Seeing the Wood for the Trees the creative industries and the reforms to the education system in England

First published on October 2011.

It is self-evident that all industries which are ideas- based, innovative and knowledge-intensive, including the creative industries, need creative people to thrive. Creativity is, of course, nurtured and stimulated in people in many ways, but the great institutions of education – our schools, colleges and universities – play an essential role, not least because young people spend so much of their waking hours in these institutions.

The big questions

Arguably, the reforms set out in the government’s schools and higher education White Papers and its response to Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education amount to the most profound changes in generations to the talent pipeline feeding the creative industries. But there is a danger that industry is focusing its efforts on lobbying for what it can most easily influence, rather than what is most important.

Take apprenticeships. While it is important, of course, that the creative industries take advantage of the available additional funding for apprenticeships, this must not substitute for fundamental debate on what the education reforms mean for the creative industries: on the failure to address the demise of creative computing from English education up to key stage 4, or on the structure of the new English Baccalaureate which, unlike its international counterpart, completely ignores art. Why has it fallen to Eric Schmidt, the American executive chairman of the US giant Google, to remind us of the damage that English education does to the creative industries by forcing students to specialise prematurely in either science or the arts?

We urgently need a wide-ranging debate on how the creative industries can work with schools, colleges and universities to address these problems but, with one or two noticeable exceptions, UK industry leaders have been silent on these issues.

A need for new coalitions

At a time when there are major concerns that the way government is approaching mathematics and physics may be at the expense of creative education, the creative industries need to think of themselves less as passive recipients for talent and more as active agents in developing creativity in young people. The creative industries must play their part in addressing longstanding shortfalls in English education and in making more sophisticated, evidence-based recommendations for education policy.

Of course, this may seem a very big ask for industries made up of busy (largely small) creative businesses, many of which already devote significant time to schools through participating in open days, giving guest lectures and sponsoring school competitions. In our research for Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope’s Next Gen skills review of the video games and visual effects industries, we found that a surprisingly high 46% of video games businesses claimed to have ‘engaged’ with schools, and that a big reason why they did not do more was because of time pressures. In this context, it is worth remembering that the video games and visual effects industries make their impressive contributions to the UK’s economic growth with a workforce of perhaps no more than 15-16,000 people between them. Industries as small – and as fragmented – as these need to think hard about how they can more effectively engage with an English education system in a way that is sensitive to the commercial pressures on their time.

The evidence certainly supports the view that more effective engagement is needed. In the case of video games and visual effects, we uncovered extraordinarily high levels of ignorance persisting in schools about the needs of these industries and the UK’s world-leading position in them. Only 3% of young people, for example, recognised that physics was one of the most important subjects for video games employers. School teachers were no better informed, with only 2% recognising the importance of physics and 7% computer science (against 44% who mistakenly singled out ICT).

For sure, part of the solution lies in building stronger alliances between different creative sub-sectors. It is ironic that industries which depend so much on creative collaborations (and the trade bodies which represent them) struggle to break out of their silos and develop joint engagement strategies and policy positions even on issues where there is a great deal of common interest. The education system is surely one such area and there is a very good opportunity to address this in the new Creative Industries Council.

But an important part of the solution lies in the creative industries building broader-based coalitions: in identifying other interests, sectors and agencies outside of the creative sector that also need our education institutions to foster creativity; to use the networks of these other groups to engage directly with schools, colleges, universities and talent; and to work with them to develop robust and evidence-based lines on education policy which, as a result, are more likely to reach the ears of policymakers.

This is, perhaps, one of the biggest lessons we learned during the Livingstone- Hope skills review, where undoubtedly our strongest recommendations for educators, policymakers and industries were developed with bodies and learned societies as wide and varying as the British Computer Society, Institute of Physics, STEMNet and Teach First.

The Institute of Physics boasts 75% of physics teachers among its affiliates and around 3,000 young people participate in its Youth Membership Scheme: what better way for the visual effects industry with its 5,000-odd workforce to engage with the 25,000 or so schools in England than to partner with them?

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -