, I’d like to share some reflections on the importance of creativity within education; both as regards developing creativity and artistic excellence as an end in itself, and as a means of contributing to the development in this country of a world class system for education and training and, as a result, a world class economy. In closing I’ll also have something to say about the need for us to communicate to the wider world about the economic potential of the creative industries. If there are any rather more policy-oriented issues you would like to raise we can perhaps address them during the Q&A that will follow.

Let’s begin by going back to first principles. Why do we value creativity and the arts? Throughout human history, art has been the means by which we have sought to make connections between ourselves and the cosmos; to express the inexpressible, to make the invisible visible, and to give shape to the shapeless. It represents the sum total of our attempts to explain the world to ourselves and to each other. As the French playwright Jean Anouilh once put it, "Life is all very well. But it lacks form. It is the purpose of art to give it some".

I’ve always believed that the arts are the lifeblood of any society worth the name. They can help bring people together, they represent a way of helping us to recognise our shared values, emotions and vulnerabilities. Art is, as Anouilh recognised, not just a way of understanding the world, but a means of coming to terms with it – most especially during troubled times such as we are presently living through. Art has the power to mark-out the truly personal moments in each of our lives. Birth, death, love, family, in fact all of our great joys and losses; each and every one of those seemingly unique emotions is captured, immortalised and reflected back to us by the power of really great art.

An American social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, captured this thought beautifully when he said, "it is not so much the examples of others we imitate, as the reflection of ourselves in their eyes, and the echo of ourselves in their words."

Britain has always had a particularly strong tradition of creative achievement. Over the centuries we have at different times excelled in writing, music, architecture and the theatre. Equally, in the more contemporary forms of creativity, such as filmmaking and design, time and again, our excellence has been recognised – as our success at the Oscars over the last fifty years clearly demonstrates, a success out of all proportion to our size and importance as a film-making nation. British architects, designers, filmmakers and painters are hailed the world over. Our achievements are also represented in a more concrete form; from Tate Modern to the RSC, from the Edinburgh International Festival to the new Gateshead Music Centre; here are physical embodiments that demonstrate the growing strength of our commitment to the arts.

In many respects, Creativity, or at least, originality is one of our defining national characteristics. A characteristic that sets us apart from many if not most of the other nations in the world. It’s a characteristic we cherish – or ought to! A characteristic that, as I’ll argue later, represents something of a special advantage in the modern world. Or to borrow the language of the economists for one moment, something of a "competitive advantage." But this tradition of artistic excellence and creativity has not just magically fallen from the sky; in fact it is, and always has been, fundamentally linked back to our system of education and training. And unless we continue to nourish and develop the arts and the creativity that goes with them it will, without question, begin to wither on the vine. This is something that I believe, despite some occasional signs to the contrary, that this Government genuinely recognises. It is, for example, why the Government commissioned Ken Robinson’s report on Creativity, Culture and Education, soon after it was originally elected, many of whose recommendations have already been put into practise – it’s also why the idea of specialised Arts Colleges became a reality. And what a reality! I know, I spoke last week at their first annual conference.

All of this has been particularly strongly recognised in this region; the work of the Devon Curriculum Services is acknowledged across the country as exemplary, a beacon showing others the way forward. That work together with partners such as Film Education, or City Screen through their unique partnership with the Media Education Centre, offers unique insights for all of us into what can be achieved; most especially if industry practitioners have the imagination and vision to really get involved. There are, of course, individual geniuses who emerge and flourish as a result of some peculiar combination of genetics, the position of the stars or maybe one or other form of cultural circumstance. We don’t know why this happens, and we will probably never know enough about it’s genesis for it to hold any generally applicable lessons about developing the creative spirit; it remains one of the mysteries of art and indeed of life. I’m now old enough to rather hope it stays that way!

But for the most part, the foundations of artistic and creative excellence are laid down within our education system - or they are not laid down at all. Creative skills such as imagination and concentration, team-work and problem-solving, co-ordination and spatial awareness are all principally developed at school. Activities such as reading, playing music, creative writing, dance and acting all of these contribute to the development of a very special set of skills. Of course all of this is meat and potatoes for many of you, but it’s still worth reminding ourselves of the importance of this basic commitment to developing creativity and the comparative success we achieve.

I’ve seen at first hand from my visits to schools around the country just how powerful participation in these activities can be. Most especially for children and young people for whom participation in any number of activities is in some way compromised by reason of physical or mental disability or even on occasion by home circumstance. Equally important to the development of these skills is access to the arts. Access can mean something as simple as a visit to a local theatre or art gallery. These visits can plant the seeds of creative ambition every bit as much as classroom work. We know only too well how strongly children are influenced by "example"; the strength of their desire to emulate those they admire. To recognise, as that quote from Eric Hoffer puts it, "the reflection of ourselves (themselves) in the eyes of others".

