UK’s Labour promises a more creative mix at school

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Starmer promises radical reform policies

By Branwen Jeffreys and Peter Walker

UK’s Labour Party recently promised to rewrite the national curriculum to boost creative subjects in schools. Labour is promising to change the mix of what children learn in England’s schools, including creative subjects and sport until the age of 16.

Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer also promised to eradicate “the snobbery” surrounding vocational education and invest in children’s speaking skills. The ambition he set out faces major challenges as schools grapple with teacher recruitment, budget pressures and the loss of learning and confidence that is the legacy of the pandemic.

After more than a decade in which schools have been pushed to focus on traditional academic subjects, Labour is offering an alternative vision. The Labour leader deliberately chose to echo a radical Conservative education reformer, Michael Gove, saying Labour would also have no truck with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for children from low-income families. While he promised a push on standards, there is, at the heart of this, one of the biggest questions in education. Does what children learn at school now fully equip them for life in a digital society and a world of work facing rapid disruption through technology?

One of the measures by which government judges schools is how many pupils take the group of academic subjects at GCSE known as the English Baccalaureate. In 2022, 39% of pupils sat exams in a group of subjects that included Math, English, History, Geography, Sciences and Modern foreign languages. But the push for more pupils to study these core subjects has led to concerns that creative subjects are being squeezed out of the school timetable.

The Cultural Learning Alliance has pointed to a 40% fall in GCSE entries overall in creative subjects during the past decade, including design, technology and film-making. Some of these subjects offer pupils who do not always perform well elsewhere somewhere to shine.

The feeling that these creative subjects are less important than others has led to a crisis in morale among specialist teachers. In recent warnings in a report for an all-party parliamentary group, many of them said they were considering leaving.

Some British people are afraid of a crisis in the Humanities. Last year, English literature fell out of the top 10 most popular A-levels, as fewer students chose it. And so, many will see Labour’s promise to rewrite what pupils should learn, the national curriculum that guides schools, as a chance to provide a richer and more rewarding education. So what is missing from Sir Keir’s broad vision?

Concerns over creative subjects in the face of Artificial Intelligence (IMAGE SOURCE,PA MEDI)

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he wanted to break down barriers to opportunity at every level of education. While he promised a skills levy to boost apprenticeships, more might be hoped for by further-education colleges that have long seen their funding languish behind schools.

Independent economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have already warned that under current plans, by 2024, spending on 16 to 19 year-olds in colleges will be, in real terms, about 5% below that of 2011. But the biggest promise of all – that no child would be held back in adult life because of family background – is the hardest to crack. Since the pandemic, the education gap between children in poorer communities and the better off has increased, where, before, it had started to narrow. But Labour has yet to say if it would take some bolder steps to target more resources towards the most disadvantaged. So it remains unclear whether a Labour government would make free school meals available to more children, or increase the money going into the pupil-premium funding, which schools can use to provide extra learning support but which has not kept up with inflation.

This is a time of profound discontent in England’s schools, with all four education unions balloting over strike action on teachers’ pay. A credible leak has suggested the independent pay-review body report will recommend a 6.5% increase, significantly above the current government offer. Yet Labour politicians, including Sir Keir, refuse to be drawn on whether such a rise is required.

Another unknown issue is how the Labour Party would treat school budgets in England, which have been through a rollercoaster decade of austerity before partial recovery. By 2024, the amount spent per pupil in England, once all the rising costs are accounted for, will be only a little more than in 2010. Labour has set out a different vision for education but it failed to tackle some of the thorniest challenges any government could face.

However, a group of prominent actors, artists and authors have praised Labour’s proposal to instill more creativity in the school curriculum, saying the arts currently risk being “a pursuit that only the most privileged can follow”. An open letter, signed by Grayson Perry, Olivia Colman, Simon Rattle, Adrian Lester and Patrick Stewart, follows Keir Starmer’s pledge to reprioritize creativity and other “human” skills in a world of artificial intelligence. Announcing the plan at a speech in Kent, Starmer said a Labour government would mandate students to study a creative subject, or sport, to the age of 16, in a pushback against recent years of ministerial edicts urging a focus on vocational skills.

The letter has been signed by more than 100 people, including actors Lesley Manville, Anna Maxwell Martin, Rafe Spall and Josette Bushell-Mingo, authors Philip Pullman and David Baddiel, soprano Susan Bullock, artists Isaac Julien and Eva Rothschild, sculptor Antony Gormley and designer Thomas Heatherwick. The signatories called creativity “an essential part of human expression”.

The letter said: “Creativity drives innovation, progress and personal fulfillment. It is through creativity that young minds can explore their imaginations, develop critical thinking skills and cultivate empathy. Should not every child have this opportunity? As leaders in the arts and creative sector, we believe the answer to this is an unequivocal yes. For too long, the creative arts have been squeezed out of the mainstream curriculum and have become a pursuit that only the most privileged can follow.” The case for more arts education is based not just on personal expression, but economics, the group argued: “The creative sector is worth billions to the economy and is one of the UK’s most successful and best-loved exports.” 

In his speech, Starmer said there needed to be a move away from “the new fashion that every kid should be a coder”, given the rise of AI, also calling for schools to teach students to be confident and eloquent public speakers. The move to shore up study of the arts was “fundamental to the development of children and our industry”, the letter said.

“We also welcome Labour ensuring that schools’ accountability incorporates creativity and the arts, so brilliant teachers know that their teaching is worthwhile.” The signatories said they expected a Labour government to devote resources to libraries, youth clubs and leisure centres, saying the closures of such facilities “have dealt a severe blow to the pursuit of enriching extracurricular activities.”

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