Do we need to fight the government again over design and art education?

Photo by Policy Exchange

Current education secretary Nicky Morgan's focus on the technical STEM subjects looks to be just as perilous for design education in school as Michael Gove’s EBacc. We speak to Include Design founder Joe Macleod about what's at stake and what we can do about it.

When Michael Gove announced the English Baccalaureate, or EBacc, in September 2012, the creative industries were, rightly so, in uproar. EBacc was planned to replace GCSEs, and in order to obtain it, pupils would need to achieve at least a C grade pass in English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language (ancient or modern). Of course, since no creative subjects would count against this new qualification, it was deemed the arts were being devalued and likely to be under-resourced in schools – and letters from the likes of Stella McCartney, Jonathan Ive and Sir Terence Conran soon made their way to the education secretary.

There was also a campaign started by (then) ustwo’s global design director Joe Macleod. Include Design gathered incredible momentum, with teachers and creatives from all industries offering their support. Less than six months later, in February 2013, the plans were shelved – a resounding victory for the creative industry and an embarrassing u-turn for Mr Gove.

Last year, Gove was replaced as Education Secretary by Nicky Morgan. Whilst Morgan is undeniably less ‘combative’ than Gove, her views on the arts don’t seem too far away from her predecessor’s. Except, that is, Morgan seems to want to not only downgrade creative subjects, but also English, history, geography and languages - and focus on what's known as th STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths (See Dan Holden’s article in The New Statesmen). And at the launch of the Your Life campaign to encourage more students to study STEM subject in November 2014, she categorically said that the choice by pupils to study traditionally creative subjects – the humanities and arts – would restrict their career choices.

Promoted through Morgan's National STEM Centre project, which has ostensibly been set up to improve STEM education in the UK. STEM is everything Morgan feels is important for young people and their prospective careers. Whilst there’s no doubting these subjects are important, it seems as though, once again, the arts – and the wide career opportunities they can offer – are being swept aside to encourage academia and not creative thinking and innovation.

As D&AD president Mark Bonner told us back in December, Morgan is just as damaging to creative education in schools as Gove. “Where are we going to end up in a generation’s time?” he questions. “What kind of grey future are we designing… we have creative people who are arguably more flexible, more dextrous, potentially more powerful than they’ve ever been and we have an education system that seems to be trying its best to turn off the tap.”

Sure, the more affable Morgan might not have packaged her plans to devalue the arts in such a brutal way as Michale Gove did (as Bonner explains, STEM may just be a shrewd rebrand of EBacc) but the problem remains the same – it seems our education system is being run by a government that doesn’t understand creativity and how it is intrinsic to other subjects, and indeed life skills.

These are not recreational subjects that we do for a bit of fun. It seems what the government understands as key are maths and science, and perhaps the importance of good grammar. But without creative problem-solving abilities, many of these subjects are simply a matter of copy and repeat.

So is it time to bring back Include Design? Its campaigners, and the huge support from creative luminaries, undoubtedly caused Gove’s u-turn, so can Morgan’s plans and vision be changed?

We caught up with Joe Macleod (below), the designer behind the original campaign to get his thoughts on the current situation.

Rob Carney: Has Nicky Morgan been better than Michael Gove for creative education in the UK?

Joe Macleod: "Nicky Morgan has broadly taken the same approach as Gove, albeit with a less toxic tone. This approach has included the attitude that creative education doesn’t matter. Which I think shows incredibly poor understanding of the UK’s cultural heritage as such a strong country in creative subjects.

"It’s even more baffling with the recent figures informing us that it was worth £76.9 billion in 2013. And accounted for 1.71 million jobs in 2013 – 5.6 per cent of total UK jobs.

RC: What do you think of STEM?

JM: "It's fantastic to see any subject getting encouragement and funding to promote job creation. I think where Nicky Morgan’s approach has fallen down is her deluded opinion that support in one subject should negate support in another.

"It was amateur politics when she placed the creative industries as a counter to the STEM industries."

RC: Have you got any plans – in light of STEM and Morgan’s obvious view that arts are not important – to bring back Include Design?

JM: "I think Include Design was a great tool to use when we were fighting a vicious individual like Gove in a new Government, but with elections coming up in May the approach should be one of communication with all the parties in support of the creative industries.

"I believe we would be wasting our energy in building noise in a similar way to Include Design right now. Many people in the creative industries are now having discussions with people in the UK's major parties. So work is going on.

"Personally I feel we should be embracing STEAM, not just STEM. Inclusion of the Arts in our core offering is vital to keep the innovation leadership we have in the world. My concern with STEM subjects is that puts us on the same footing as places like India and China that are developing their population along the same lines.

"Teaching creativity alongside the STEM subjects will embed our current leadership. We will lose if we competed with Bangalore for developer numbers. We need to play to our own strengths, which would see us embrace creativity in all subjects."

RC: How important are creative subjects to students in secondary schools? What do they do for pupils?

JM: "Creative subjects are not just for Secondary schools. Creative subjects form a cornerstone of thinking throughout a person’s career. It helps an individual gain an insight and give it that unique twist. It comes from a punk-like confidence to break the rules.

"We excel at this in the UK. We won’t do this by competing with our followers, but by pushing further with our leadership. And that leadership is in creativity."

Joe Macleod is currently working on Closure Experiences – an independent project that looks at the lack of responsibility in the creative industries when we focus so often on acquiring new customers.

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