Access to artistic performance can be one of the very strongest means of harnessing these ambitions, of turning them into something that will cause a young person to gather their strength, to take flight and rise to heights they didn’t realise they were capable of achieving. Everyone of you has seen it happen – that’s largely why you do what you do! Access to art is, in short, not only something that can bring great rewards in its own right, but also a gateway to participation. In fact, education, access, and participation are indissolubly linked. It pays remind ourselves – and policymakers – of this rather simple, unvarnished truth from time to time. Education, access and participation are but three sides of the same triangle. Personal fulfilment, public confidence and a richer understanding of the social and cultural context which they inhabit are all things which flow from studying and participating in the creative arts.

That is why, speaking personally, I have been the strongest possible advocate of the Government’s Creative Partnerships scheme, the two year pilot being run by the DCMS in conjunction with the Arts Council. Here’s a scheme, which as I suspect most of you will know, aims to develop both creative skills in the classroom and an understanding of the arts through direct experiences such as visiting a museum, meeting members of an orchestra or even spending a day on a film set. The philosophical under-pinning of the project is that education and the arts are inextricably tied together, and so too is the development of personal creativity with access. That, it seems to me, is exactly right.

Which brings me to my second theme this morning.

For I believe that the development of those same creative skills and all that goes with them, is absolutely essential to the competitiveness of any nation in the modern globalised economy. In case this seems a little fanciful or far-fetched, even to those who are the most passionate advocates of creativity in education, let me try to flesh out and justify that assertion. It’s become something of a commonplace to argue that the days when nations could remain competitive based on large manufacturing industries let alone agrarian economies are rapidly drawing to a close. Despite the bursting of the dot com bubble, the travails of digital television and our failure to convert to WAP mobile phones, the New Economy is, unquestionably, here to stay.

In fact, to my mind the lesson to be learnt from difficulties in the sectors I just cited is that technology is only ever a bridge, it never is and never can be a destination in itself. What matters, what creates real and lasting value, is human creativity and imagination. Just to drive the point home; in this new ‘knowledge economy’ value resides overwhelmingly in intellectual property rights (IPRs), in human knowledge and in intangible goods. In this new economy "competitive advantage" will increasingly mean "knowledge" advantage. So what are the implications of all this as regards the kind of skills organisations need if they are to earn that knowledge advantage sufficient not only to put them ahead of the competition, but to enable them to stay there?

In answering that question it’s become something of a truism to direct attention to the so-called "soft skills" as the likely drivers of successful organisations in the early part of the 21st Century – that is to say skills such as creativity, the ability to innovate, the ability to inspire. In other words, just the kinds of skills that you are seeking to develop in the children and young people that you work with. Nonetheless, as someone who has spent the vast majority of his professional career in one form or other of the ‘Creative ’ Industries, it’s my belief that these "soft skills", in particular creativity, are already critical to the work of many successful organisations, and will become ever more critical in the next few years.

From their inception, I have been a whole hearted supporter of the numeracy and literacy strategies this Government has put in place, and the principles that underpin them; the notion that we have to ensure that every child leaves school with a rock solid foundation in the core skills, those skills they will need to make anything really worthwhile of their lives. It was always simply unacceptable for forty percent of our eleven year olds to be entering secondary school without the basic skills they need to set them on a path to any kind of a fulfilling adulthood. And I’ve also reluctantly come to believe that setting measurable targets is a fundamental imperative if we are to achieve the levels of improvement that are necessary. I would however like to see the criteria against which those targets are set become significantly more sophisticated, year on year. But how we interpret that imperative to get the basics right - what educational context we choose to give to the teaching of these fundamentals, all of this must also be thought through very carefully. The real danger is that in striving to ensure that all basic ingredients of "an education" are added to the mix, we might lose sight of, as it were, the "baking powder" without which even our very best efforts will remain flat, lumpen, and thoroughly unappetising. This is where the work that you do has so much to offer, well beyond providing the kind of scope for personal fulfilment and artistic achievement that I talked about earlier.

I’m by nature an optimist, and can’t help but remember something Marcel Proust once wrote; "We do not need new landscapes, we only need new eyes to see those which already exist". We know what we have to do - it’s now about finding a new way of thinking about, and discovering the means by which we can incorporate creativity and the arts into the whole of our learning processes.

