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A group of school children draw on a piece of paper in a classroom

English Professor Simon James is lead on the Durham Commission for Creativity and Education, a joint research collaboration between Durham University and Arts Council England. Professor James is contributing to an Ideas Forum at an upcoming event, UP North Culture + Knowledge: Growing Opportunities in the North East, alongside other leaders and experts in culture, academia, government and industry. Here he explores the importance of creativity.

In 2019, after two packed years of focus groups, research, interviews, surveys and fieldwork, Arts Council England and Durham University jointly published The Durham Commission on Education. The Durham Commission differed from previous comparable projects in looking to establish the place and the importance of creativity and creative thinking in every school subject.

Every Faculty was represented in the research team of Durham academics that contributed to the report – you need to be able to think creatively in order to be a world-class physicist, psychologist or marketing expert, just as you do to be a literary critic or music scholar. The Commission also made the claim that creativity is a competence that everyone possesses, which we use in solving problems in our everyday lives. Thus, in education both in and out of school, every child can be taught to be more creative, in potentially any subject and at any level.

We thematised the benefits of teaching for creativity under Wellbeing; Identity and Community; Mobility: encouraging young people to be creative is good for them, good for the places where they live, and – given that young people in time stop being young and will be seeking fulfilling and sustainable employment – skills and economic growth. (Even in 2019 we warned of the changes to the workplace that would be wrought by automation and artificial intelligence.)

Creativity Collaboratives

The Commission was never intended to be only a document, but a live and ongoing project. Since the report’s publication and enthusiastic reception, the Durham Commission had underpinned the Arts Council’s 2020 10-year strategy Let’s Create, which sees ACE prioritising the needs and the education of children and young people as never before. The Commission also published a second report, on creativity and technology, inequality and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the Commission’s ten recommendations, some have been achieved, some not, and some remain live and ongoing. The key recommendation is the foundation of eight ‘Creativity Collaboratives’ in eight different parts of England: school hubs for excellence and for the sharing of best practice in teaching for creativity. Each collaborative is partnered with a cultural institution and with a local employer; each also contains at least one school in an area facing disadvantage. The Collaboratives, which now constitute a sizeable network totalling 92 schools, are now in their third year of operation, and will have provided large quantities of data and learning for the next stage of the project, when we report to the Arts Council, the government and the Department for Education. Educators and school leaders across the world are able to share knowledge and practice through ACE’s Creativity Exchange.

Leading the way

The North East has very much taken the lead in collaborating with Durham University in looking to implement the aims of the Durham Commission on Education. Durham Council’s schools team both provided us with expertise in writing the report, and have very much taken creativity to heart as we have worked together since. Outside of the Commission, in the last five years the Learning Team from Durham University’s Library and Art Collections have worked with every primary school, every post-16 College, and the majority of secondary schools in County Durham.

In2 is a project that uses music learning, crafts, creative writing and theatre to foster social capital, wellbeing and place making in the transition from primary to secondary school. Theatre Hullabaloo in Darlington, the only theatre for children between London and Scotland, is researching and developing a model of creative play for children in Early Years as it makes its journey towards becoming a national centre for children’s creativity.

Whatever the challenges that will be faced by today’s young people in the future, if they have been educated in ways that encourage them to adapt, to think flexibly and creatively, to collaborate, and to feel self-efficacy and ownership of their own decisions, the better prepared they will be.

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