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18th October 2018

The Great Debate: ‘All Schools Should Be Art Schools’

Alex Cresswell and Bella Jewell reflect back on the debate ‘All Schools Should Be Art Schools’, a panel discussion hosted by Manchester School of Art as part of the Design Manchester festival
The Great Debate: ‘All Schools Should Be Art Schools’
Photo: Sebastian Matthes

This is a joint piece from Alexander Cresswell and Bella Jewell.

The impact of Gove-era cuts to creative education served as an apt backdrop, both literally and metaphorically, to Design Manchester’s Great Debate — ‘All Schools should be Art Schools’. Behind the panel of five — Jack Tindale, Lisa O’Loughlin, Joanne Roney OBE, Ellie Runcie, and Lou Cordwell OBE — was a bold, open-letter to Michael Gove encouraging him to reverse his 2011 reductions to the education budget.

Spoiler alert: Michael Gove did not listen and nor did the wider Government policy. Since he was appointed as Secretary of Education, entry to creative GCSEs fell by 47,000 — a trend, described by Penny Macbeth (Dean of the Manchester School of Arts), as “very worrying”. Given the positive rhetoric surrounding STEM-based subjects, this might be interpreted as not entirely negative; the panel however, offering the statistic that the creative industries is worth an estimated £85bn to the UK economy, could not disagree more.

This set the tone for the debate with many of the panellists making the economic argument for creating more ‘art schools’. Macbeth pointed out that the “Victorians knew that design and manufacture would set us apart” and it would appear that this thinking still rings true; 70% of Manchester-based businesses employ graduates but only 13% feel that students are properly equipped with the creative skills needed for the workplace. Over the course of the debate it became clear that the panel believed creative subjects were a key factor in economic success. Given the statistics they were citing, it was hard not to agree.

Whilst this debate could sound exclusionary, the panellists did a good job of reaffirming that everybody has creative talents and it is the responsibility of schools to nurture these. This reframed the debate effectively as the notion of ‘art schools’ can often sound as though it caters to a niche demographic. What was really being discussed was the need to foster the skills that everybody has. Given the ubiquity of creativity in all workforces, and its status as a key-skill for employers, this debate began to sound much more common-sense.

A key sticking-point of the debate was the question of accessibility, a point underlined by Lou Cordwell OBE. She described how a “middleclass-ization” of the Arts has grown out of the modern trend towards a gig economy – a system which renders the creative industry “the domain of the privileged few.”

Panellists reiterated the need for investment in schools in order to encourage students to develop their creativity, with Joanne Roney OBE identifying the “vocabulary gap” between modern class structures as the reason for the current lack of diversity in the Arts. The panel was united by the belief that “the middle classes haven’t got a monopoly on talent”, and continued to highlight the necessity of educating the public on the importance of the Arts. Jack Tindale raised the issue of tuition fees, describing the “tragedy” that students now “have to aim for ‘practical’  subjects” at university with a view to their employability on graduation.

Ellie Runcie outlined the necessity of role models who “mirror more diverse areas of society” to inspire young people to enter the currently elitist design industry. The panellists discussed the creative influences that inspired them as young people, coming to the consensus that “it’s quite exceptional to break in without the influence of a person in your youth” (Cordwell), reiterating the importance of targeting people at a young age to enter the Arts. This rings true with the aims of the Design Manchester festival, which seeks to promote creativity, specifically targeting schools.

Following a debate dominated with talk of the economy, Manchester Poet, Tony Walsh provided a radical interjection from the audience. He critiqued the tame nature of the debate, referring to the lack of passion surrounding subjects that “used to be called the humanities”; an outlet for human expression and rebellion rather than a tool for economic growth. His eloquence and passion aroused a round of applause from the audience, who were moved – in typical Mancunian style – by his subversive message.

The debate then segwayed to the thorny subject of Brexit. Despite the collective sigh across the room, some interesting points were made by the panel. Lisa O’Loughlin described how she has witnessed “further education having a Renaissance” in the build-up to Brexit. Jack Tindale, on the other hand, expressed dismay at the potential impact Brexit could have on students, with the Erasmus+ programme – “the egalitarian version of ‘The Grand Tour’”- at risk. Tindale ended his contribution on a slightly more positive note, remarking that “things always appear to be big at the time and don’t appear to be 40 years later”; a clear indication of his background studying History.

Overall, ‘The Great Debate’ culminated in more of a consensus than gritty battle of ideology. It was very much in-keeping with the values of the Design Manchester festival, giving a platform to those involved in the creative industries to highlight the importance of the Arts: a message often obscured from public discourse.

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