As a ‘for instance,’ (and without wishing to get technical), research has shown that symmetrical, or "cordant" sound, such as a Mozart piano concerto, is transmitted faster to the brain’s neurones than discordant information - which means that, simply put, music can help learning. An analysis by James Catterall, Professor of Education at UCLA of a USA Department of Education database of 25,000 students found that those with high level of arts participation outperformed those with low level of participation by virtually every measure. He also discovered evidence that continued involvement in art forms such as music and theatre had a high correlation with success in mathematics and reading. I don’t believe it will be long now before every company follows Price Waterhouse in asking, as they did in a job advertisement not long ago, ‘which musical instrument do you play?’ Not if, but which. And how long will it take other businesses to follow the lead of the BBC senior management team who were addressed by the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, Ben Zander, on the use of "music" in management.

(As an aside, I was at a headship conference a couple of years ago at which Ben Zander had 600 new heads and several Government ministers standing on their chairs singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, in German. It was quite something to behold).

So, let’s be in no doubt about one thing. The idea that "specialism" equates to narrowness of outlook is entirely specious. Particularly when it applies to the arts. That’s something that every employer worth their salt in this country should think about very carefully when considering the type of people they need to help them navigate the commercial shoals of the 21st Century.

Which brings me to my third and final theme.

Creative industries are the key, without any doubt whatsoever, to the development of the global economy, and most particularly to the British contribution to that economy. All of you I think absolutely understand that – it informs the work you do day in, day out. But I’m equally convinced that there are many in the wider world and many commentators in the media who, absolutely, don’t get it. The truth is that in many parts of the country, while the old manufacturing industries such as shipbuilding and mining have physically disappeared, to be replaced by elements of what some would describe as the green shoots of a "knowledge economy", they haven't disappeared emotionally. And their disappearance is still seen as an issue of tremendous regret.

I spend a lot of the time in the North-East – in part, because I’m Chancellor of the University of Sunderland. The North East is, of course, at the core of our industrial heartland; home to just the kind of smokestack industries used to illustrate the glory of our industrial past in school textbooks. In this respect, it was very instructive a couple of years ago to deliver a lecture in the Miners' Union Building in Newcastle, talking about the creative economy. You sense the history of the building, but what you want to say is, "Not one of you today would wish your sons and daughters to go down the mines". You know it was a dreadful job". Yet there is this nostalgic affection for it, because it is somehow caught up with a whole notion of community, security and stability - all things which are seen to be very wobbly in today’s social environment. The University of Sunderland itself is another good example of what I’m talking about. It is a technology-focused university, with a brand new, beautiful campus, built on the site of the old shipyards. It has 16,000 students many of whom come from families who never dreamt their children would ever go to university. It will surprise many of you to know that more people are employed by the University on Weirside than were ever employed in the shipyards in their hey-day. Yet for many of the people you talk to in Sunderland, it is not seen as a symbol of a bright new future, but as something that has replaced the old sense of security. The traditional industries were seen as reliable. They were hard industries, but they were felt to foster community. The new economy, symbolised by the University, is seen as somehow temporary, artificial and soft. It’ s a perception we are working very hard to correct!

So while in our different ways we’re all engaged with the brave new world of creativity, recognising the importance of the creative industries and creative skills; in many senses, the underlying arguments have yet to be won. We are forced to ask ourselves why the debate around the creative industries has moved on so little since 1997. It’s a debate that should by now have moved well beyond buzz words, well beyond aspiration, the truth is, it's not "somewhere out there", we're living in it. We have somehow to find a new language to describe it to those same people whose lives and jobs are going to rely on what we broadly describe as these "creative industries". As a nation, we haven’t been entirely spinning our wheels, we have successfully identified the nature of the opportunity. We have successfully identified the huge potential of this sector. As your work here in Devon has shown, we have identified ways of addressing that potential through educational work. But we have done nothing like enough to identify how, as a nation, we are going to take advantage of, or exploit the opportunities that exist; witness the fact that Devon may be a beacon, but it’s a rather solitary beacon in respect of good practice.

