A state of the art creative education? Place-based learning and making, inclusivity and innovation

This blog series and has kindly been provided by

Vanessa Corby

Professor Theory, History and Practice of Art
York St John University

This is the concluding piece of the series

In 2018 Oli Mould prefaced Against Creativity by arguing that ‘creativity can be used to produce more social justice in the world’ only if it can be ‘rescued from its current incarceration as purely an engine for economic growth’ (2018). The Creative Industries Sector Vision signposts the social value of the arts, setting out its 2030 Wellbeing Objective that references the National Academy for Social Prescribing, ACE and third sector arts and health initiatives. My fear is, however, that because activities such as these are non-profit by nature any neoliberal government will pay only lip service to them. There’s no doubt that these initiatives can make a substantial contribution to the wellbeing of our society, but I know from first-hand experience that they are woefully under resourced. New starters working in those areas will not find the holy grail of an average graduate salary (a fate shared by the disabled, ethnic minorities and 6/10 women (HESA, 2023)). Creative courses will thus continue to be squeezed because of these ‘poor’ graduate outcomes as universities look for ways to tighten increasingly uncomfortable belts. Arts-based community engagement will continue to be sustained by poorly paid goodwill, staffed by graduates whose families can afford to subsidize their living costs. Provision for initiatives for the social value of the arts will remain piecemeal at best, hostage to the funds made available to over stretched Local Authorities, galleries and museums which face significant barriers to participation for working class communities (link to YSJU report, 2020).

If the arts are not to be reduced to some nightmarish marker of excess and status worthy of Suzanne Collins’ Capitol (2008), the discipline needs those communities. For far too long colleagues in HEIs have hugged their specialist conceptual vocabularies and global knowledges as markers of the discipline’s distinctiveness, a key weapon in the pitched battle against the denigration of the arts in the ivory tower of the academy. In that climate a measure of distance between the proponents of the discipline and the ignorant masses ‘who don’t get it’, was positively applauded; again, it’s not us its them. But it is the instrumentalization of that distance that has made the arts so vulnerable. In 2015 the Conservative’s Election Manifesto sought to ameliorate the party to ‘ordinary’ working people via the strengthened EBacc that would remove the arts from the statuary curriculum for KS4; taking education back for ‘your’ children, just as curbs on immigration would take back ‘your’ country. In other words, the Conservatives weaponized the fact that, as Jack said, outside the walls of my seminar room ‘nobody cares about art’.

To survive, creative education and culture must be mobilized to tackle inequality and injustice rather than embed it. The first step to achieving that aim is to admit it’s not them, it’s us. Higher Education needs to provide a model for all levels of education that destabilizes the default veneration global cultural production, which always situates cultural capital elsewhere and dismisses the local as parochial. This hierarchy underscores the discipline’s baseline assumptions about what does and does not constitute cultural capital, guiding admissions processes, assessment, curriculum and research design that are discriminatory. Instead, the generations and geographies of art and design must be resituated. As Zygmunt Bauman argued, ‘on a planet open to the free circulation of capital and commodities, whatever happens in one place has a bearing on how people in all other places live, hope or expect to live’ (2007). We therefore need to find strategies that reveal how the arts can be valuable for everyday people, engaged in their environments whilst acknowledging the wider mechanisms that govern the interplay of local places and global processes (Coates et al. 2016).

I want to cite two sector leading place-based initiatives responding to this context. First, is Temporary Contemporary and the cultural strategy consultation with Kirklees Council, third sector organisations, and ACE, captured in the Culture is Ordinary symposium (link), devised by colleagues in the School of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Huddersfield (link). Instigated in 2018 and drawing on John Holden’s 2015 report for the AHRC, which called for a non-hierarchical, ecological approach to the emergence of culture, they aim to initiate ‘arts and cultural policy change’ by taking ‘necessary and strategic actions, where mixed ecologies of cultural activity work against the disciplinary policing of space with new assemblages of distributed power (Bailey, et al. 2019). Also based in Yorkshire and coordinated by a consortium of four Local Cultural Partnerships and colleagues based at the University of Leeds, the Culture on the Doorstep pilot, is currently helping primary schools to explore how co-created ‘place-based learning, within the context of a 15-minute neighbourhood, can build the cultural capital of children and young people’ (Creative Learn Lab, 2023 link).

Both these projects are richer and more significant than I can do justice to here. But they call to mind the central tenants of educationalist Alec Clegg, Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire (1945-1974), then the largest education authority in Great Britain. Clegg believed that if we want children to grow into active citizens education must connect to and value their world, their homes and communities (Wood et al., 2021). A ‘seminal figure of twentieth-century education’ (Crawford, 2008), Clegg had been also mindful that a reliance on ‘memory and mechanical skill’ was ‘at the expense of creative power’ (Clegg, 1972). Clegg synthesised these two concerns, devising a place-based education system, underpinned by making-led exploration and experimentation, made possible by curriculum flexibility and teacher autonomy, which enhanced student engagement via enriched relationships between educators, students and their families.

In 2022 the government published its latest education White Paper, Opportunity for All: Great Schools and Teachers for Your Child, which recognises the need to create a greater sense of belonging for young people in schools and suggests increasing teacher autonomy to achieve that aim. While this change is welcome, the White Paper remains steadfastly committed to ‘pump-priming social mobility’ via a ‘knowledge-based’ education system (UK Gov). As Achiampong attests, the belonging and self-worth needed to do well in the world cannot be facilitated by a top-down curriculum. A curriculum is made fit for purpose by its ability to meet the needs of students, society and industry not by its capacity to provide an appraisable body of knowledge. In our era of global cultural and economic exchange, Clegg’s legacy is a model that could help young people grasp that home is both complex and meaningful. It could equip them with a sense of belonging, contextualising disadvantage beyond deficit, generating confidence and curiosity that is indebted to the knowledge that success in the wider world doesn’t mean having to abandon the culture of home.

The Government’s 2022 White Paper clearly signals that, as far as current educational reform goes, the curriculum is off the table (or so everyone keeps telling me). But I have devised curricula and assessment by scaffolding learning in more revalidations than I now care to remember, and I am convinced that unless the paucity of understanding that shapes the National Curriculum for Art & Design is addressed, the discipline will never be inclusive, leaving it more precarious as a result. What would have got closer to the mark were the recommendations of Renfrew’s working party in 1991, mentioned in the previous blog. Like Clegg the working party recognised the creative power and potential of the processes of ‘investigating, making and understanding’. So, I want to close (finally) with a radical proposition, by drawing attention to the keen resemblance between Clegg’s ethos, the language employed by Renfrew et al. and point 1.8 of the 2016 QAA Benchmarks for Art & Design, which states:

Art and design skills, particularly those in ‘making’, contribute to cognitive development and engage learners. Through engagement with materials, processes and ideas, ‘making’ develops creativity, inventiveness, problem solving and practical intelligence (QAA 2016).

I think that it is possible to reverse engineer art and design education in England from this QAA Benchmark. I can see how an emphasis on making, investigation and understanding could embed the social value of the arts in the National Curriculum from year 0 to 13. I can see how it could act as a basis for an inclusive and interdisciplinary curriculum that accommodates place-based approaches to learning in a global context, constructively aligned to university pedagogy, and the needs of industry but serving the needs of people who won’t go to university as much as those who will. Such a curriculum could vitalise the arts’ capacity for social change and the economy’s needs for independent, resourceful graduates; people who understand that problem solving is a situated process, an exciting exploration of the not yet known. Couldn’t that be the beginning of a more inclusive, healthy and successful creative workforce?


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