Lord Neil Mendoza’s recent talk at the 2020 Creative Coalition Festival highlighted a problem that has dogged arts education for decades: how do you quantify its value?
Validation culture is a political construct designed to manipulate human nature. We all get a little dopamine buzz from receiving a ‘like’ on social media and we feel validated if there is evidence that our kids are at a ‘good’ school. Remember ‘Parental Choice’?
In truth, most parents don’t want to choose without reassurance; they want statistics to tell them what to choose. Similarly, many employers, especially those large enough to have a Human Resources department, rely on exam grades and degrees to validate their choice of recruit.
In the 1980s, league tables and box-ticking became an obsession
It has long been thus. Statistical evidence of ability, exam boards, unified matriculation etcetera was designed to level the playing field for young people unsupported by nepotism and privilege. Government after government pushed us further into boxes. But at some time in the 1980s, league tables and box-ticking became an obsession. Since then, governments of all colours have used manipulated statistics as ‘proof’ of their success at giving millions of young people a secure future. What were supposed to have been indicators of attainment have become the goals themselves. Kids don’t learn for learning’s sake. They learn to pass exams to get a good job.
This has become so endemic in education that it affects local property values and school funding. It costs teachers and head teachers their jobs and precipitates school closures. A raft of fiscal penalties and incentives for schools drives the wedge of social division deeper and makes the imperative to meet targets an existential threat for schools in areas of social deprivation.
Our addiction to certified evidence of success has skewed the national curriculum against subjects that statisticians find difficult to quantify. It contains huge traps for the creative community. How do we fit art and creativity into statistical achievement suited to our obsession with validation and our endemic lack of trust? Sure, Janet’s learning two musical instruments but what matters is her A* in a STEM subject. The statistical tail is wagging the educational dog.
The creative community needs to step up and find a way of explaining its value to the nation
Lord Mendoza, the Government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal, seems to be on the creatives’ side. A wealthy publisher and philanthropist, he has a history of supporting the arts and great knowledge of it. At the Creative Coalition talk he said that the vagueness of perceived value in the creative community had influenced the government’s lacklustre support for artists and freelancers in the pandemic; the creative community needs to step up and find a way of explaining its value to the nation.
‘I’ve got a brilliant place where I can act as a champion both within DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), working very closely with the secretary of state and the ministers, and working with Number 10 and the Treasury,’ he said. ‘The help I need from the sector is to give me material data to encourage the government that we’re all doing a good thing.’
His recruitment seems to signify a step-change of attitude within some parts of government. Despite Chancellor Sunak’s stubborn refusal to recognise the plight of tens of thousands of creative freelancers and the painfully late roll-out of the Culture Recovery Fund, there are MPs and ministers in the DCMS that are pushing for change.
They can see the damage caused by Michael Gove’s tenure in the Department of Education from 2010 to 2014, which removed arts subjects from the points-scoring part of the International Baccalaureate. They are twitchy about the removal of bursaries from all arts subjects in teacher education.
Schools are speaking out, too. The National Arts Creative and Cultural Education Survey carried out in July showed schools seeing the arts as key to lifting communities out of the trauma of lockdown.
The survey was initiated by the Bridge England Network as a response to the pandemic. It sought to gather indicative information from schools about the potential needs and creative aspirations for their pupils from this term onwards.
Having all the A* passes imaginable is no substitute for being healthy and happy
Among what were considered the most pressing learning needs by the 529 respondents, mental health and wellbeing came top at nine out of 10 with over 46 percent giving it 10 out of 10. 45 percent of those respondents, comprising teachers, heads and other educators, said they would use the arts to ‘a great extent’ as an aid to recovery from the pandemic.
What this might indicate is the start of a positive push-back against the validation culture pervading education and towards pastoral care of young people; a recognition that having all the A* passes imaginable is no substitute for being healthy and happy.
This is encouraging, but it requires government financial support. Lord Mendoza’s concern is that Rishi Sunak will not open the coffers without proof of value. Sunak’s sidebar on launching his SEISS (Self-Employed Income Support Scheme) about freelancers getting away without paying full National Insurance hinted at contempt for those whose careers do not fit his tidy mind. And to be fair, as bean-counter-in-chief, he can see the economic earthquake coming and he needs to protect his back before splashing the cash. So, unsurprisingly, he wants his decisions validated.
Mendoza suggests something similar to that devised by the environmental lobby, which invented ‘Natural Capital’ as an indicator of the off-book economic benefits of being green, including national well-being, physical health and providing a legacy for future generations.
Value beyond the balance sheets
In his role at the DCMS, Lord Mendoza has adapted that to create Cultural Heritage Capital to show value beyond the balance sheets, the stuff anyone in the arts knows as inherent to life. He says it ‘will transform the way the sector is able to argue to the Treasury, because we know within the sector just how much good we do, but we find it very hard to quantify.’ He believes that the creative industries and schools need to use this information as leverage against what the Treasury view that artists are unviable people asking for handouts to play games.
The Creative Industries Federation launched the Creative Coalition as a way to change that perception. Everyone from corporations to politicians to institutions to individual artists is welcome to participate in creating a united front against the box-tickers. The 60 talks and workshops at the festival will soon be put online for members to view and comment upon and individuals can claim the first three months’ membership free at the moment.
The principle is simple. Creative people are the ideas people, so they should be ones coming up with suggestions for the future of the country.
Perhaps the creative sector, and especially the arts education sector, is being offered a golden opportunity to prove its worth
‘Keep putting the pressure on but put the pressure on in a positive way,’ says Lord Mendoza. ‘It’s like that cliché: stop asking for stuff but tell us what you can do to help.’
Perhaps he is right. The system is clearly not fair – but what child ever got what they wanted by saying so?
Perhaps the creative sector, and especially the arts education sector, is being offered a golden opportunity to prove its worth, to spearhead the recovery of a nation in mental and economic trauma, and perhaps, just for a change, those in power might have no choice but to stop counting beans, start counting their blessings and listen.