Sir Ken Robinson: when Herbert meets Ken, what an afterlife that will be.

Sir Ken Robinson’s recent death has prompted much reflection and sadness across the world from artists, teachers, thinkers and politicians alike.  He’s been a hugely influential figure for so many of us who have been cultivating the arts and cultural education estate over the last 50 years, and it’s impossible to overturn any stone in the garden, rearrange the shrubbery or repave the patio without noticing the impact and influence that Ken, now one of the Great Gardeners in the sky, would have had on that contribution to our educational horticulture.

Many of us owe a huge debt to him for the wisdom, generosity of spirit and sheer good humour he has showed us whilst tending the estate.

My own testimony to him goes back to when I was studying for my PhD at the University of Hull, when I met him at a teachers conference in Stockport in August 2006 to talk about his history in art education: where he started, what he continued and where it was heading.

Whilst he had a long history of advocating for arts education, it was perhaps his work as Chair of the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE) with its publication of All Our Futures Creativity, Culture and Education in 1999 and the subsequent development and implementation of the Creative Partnerships programme in 2002, when many of us felt the full magnetic force of what a Ken Robinson vision of what a creative education could look like.

Whilst you can trace a direct genealogical lineage from his book, Learning Through Drama with Maggie Tate in 1977, to  the Gulbenkian Foundation’s The Arts in Schools report in 1982, no-one could have reasonably foreseen the marked change of trajectory that Ken would go on to take between 1982 and 1999 with the publication of All Our Futures.

 His strategy was to re-configure artists in schools projects into a more ambitious programme of creativity and cultural development in which creativity was disconnected from an arts education agenda and placed within the wider context of creativity, teaching and learning. This may sound oddly familiar to those of us who are following the recent Durham Commission’s work into Creativity and Education and their visions for quietly rearranging Ken’s horticultural revolutionary idealism, but I’ll let that pass for the moment.

From initially arguing in 1982 that a repositioning of arts education in schools was essential to contributing to  a holistic, humanistic education, Ken found himself arguing in 1997 for a programme which, in reducing the significance of the arts and the artist in creativity and cultural education, was purposefully designed to appeal to government ministers who were anxious to ensure that the programme could not be interpreted as being the result of successful lobbying by an articulate arts constituency.

In an interview with me, Ken referred to a complex political context shaping the work of NACCCE and its production of All Our Futures:

I read this paper to him (David Blunkett)…  he said we would like to do this…  I was saying why don’t we get a group together to advise you   on what would be involved in a systematic  approach to creativity  in the school system given how important this is… but he didn’t want to go down in history as Gradgrind…. he wasn’t comfortable with the Chris Woodhead thing…  it was cramping his style … he said Chris (Smith) was very interested in this too …  you tell us how this might work… who would you like on the group… So that’s how it came about…. I put the proposal together to make it happen…  it just seemed to me that there was a historic opportunity here ….  my own personal line of thinking  has been…  a continuing opening of the agenda further out… my interest began in drama… but I always felt that drama was part of a bigger picture … so it became arts in schools…  but all the things I’d been writing about personally…  had always persuaded me that there were powerful synergies between the disciplines… but also if you look at what was happening in the theory of science … and especially the  cognitive sciences and theories of mental representation and  meaning making, you don’t have to look around long to  see synergies between  science technology  and the arts  – I also knew … that  the people who worked in science and maths were just as pissed off about what was happening in their disciplines…  they were feeling boxed in by these strategies and so on….  as soon as (Tony) Blair started to talk about creativity, I thought this was great…. but you can’t talk about the arts for long without saying creativity and culture, not really…  I also knew that….  if we’d gone to David Blunkett or Blair then in 97, and said this won’t do, you’re marginalising the arts again, we need a big arts initiative, I know they would have said not just now, we’re doing the economy…. we’ve got so much on, go and talk to Chris (Smith)…  I knew instinctively this just wasn’t the way to go – creativity was a  portal for all of us to go through…. so I didn’t write a paper about the arts, I wrote  a  paper on creativity… this was just the right thing to do politically because…   this was what they were concerned about:  what they didn’t know was what to do about it….  and they didn’t know what they were throwing away in the process – they were killing arts programmes all over the country at the time…. It seemed a much better strategy rather than saying…. you’ve got a problem, you’re killing the arts… more than that, it was an opportunity to get around the same table not just artists  but scientists, business leaders, economists….  that then is irresistible; if you show this is actually a  common argument  and a big argument and that the arts  are four square with the sciences and technology….  creativity seemed to be the portal  we could all go through…we could all get that… people got the economic argument…   it was a way of recasting it… so in a way….  All Our Futures is in its own way the arts in schools projected onto a much bigger canvas…

You can hear that interview here.  It’s not broadcast quality but his insights and humour shine through – and they tell us a lot about what Ken was faced with in attempting to revolutionise our educational landscape.