Finally, the worst problem we face in developing the idea of the importance of the creative economy is when senior educationalists and their fellow travellers argue that creativity in education is somehow "anti-standards", that in one way or another there is a conflict between the rigour of academic achievement in liter acy and numeracy, and this other, sloppy, limp-wristed thing called creativity. This is a debate that common sense should have settled years ago – yet it is kept alive, largely for political purposes, by the Woodheads of this world – at least it gives them something to scribble about at ten pence a word! But it remains an argument we need to confront head-on. For unless we find a way of building children's natural creativity into the entire curriculum, from start to finish, create environments in which it is as natural to them to be engaged in music as maths, and in which these things are not seen as opposites; unless we can make that leap we will still be floundering about twenty years from now - and some other similar group of well meaning souls will be meeting here saying, "Where on earth did we go wrong?" We also need to make sure that the development of digital technology to nurture creative skills isn’t left solely in the hands of the "techno-nerds". Jean-Paul Sartre once said of Albert Camus that "he was a nightingale who thought he was an owl."

Well, I think that in the context of education and digital technology the reverse is true; there are too many owls who think they are nightingales. That’s to say that it’s tending to be the pointy-heads rather than the real creatives who are leading the charge. And that shouldn’t be the case! As a consequence, there’s too much debate around the nature of the technology and not remotely enough around the attractiveness and the quality of the software. Yet the truth is – and it’s been apparent from every single application in the field of moving images from the invention of the Lumière Brothers onwards – that it’s content that drives technology not the other way around. We have to find ways to develop learning software which creates the same level of visual and auditory engagement among children and young people as a video game or even a Game Boy machine. For without that software, all the money spent on hardware is likely to be so much money wasted.

I believe that lack of imagination is the greatest barrier to the realisation of the possibilities of this technology, and it is the imagination and creativity of professionals within IT, such as many of you here today, that will determine the pace and the quality of change. We must not come to see the impact of the computer on education as merely paralleling the impact of the calculator on arithmetic; speeding up and simplifying the process, without offering any significant change to the process itself. If these new technologies are properly used, with sensitively developed, intelligent and challenging content, they have, the potential to accelerate the development of the whole educational process – and with it, all of our national futures. The irony is that the younger generation understand all of this instinctively, they are living the revolution. And computers are not seen just as games machines. In the UK one third of those under 17 already use a personal computer in their leisure time for something other than playing computer games.

I don’t pretend to have answers to all these issues; complex and rather intractable as they undoubtedly are. What they require is a pretty significant cultural upheaval – one that will undoubtedly be as painful as it needs to be radical. But of one thing I am convinced - the seeds of this change must be sown in schools. This resistance among parts of the community – especially among older people – in acknowledging the importance of the creative industries, makes it make it even more imperative that we equip our children with the ability to understand and tackle the challenges of the future. One of the consequences of this will surely be a fundamental rethinking of the structure of schools and the way in which they use digital technology.

Let me offer you an analogy which I think illustrates just how far behind we are. If you took a brilliant surgeon from the year 1900 and plonked him into an operating theatre today, he (and it would have been a he) could literally do little more than wipe the brow of the patient, take their pulse, make a cup of tea and stand, with extreme interest, watching what was going on. Their skills would have become totally irrelevant in the intervening 100 years. This is nothing to do with his ambition as a surgeon, he literally would have found himself transported into a wholly alien environment. He might as well be on a spaceship.

Now take a schoolteacher from 1900 and put her (and it would be a her) in a class with a blackboard, a piece of chalk and 30 or so reasonably attentive faces and in most subjects, she could deliver what would be entirely recognisable as a lesson, because technology has not as yet had any significant impact on the process of learning. And yet, I would argue that the same frontiers of knowledge will be crossed in the next 25 years in the application of technology to the process of learning, as have marked the last 100 years in medicine. All this has significant implications for classroom and school, management. That model I just mentioned of 30 children in neat rows facing a single teacher is (or ought rapidly to be) an anachronism in an era of video-conferencing, email and whiteboard technology. Why shouldn’t children be helped to learn French by French children in French schools, or physics by a Nobel prize winner? Why should teachers at state schools still be responsible for washing out paint–pots and making sure the PCs work when there are armies of volunteers and specialists that could support them in exactly these areas?

Technology will only ever be a bridge, not a destination in itself. But the work that you do, much of which relies on digital technology, can only get more and more invaluable in showing the way forward.

I began by saying that the work of Devon Curriculum Services has been exemplary. Everyone involved appears to be enormously encouraged by it. But let’s not underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead. For, as I hope I’ve convinced you, they are very considerable.

Let’s be under no illusion. We need every region to have a Curriculum Service doing the kind of work that goes on here. We need not just one Media Education Centre, but thirty, forty, fifty around the country. And, just as importantly, we need the industry to step up to the plate and acknowledge its responsibilities to the future; we need more companies like City Screen to get involved at every turn. Government and Local Authorities, no matter how well meaning, cannot do all of this alone.



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