The Arts in Schools: The Arts, Creativity & the Whole Curriculum

Pauline Tambling discusses the role of creativity in education over the past 40 years

8 September 2022

In May 2022, A New Direction published The Arts in Schools: a new conversation on the value of the arts in and beyond schools, reflecting on the 1982 Gulbenkian report on this topic and developments in arts education since.

In June and July 2022 we convened a series of roundtables on Zoom with school leaders, teachers, arts education practitioners, academics and policymakers on eight themes in the original report. What follows are personal reflections following what was discussed in a meeting chaired by Paul Roberts OBE on Creativity. A fuller response to what we’ve heard across all the roundtables and online responses to our Think Piece will be published in a new report in early 2023.


When the Gulbenkian report, the Arts in Schools, was published in 1982 people were already talking about the value of creative thinking and its importance for the world of work: ‘Industrialists and politicians lay great stress and invest much energy, time and money on the promotion of creative work and creative thinking.’ Society was changing and employability was important but as well as considering employers’ demands there was also a recognition that education needed to be more than training young people for the future: ‘To see education only as a preparation for something that happens later, risks overlooking the needs and opportunities of the moment.’

When I was training to be a primary school teacher in the 1970s we were taught that teaching was about enabling learning, drawing out children’s creativity, and building on their interests. The arts were integral to this, particularly painting and drawing. The walls of the primary classrooms I visited on teaching practice in the 1970s were covered with children’s artwork, each piece often lovingly mounted on two pieces of sugar paper, and always representing every child’s work, not just those pieces considered the best. In secondary schools, particularly secondary modern schools, arts teachers were excellent at engaging the disengaged, often working-class children, by starting with young people’s own experiences and showing how the arts, particularly drama, could offer young people a voice to express themselves and their opinions. Relevance was key: how could young people learn if they didn’t see the value of what they were learning?

Music was an interesting example. In my first comprehensive school we offered both the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), which was the standard qualification in secondary modern schools and allowed teachers to opt for one of three assessment options including teacher or school-based assessment (mode 3). Teachers were able to devise their own courses and assess them. Practice based on encouraging students’ own composition and working with popular music were usual. Students in the higher bands (streaming according to ability was common then) were taking the General Certificate of Education (GCE) and were learning harmony, analysing works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and doing traditional aural tests. There was a great deal of debate about the relative merits of these two approaches particularly as a top grade at CSE was deemed equivalent to a pass at GCE ‘O’ level. How could they be equivalent when some children were ‘just’ composing their own music or analysing Beatles’ songs? What was there to teach if the students were already familiar with the material? Where was the progression? Where was the hard work?

The Arts in Schools writers were keen to demonstrate that the arts required discipline, rigour and progression: ‘We do not…. share the view of some past advocates of the arts, that this amounts to the need to encourage ‘free expression’; that any response is acceptable from pupils because it is their response; that anything produced is worthwhile simply because it has been produced.’ Experienced arts teachers always did more than encourage ‘free expression’. They valued discipline and progression too.

The debate about creativity and the arts has continued ever since as has the question of whether the arts are always creative, and whether they have a special role in creative learning. Often this debate has been driven by a frustration by those promoting the arts in schools: almost using creativity as a trojan horse to ensure arts subjects get a place on the timetable or within the National Curriculum. The Arts in Schools writers were clear that creative thinking is not unique to the arts and that ‘It makes just as much sense to talk of creativity in science, engineering, mathematics, and philosophy as in the arts…’

At the heart of the debate is the importance of fostering creative thinking as an approach, rather than as a subject. All arts subjects have creative elements but they also require skills development, repetition, learning and improvement. Good arts teaching includes engaging with the work of others whether from contemporary practitioners or from the past. Teachers have always had to negotiate the tricky path of value and whose culture we are including and excluding, and how to teach in a way that accords value to young people’s efforts: ‘If we want to promote independent, critical and creative thinking, we shall be working against ourselves if we try to achieve these things by methods of teaching which stifle initiative and promote the acceptance of some authoritarian fiat of a body of elders or establishment.’

A great deal has been written about creative learning over the forty years since The Arts in Schools both in the UK and across the world. There is general agreement that the terms creativity and the arts are not interchangeable. Creativity is about how we learn, rather than a subject in itself. In our roundtables meetings and responses to our The Arts in Schools: a new conversation on the value of the arts in and beyond schools we heard from teachers for whom creativity and creative learning approaches are important. They stressed its role in collaborative learning - so much of what happens in schools is about individual achievement whereas in workplaces we often work in teams – and in fostering problem-solving, imagination and originality. And how creative endeavour can go way beyond the school, into the community and working with arts institutions, museums and libraries.

The central challenge in thinking about creativity and creative learning is how it fits, if at all, into today’s schools. Where school leaders, governors and parents have a long tradition of creative practice its value is self-evident. We heard of cross-school partnerships as ‘creative collaboratives’ (part of an Arts Council England initiative), collaborations with art galleries like Steve McQueen Year 3 with Tate Britain, and re-imagined museums like Young V&A. These approaches are not adopted everywhere and whether children and young people experience a creative approach to education depends on the school leadership and the commitment of the teachers.

This leads to the question of how much schooling and education is designed for young people ‘in the present’. If education is solely about bodies of knowledge for use in the future, or for gaining qualifications that will lead to the next education stage, or for maximising future earnings then what does it offer young people in the here and now. How is what happens in school helping young people to navigate the world, to deal with intractable problems, to find a lifelong passion? As one participant in our roundtables observed, ‘what about students with life-limiting conditions, or young people who won’t be high earners or go to university? What does education mean for them?’. If we think more about education in the present would we value creative learning differently?

We will be sharing a new The arts in schools: foundations for the future report in the new year. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date, and get involved in the conversation on social media using the #ArtsinSchools hashtag.