I’ve seen a couple of tweets going around this week about creative GCSE’s / A-levels and educational reforms, and I’m not going to pretend that a) I really know what’s going on, because I don’t quite have the time to sit through reports and policies and analyse right now, or that b) it’s going to affect me, because I left sixth form five years ago and am coming up to the finish line of my taught educational life.
But in saying that, I did go through an educational system where creativity was encouraged, at a school that was touted for it’s music department and its technological capabilities. I wasn’t a massive fan of school, in all honesty I hated quite a lot of it, but creative based subjects allowed me to at least express myself when there was no room for it in the strict formulas of maths, or hard facts of science.
I was lucky enough to be born into a family where my parents could indulge my sisters and I creatively. Dance class when I just about walking with my elder sister, piano lessons from my mum when I was old enough to start understanding, moving on to a teacher at 5. My dad would draw outlines for us all to colour in when we got bored of the printed books. Creativity was something that was nurtured.
I was lucky enough to have that, lucky that my parents were able to provide that for us.
I’m also starkly aware that not all children get the opportunity I’ve had, and that for them, school art, music, design, and drama lessons are sometimes the only way they can be guided with their creativity.
Creative subjects (or, let’s go with Finland’s redefinition of topics), are necessary for those who don’t fit in the ‘academic’ box. Those who need a blank sheet of paper to scrawl their mind’s workings on instead of neat lines and square grids. Those who find that numbers don’t always make sense, but abstract artists are steadily solving the problems of the universe.
When you try and cram children – because really, as much as you protest dear students you are still children – with all their brilliance and their imagination and their want to do things new and exciting before responsibilites, into boxes, the same boxes, things start getting messy.
A one-size-fits-all system works for the majority, but the creative topics catch the ‘outliers’, the ‘anomalies’, the ones you circle in your scatter-graph of education.
If we’re talking personally, I was a bit of an all rounder at school. A dash of creative with a hint of athletic competitive, mixed with a healthy dose of academically sound. The only GCSE I really had to revise for was French, and I was constantly told in the run up to A-levels that I had a ‘natural ability’ for sciency topics. Mum was proud, she was excited for me to follow in her medically orientated footsteps. I followed my elder sister in the ‘tests well’ category.
I excelled most in music and textiles. They were, by far, my highest GCSE marks in a collection of A*’s and As, anything in ICT that was design driven was next, and then it was my creative writing English coursework, because I thrived in the environment. I’ve always been happiest creating,
Fast forward to A-levels and I can honestly say I was the saddest of my academic life. I ended up doing Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Music, because my parents pretty much forbade me to pick textiles as it ‘would lessen the chance of me getting into uni’ for ‘being a soft subject’. Music was a concession on their part – because I never wanted to do physics. Three sciences would’ve killed me.
As it was, I loathed Chemistry with a passion. The lessons were fun, the content was interesting, it just wasn’t for me in anything but the practicals. Practical exams I almost always got close to full marks in, but written mocks and actual exams I failed spectacularly. To the point where I got so frustrated with my lack of ability to comprehend fucking science that I ended up writing ‘magic’ on my AS paper quite a bit. Soz, examiner. I’m sure that was a thoroughly disappointing read. The unicorns were a fun addition though, right?
It was the first point in my academic career that I’d gone so horribly ‘off track’. I think my chemistry teacher described it to my mum as ‘derailing’ but they attributed it to a lot of stuff going on that AS year. That it was all messing with my head and once I was ‘fixed’ I’d be doing OK again. My Biology teachers concurred, I could ‘bring it back in my A2 year with resits!’ – no surprises I tanked that AS topic too.
Lol no. It was because I didn’t want to do it. I was pigeonholed into ‘being good at sciences’ and it made me so unhappy.
I managed to bring it back, as predicted. Switched Biology classes, dropped Chemistry (see you fucking never, unless I’m at The Alchemist or something), Maths was going OK, Music was fun, though I wasn’t a massive fan of the ‘analysis’ bit. But this isn’t a story about my academic trysts with the system (fuck you massively, aqa music a-level), I can do when I try or am pressured not to/too scared to fail. I’m lucky again, in that respect.
But there are so many kids who can’t do that. Numbers really don’t make sense and science is effectively magic past the point of breaking things down into molecules before we start memorising the periodic table and how many protons are in shells and what way do they spin. But they create masterpieces on canvases that span walls, or write songs that are so bloody catchy they need a record contract, stat, or can dance Sugar Plum from the nutcracker exactly as intended.
There’s a quote from Andrew Garfield where he says:
I hated school, I hated school. And I didn’t realize why. I thought I was…I was, I thought there was something wrong with me for hating school, for not being able to deal with school. At the time it was ingrained in me that school was: if you’re not successful in school you’re not going to be successful in life. And the hierarchy with the subjects at school, like the arts are given no credence. And if they are, it’s false credence. So, I look back on it and and I’m angry. I’m angry about it because, you know, there might be a brilliant ballerina somewhere in school who’s being forced to do maths, and she sees it difficult. But if she’s just allowed to express whatever gifts she has to offer then she would be happy and then she could make hundreds of thousands of other people joyous for a couple of hours per night.
and it sums everything up so perfectly.
To add a ‘personal’ edge again: my elder sister is fantastically academic. She tests brilliantly. She has a scholastic record that shines golden and is now in a job that sounds horrifically stressful but she’s thriving. It’s her forte.
In the same family, you have one that fits into this ‘academic’ box, and one that doesn’t really (and my little sister is like a cat, if she fits, she sits). If it’s like that in our family, and there are only three of us… then imagine the figures in schools where there are hundreds.
If the reforms can get rid of this stigma around creative subjects being ‘soft’ and sciences being ‘preferred’ then that’s fab. But if the reforms remove the budgets allocated to creative topics and their development – or that the examining boards see fit to remove them entirely because only a handful of students take them – you’re going to get even higher numbers of frustrated children who think that the world doesn’t want them, or that they can’t achieve because their strengths can’t be nurtured.