Creative education is a balancing act

A rounded curriculum that balances ‘traditional’ academic study with creative subjects will ensure that future generations are effectively prepared for the realities of the world of work, writes Catherine Ritman-Smith, head of learning at the Design Museum.

With the rhetoric of EBacc it would be easy to imagine that creative subjects in schools are optional ‘fun’ alongside the core subjects. This is a mistake and the status of creative subjects needs to be rebalanced. They are key to ensuring future generations can play a full and active part in society and the economy.

Using data from the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the Creative Industries Federation estimates that the creative economy employs one in every 11 working people – this includes related support functions as well as creative roles. This is clear evidence that the creative industries are vital to our economy and support the imperative to invest in creative education for all. Since 2008, the creative industries have continued to be the fastest growing sector of our economy and continue to create new jobs at a faster rate than the economy as a whole.

Evidence suggests that this growth will continue; this has implications for our priorities within the school curriculum and the education policy landscape. Only a rounded curriculum that balances ‘traditional’ academic study with creative subjects will ensure that future generations are effectively prepared for the realities of the world of work that they will join.

The UK commission for Employment and Skills suggests that by 2030 workplaces will move towards flattened hierarchies where individuals have increased responsibility and autonomy. Technology will be central to successful businesses and collaboration will be critical. But when the CBI tells us that 69 per cent of UK businesses are not confident that there will be enough skilled people to fill jobs in the future, one wonders if the balance of the curriculum is right.

Creative approaches to teaching and learning, with wide access to practical creative subjects such as design and technology and art and design is critical. Creative subjects play a key role in preparing young people to be employable and empowered citizens of the future. The critical thinking, problem solving, ideation and reliance needed for design provide brilliant ways of building the essential skills that we know will help young people in their future studies, lives and careers. Practical opportunities to make and create things enable students to apply their knowledge from across the curriculum, showing its relevance and helping them to see how their learning can be used.

It is therefore alarming to see that these are the very subjects that are in decline. Organisations such as the Cultural Learning Alliance, the National Society for Educators in Art and Design and the Design and Technology Association have separately gathered evidence that clearly shows a fall in the number of candidates taking creative subjects at GCSE and A Level. The reasons for the decline are complex but each organisation points to the EBacc as a major force behind this decline. Design and Technology is particularly suffering, with a 41 per cent decline in GCSE candidates since 2007-8.

Curriculum time is being squeezed, able students are being diverted away to focus on EBacc subjects, and resources are withering.

It is not an easy time to be teaching creative subjects in schools and colleges. These trends are not universal: there is excellent investment, innovation and growth in some contexts, but anecdotes about struggle are becoming too frequent. This is why it has been both surprising and heartening to see that 10,000 young people aged 13-16 have participated in Design Ventura 2016. 

Design Ventura is the Design Museum’s award winning, national enterprise and design project. aking place annually since 2010, it is run in partnership with Deutsche Bank through their Born to Be programme, supporting employability skills for young people. Design Ventura invites school students to develop design ideas for a real business – the Design Museum Shop – challenging them to develop ideas that can be made and sold. The Design Museum provides materials, films and learning resources online to support schools to run the project at their own pace. Through museum-based workshops and online activity, schools have opportunities to engage directly with industry experts from business and design who can provide support, advice and inspiration to students and teachers alike.

A competitive process involving leading figures from design and business as judges, leads to one idea being developed with the winning team of students and professional designers. It is manufactured and eventually sold in the Design Museum shop. The proceeds from the sale of the product are then donated to a charity identified by the winning students themselves, providing them with an insight into the positive impact that creative enterprise can have on issues that matter to them. 

Design Ventura provides a tangible real-world context for learning, and enables students to use their design skills, problem-solving ability and enterprise thinking whilst working in a team to respond to our brief.

Since 2010 over 47,000 young people have taken part in this free project and the Design Museum team has worked with a diverse range of schools to ensure it continues to meet the needs of teachers and learners alike.

So much has changed in this period, from the fall of the Labour Government shortly after the project’s launch, to the dramatic revision of the National Curriculum and the overhaul of GCSEs and A Levels over the last four years. Through all this, Design Ventura has continued to grow, providing a real world context in which students can develop and apply their skills and knowledge.

From the project’s inception, an academic partner has provided independent evaluation to facilitate insight into the impact of the project on students’ creative and business skills. Since 2014 the partner has been Goldsmiths College in the University of London. Their most recent report examined data gathered in 2015 when 10,000 students from around 250 schools participated. The report revealed that through participation in Design Ventura, over 90 per cent of students experienced an increase in creative skills such as explaining design ideas, responding to a brief and working with a team. The evaluation also revealed that the project supported students to understand the business context of design and engaged them in the process of making business decisions too.

The project was carefully planned at a time when the agenda to support enterprise education in schools was still strong. Whilst funding structures and policy priorities have changed, the need for entrepreneurial individuals has remained. We still need confident communicators with sound financial and business understanding, a can-do attitude and the ability to work collaboratively. The outcomes of Design Ventura, as evidenced in an extensive long-term evaluation programme, have borne this out. Responses from teachers and learners reveal increases in design and enterprise skills such as awareness of marketing, development of communication skills including presenting, pitching and using design tools to share ideas.  

Of course there have been a few unexpected outcomes of the project too. The partnership between the Design Museum and schools has provided another valuable opportunity for design and technology departments to communicate the value of the subject to parents, students and senior managers. The integration of business and design in the project lifts it beyond a nice creative experience into an important part of a young person’s experience of the world of business and work. Design Ventura gives young people direct personal experience of how design and business can work together to realise creative ideas. 

Design Ventura is not rocket science. But here is some advice.

Set a ‘live’ brief for participants. Design Ventura challenges young people to design a new product for its shop. Instead of asking students to develop another fantasy project, or something for which they can’t see the point, Design Ventura offers a context in which students can research and inform their work online or in person if they visit the museum. This is an essential part of the process and gives students a taste of the process that professional designers and creatives would take.

Team work is central to Design Ventura. Individuals cannot enter the competition alone – they must collaborate with between four and five other people aged 13-16. This is because team work is central to innovation across many business sectors and especially in the creative industries. Sadly, it often poses a challenge in class if each student needs to be individually assessed. There are lots of easy solutions but it does require breaking away from established ways of running a class.

Designers and other creative professionals work collaboratively. Employers in many sectors tell us that working with others is a key skill, and we know as adults that it’s not always an easy thing to do. Data gathered through Goldsmith College’s evaluation of Design Ventura shows that students find it very difficult and need more support.

A successful project should also have partnerships with industry. Each year we set the brief in collaboration with a leading designer. In 2016 we worked with architect and designer Asif Khan, an East-London based designer whose portfolio is a brilliant example of business collaboration and creativity. His input into the Design Ventura brief helps us to understand how bridges can be built between school and the world of work. Schools can do the same – whether it’s with a local small business owner, someone from a multinational corporation or a member of the school staff with a business background. There are many ways to engage employers effectively.

In these turbulent times, many of our long-standing assumptions about the future world are being challenged. In the world of work the creative industries are at the heart of this change – new jobs and new ways of doing work are emerging all the time. We need future generations to have the confidence, resilience, and independence to adapt to this changing landscape so that they are equipped to seize opportunities. Good design education is one way to achieve it.

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