Ken’s allusion to creativity as a portal through which disparate educational and disciplines might step, in order to counteract the effects of an ever-prescriptive national curriculum and increasing performativity driven managerialism in is as relevant today as it was back in 1999, and even earlier.

Both All Our Futures and The Arts In Schools  trace their lineage to Half Our Future, a report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) published in 1963 and chaired by John Newsom, which, in its turn pays homage to the work of Herbert Read and his 1957 conference report for the Joint Council for Education through Art, Humanity, Technology and Education where H.J.  Blackham concluded:

 We believe that neither the contribution of the arts to general education, nor the place of general education in the national life has yet been properly recognised, and we want to form a body of enlightened opinion drawn from all walks of life which will bring general public opinion to share our conviction and see our vision of the role of the arts in general and the role of general education in the life of our industrial mass society.

 Remember that this was in 1957, not 2020. And if you want to dig up the lawns even more, you can find the work of Caldwell Cook  with The Play Way – perhaps the first book on drama in education  – arguing in much the same vein at the height of the first world war in 1917:

A social revolution of some kind will be necessary in England after the declaration of peace on the continent; for even supposing some fair principle is established by force of arms, it has still to be wrought into a living practice by right education and good government.  For many of us the greater war is  yet to come.

The creativity and cultural education agenda isn’t new and its call to action continues to reverberate across the decades.  We might ask ourselves why we need to keep making those calls to action and why there seems to be a permanent deafness to its rhetorical powers.

During my studies, I captured my understanding of Ken’s work in a paper entitled ‘When Herbert Met Ken: the 100 Languages of Creativity’.  It’s central conceit is that of a thought experiment written in the spirit of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties in which some contemporary thinkers on creativity and culture – ie Ken Robinson and many others, in particular Sir Herbert Read – are brought together to examine the impact that Ken’s work has had.  You can read the paper here.

Whilst they never did actually meet, if there is to be an afterlife then at least Ken will be able to meet Herbert and have it out with him, fully reassess the impact that their work, and the work of those before and after them have had and plan for something better.

Their new visionary cultural landscapes may not be something we will see in our lifetimes, but landscape artists and gardeners move in mysterious ways so you can be sure that we will continue to feel the effects of Sir Ken’s work into the next century and beyond.

Tips for teachers: It depends how you count ’em.

“It depends how you count ’em…” has been a constant refrain through the cultural education exchange visit in Finland this week. Whether it’s golf courses in Espoo (7 or 8), municipalities in Helsinki (4 or 14) or lakes in Finland (187,888 plus or minus), it all depends on how you count them. For phenomena you might think are pretty unequivocal (when is a golf course not a golf course?), it turns out that there is a lot more to a thing than meets the eye.

Walking along the coast line of the Tooivo Kuulas park this morning you can see why. One moment the lake looks like an impressively large pond; the next it stretches way off into the distance and it conjures up memories of Balaton Lake in Hungary; and soon enough you find out that it’s not a lake at all but just another link in the supply chain to the Baltic Sea.

It struck me that the same case could be said for student attainment. How can a country’s education system said to be performing well? Through its ratings on the PISA scale? Numbers of students who graduate into work on completion of their undergraduate study? Aggregated ratings on a mental health scale of well being? Like the lakes in Finland, it depends on how you count them. My top PISA rating may be nothing more than a drop in your Baltic Sea when it comes to evaluating the relevance those ratings have on students lives.

Whilst it’s temporarily startling that Espoo has a disputed number of golf courses in its territory, it is comforting to think that if we can’t count golf courses with confidence, we can confidently be a little less confident about the value of numbers when it comes to understanding the effects of cultural education on our children.