Creative Schools: “We need to call time on exam-factory education”

“The shadow secretary of state salutes Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica’s powerful manifesto which opposes standardised testing and calls for a more inspirational approach to teaching”

– The Guardian

This post is a 3Di review of a book review. Not just an ordinary book, and by no means an ordinary reviewer. We agree that it’s a “powerful manifesto”, and we’re delighted it has the approval of someone who may soon have the power to transform education in England.

Last week we published our analyses of the education manifestos of the UK’s main political parties. For the most part they’re worthy but uninspiring: nothing transformative or exciting, with the possible exception of parts of the Greens and the Labour documents. We’re disappointed that Labour’s vision isn’t better presented, given that their spokesman and their shadow minister for education, Tristram Hunt, has made some very good speeches of late.

His review of “Creative Schools” (and well done The Guardian for setting this up) is fascinating. It certainly makes us want to read the book. More than that, though, it gives us some insight into the long-term vision of a man who could soon be England’s Secretary of State for education.

One of the things we know about Tristram Hunt is that he’s receptive and he’s a good listener. He knows that he’s been on a steep learning curve since he stepped into his current post and found himself facing a certain Michael Gove. When we encountered him at a Compass education conference we suggested to him that he should reconsider his use of the term “soft skills” when speaking about life skills and the types of intelligence that we know are often difficult to acquire, and often very hard to master. As far as we know he’s no longer using the soft skills cliché.

Mr Hunt is clearly very enthusiastic about “Creative Schools”. In his opening paragraph he quotes from the book as follows:

“Too many students think that they are the problem; that they are not intelligent, or must have difficulties in learning.”

Ken Robinson’s thesis is compelling: we are currently operating a Fordist model of mass education that is failing to prepare young people for the dramatic socioeconomic demands of the digital age. What is more worrying is that politicians, rather than supporting a schools system with the flexibility and innovation obviously needed, have fallen for a theology of standardised testing and assessment that is exacerbating the crisis.

Robinson wants a revolution in education, “based on different principles from those of the standards movement”. And he wants us – you – to be the change. “The best place to start thinking about how to change education is exactly where you are in it. If you change the experiences of education for those you work with, you become part of a wider, more complex process of change in education as whole.”

“For more than 40 years [Ken Robinson] has persuasively made the case for more creativity in teaching and the curriculum, as a teacher, government adviser, examiner and academic. Creative Schools brings together this classroom experience and policy ardour in an elegant, powerfully written manifesto for change.”

Ken Robinson 2015

Indeed he has, and indeed it is. The Labour Party had already been impressed with Sir Ken’s ideas back in 1997 when New Labour came to power with a landslide majority. That government requested Professor Ken Robinson to chair an inquiry into our system of education, and in particular into creative and cultural education. Obviously this was a very wide brief: every area of learning can [and should] be approached creatively and everyone who’s a learner is engaging with creativity and with our culture.

Sir Ken and his committee were allowed to publish what ought to have been a seminal report, called “All Our Futures”. How many of us have read it? What was done to promote it and disseminate it? Every school received one copy together with a sheaf of summaries, though nothing was said by the then Secretary of State, David Blunkett, to suggest that this was an important or transformative document. We recall that by the time the report appeared in 1999 Mr Blunkett and his chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, were already embarked on a relentless effort to “drive up standards” with a range of tools they wielded with some glee: semi-compulsory literacy and numeracy ‘strategies’, more frequent Ofsted inspections, and of course published test and high stakes exam scores and the inevitable ‘league tables’.

So what does Tristram Hunt now say?

The book is part of a growing public discourse on education policy aimed at a data-and-ideas-hungry readership of helicopter parents, engaged practitioners and school innovators . . . Then there are the blogs, Twitter feeds, Teach-Meets and EdTech geeks. Add to that the controversies around international comparisons: Swedish free schools versus Finnish teaching; New Orleans charter schools versus Singapore curriculum reforms.

And it is all to be welcomed. The more we discuss education, the better. Not least because such conversations help to highlight the tricky 40-year gap between where policymakers think schooling should be heading (preparing for society 20 years hence) and what the majority of the public thinks schools should be doing (their own halcyon days 20 years past). The role of politicians is to seek, consensually and pragmatically, to bridge that divide.

But Robinson’s point is that politicians are doing exactly the opposite: scarred by the media reporting of the Pisa international league tables on school performance, they have retreated into a self-defeating cul-de-sac of testing and assessment. As a result, we are at risk of inculcating an industrial education system producing compliant, linear pupils. “The emphasis on testing comes at the expense of teaching children how to employ their natural creativity and entrepreneurial talents – the precise talents that might insulate them against the unpredictability of the future in all parts of the world.”

The prescription is a richer personalisation of learning – an appreciation of the diversity of intelligence; the need to adapt teaching schedules to different learning speeds; a flexibility that allows learners to pursue their interests and strengths; and a different model of assessment. And, as expected, a strong dose of arts education as an essential component of schooling. Through a catalogue of test cases – teaching Shakespeare in LA’s Koreatown; transforming schools in North Carolina under the A+ arts programme – Robinson shows how taking the arts seriously is particularly rewarding for high-poverty, inner-urban districts. Time and again, the arts engage students and raise standards.

