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Are We Witnessing the Slow Death of the Creative Industries?

Are We Witnessing the Slow Death of the Creative Industries? main image

By Lizzie Exton

Some leading lights of the creative industries have been expressing concerns that schools and universities are ‘killing off’ arts subjects, and the numbers seem to back up the claims.  Between 2012 and 2017, entries for GCSE Design and Technology dropped by 32 percent, Performing Arts by 26 percent, Drama by 14 percent, Music by 8 percent and Art by 1 percent. 

The creative industries currently bring around £92 billion a year to the UK economy, but that could be about to change as GCSE, A-Level and university students turn their backs on these subjects.  So are we witnessing the slow demise of creativity in education, and what could the implications be for future of the UK?

The death of the arts in schools?

Budget cuts to schools and drastic reforms of the education system may well have created a ticking time bomb for the creative industries, and could make it harder to recruit talented individuals further down the line.  In 2011 the government rolled out the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc), a league table measure which put the emphasis firmly on the ‘core’ subjects of Maths, English and Science, with GCSE pupils also expected to take one language subject and either history or geography.

As headteachers have seen their budgets slashed, it’s hardly surprising that they’ve had to take drastic measures and, logically, channel what funds they do have into the subjects their schools are going to be judged on.  In pushing students towards those more ‘traditional’ EBacc subjects and diverting money away from the creative curriculum, the decline was set in motion and has continued on its downward trajectory ever since.

To some extent, it’s easier to pass exams in the core subjects and easier to coach children and teenagers towards higher grades.  In maths you either get the equation right or wrong.  In languages you either know the verb or you don’t.  In science you’ve either learnt the formula or haven’t.  When it comes to art, music, creative writing or drama, the grading is on more of a sliding scale and often down to the subjective judgment of the person grading the paper.  If they’re having a good day you might pass with flying colors, if they don’t like your style then you may well fail.

And that’s the big F word that nobody wants to hear.  Schools want higher grades, and higher grades means putting pressure on student not to ‘fail’ at anything.  As the focus shifts to subjects which have a 100 percent right or wrong answer, students are being discouraged from thinking creatively, being more experimental and, perhaps, ‘failing’ and learning from their mistakes.

This extends beyond secondary school and into university.  The 2012 increase in domestic tuition fees has meant students naturally want their money’s worth, and they don’t want to pour thousands of pounds into a degree if there’s any danger of not securing the grades or not landing a decent job at the end.  While it’s easy to see where a maths degree or engineering degree might take you, it’s not always clear where a degree in English Literature or Fine Art might lead.  Every company needs its accountants, IT pros and pensions managers, but very few apparently need someone who can analyze a poem or write a musical score.

And it’s not just the UK where creative subjects are becoming less popular. The recent QS report Indian Applicants: Focus on STEM Subjects and Academic Freedom found that more and more Indian students are choosing STEM subjects, as they’re typically seen as more valuable and lucrative for their future careers, although a small number have felt pressure to choose these subjects from family members.

The wider debate

Something has also shifted in the wider discussion on creativity and what employers want.  From the start of secondary school right through to postgraduate level, pupils are being taught that it’s the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) which represent the future of the world of work. 

Of course it’s good news that more people are embracing these subjects.  We live, we are so often told, in a ‘digital age’, and we will need the programmers, coders, cyber-security personnel and software developers of tomorrow, all with the numerical and analytical skills employers want.  But there also has to be a space for the creative thinking which we’re slowly breeding out of the education system.

Automation and the rise of Artificial Intelligence are going to have a huge impact on the workplace in the coming years, but they are going to require people who can think creatively as well as possessing technical skills.  Every job has a place for creative thinking.  If students today are only taught to follow rigid rules, step-by-step guides and tick boxes, then the workforce of tomorrow will be all the poorer for it.

When the current cohort of school-age students reach the first step on their career ladders, now more than ever they need to be equipped with a broader range of skills.  The EBacc, with its narrow focus, forces schools to limit the subjects they’re offering, and signals to students that creativity won’t be valued in the future jobs market.

A more rounded approach

On a final note, studies have shown time and again that mental health problems are increasingly affecting the young.  Four out of five teachers have reported coming into contact with a student struggling with their mental health in the past year – 45 percent said they had taught a student diagnosed with depression, 30 percent a student with an eating disorder and 28 percent a student who struggled with self-harm.

Schools and exams are not solely responsible, of course, but perhaps it’s no coincidence that increasing pressure on students to achieve good grades is making the situation worse.  Creative subjects can, for some, be an outlet which allows them to channel their emotions in a positive way.  If those with a natural creative leaning are being discouraged from taking the courses they would enjoy, or even being railroaded into more ‘useful’ subjects, we risk curbing their natural abilities and their enjoyment of learning.

There has arguably never been a more pressing need to reinject creative thinking into the curriculum.  If we want to preserve our thriving creative industries and build a stronger workforce for the future, it’s important that we give students the choice and the chance to learn creatively as well as by repetition.

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Lizzie Exton writes for Inspiring Interns, the UKs leading graduate recruitment agency.

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