His driving critique of the “exam factory” model of schooling is well worth reflecting on. Because, in recent years, English schooling has had too much teaching to the test, too much focus on C/D borderline, too many early and multiple entries for examinations.

So far, so very good. At this point in the review, however, we have to take issue with Tristram Hunt. He goes on to say,

Yet the uncomfortable truth is that there are also large swaths of the English education system that require more not less uniformity. If all our pupils could reach some basic minimum standards of literacy and numeracy by the time they left primary schools, our educational attainment as a nation would be markedly higher.

Large swaths?

We’d like to know where there’s a single shred of evidence to support this statement. What pupils DO need by the end of the Primary phase is a love of learning and a clear understanding of HOW to learn; a love of going to school every day to engage with stimulating experiences across a broad and balanced curriculum that’s devised by teachers to meet the needs of the children in their schools. Why more uniformity?

What Mr Hunt appears to have swallowed is the myth that the attainment of a Level 4 in Year 6 SATs (or a PASS as we must now call it) is a determiner of children’s ability to achieve five grades A to C in GCSE 16+ exams. We’re not questioning the correlation between test success at age eleven and test success at age sixteen, but to say there’s causation is a nonsense. Has anyone done any research into the achievements of children who attained Level 3A in Y6 SATs whilst maintaining their enthusiasm for school (and for learning) together with high levels of self-confidence in their ability to learn? We strongly doubt it. Has anyone researched what happens to children who are drilled and driven to scrape a Level 4 at age 11, and who in the process suffer considerable harm to their wellbeing, as well as a loss of enjoyment of school? How many of them went on to contribute to New Labour’s dream of university for 50% of school leavers? Nobody knows.

Mr Hunt said a few days ago that he wants to see GCSEs abolished by 2025. So what exactly is he saying about the importance of getting a C grade instead of a D by the age of sixteen? Is this really what affects young people’s life chances, compared with, say, their capacity for independent learning and their commitment to lifelong learning; and compared with their ability to think and to work creatively?

We’ve said this before but we may need to go on saying it: Level 3A is the day to day operational level for most adults in their everyday lives. It’s not the level of illiteracy or innumeracy. There’s a massive difference between children at 3A who are interested in literacy and numeracy and look forward to learning in these ‘subjects’, and children who can score well in timed tests and exams but dread going into uncreative and uninspiring English and maths classes. So who would secondary teachers rather have in their classes – enthusiastic 3As or apathetic and sometimes unruly Level 4Cs?

It’s appalling that we even discuss children in terms of numbers. But this is where this level of debate leads. Of course it’s possible for Primary schools to achieve the holy grail – to produce children who do well in tests AND achieve well in every other area of their learning (and we do know a few) – but if push comes to shove should we really kill enthusiasm for learning and “creative schools” in favour of ‘uniformity’ and the possibility of slightly better test results? In his recent speeches Mr Hunt seemed to support the idea of creative schools, teachers and students.

We appreciate that Mr Hunt is a politician and as such he needs to show his support for the “standards agenda”, particularly as all of his predecessors have nailed their colours to that particular mast, but we suggest he speaks with those who teach in of the best of our schools – primary and secondary – and then reconsiders this wish for greater ‘uniformity’.

The other worrying part of Mr Hunt’s book review is this:

“We always need to guard against the soft bigotry of low expectations: the worrying trend of play and expression being adequate for working-class pupils, while leaving the tough stuff, the physics and history, for their better-off peers.”

Who exactly is he accusing of having low expectations? And what is this ‘worrying trend of play and expression being adequate for working class pupils’? How big a ‘trend’ is it? Where is it happening and who is responsible for it, assuming it exists at all? This is exactly the kind of insinuation we came to expect from Mr Gove. We’d hoped Mr Hunt would rise above this kind of thing. Surely this wasn’t drafted for him by one of his team?

To end this post on a positive note, here’s what Tristram Hunt says by way of a conclusion:

What I took from Robinson’s impassioned work is the never-ending need for innovation in education. Project-based learning, flipped classrooms, personalised curricula – all of this is starting to reshape education and the role of teachers. We need to embrace all the exciting, uncomfortable possibilities offered by digital technology. What’s more, no education system exceeds the strength of its teachers. Their ambition, professionalism and subject knowledge are the key variables. “It doesn’t matter how detailed the curriculum is or how expensive the tests are; the real key to transforming education is the quality of teaching.” The structure of a school is markedly less significant than an effective head teacher, a faculty which embraces change, and quality professional development.

We need to call time on the exam-factory model, ensure a broad and balanced curriculum in our schools, and focus on improving teaching rather than fruitlessly reforming school structures – not only because a childhood at school should be a rich, enjoyable and challenging time; but also because the coming economy demands exactly the kind of rigorous creativity and personal resilience that Robinson advocates.

Very well said, Mr Hunt, and of course Sir Ken Robinson. It’s a pity we’ve waited more than fifteen years to hear such thoughts from a senior politician in Britain. We look forward to a system of education that truly based on Creative Schools.

Tristram Hunt April

For further reading on Ken Robinson and on helping children and young people to find their element, please read the two most recent books by Sir Ken Robinson, and read these previous 3D Eye posts:

Related articles

Summer Born Children and Educational Disadvantage (
Educational Disadvantage and the Culture of Examinations (

Creative Schools

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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