Gove levels – give me strength!

So here we are, facing yet another shake-up of the English education system, with the emphasis still on core academic subjects and rigorous testing. Ahem and excuse me, but what about that non-transferable and non-testable vital ingredient of a successful life – creativity?

When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge ~ Albert Einstein

Little children learn to be adults through imaginative role-play, pretending to be mummies and daddies, doctors, teachers, engine-drivers, soldiers, window-cleaners, cafe-owners…

Older children and adults make important decisions by imagining different outcomes – ‘If I did that course, I might become a chemist… then I’d work in a laboratory… or I might be a teacher… I could do that anywhere, in a city centre or a remote island… I could work overseas… or be an independent tutor…’

We make the most trivial of decisions in the same way. ‘If I go shopping right now, I might bump into Donna… she might be angry with me because I got the job she was going for… or she might be happy for me, if she didn’t really want it anyway… or I could go later when she’ll be picking up the kids… but by then they might have sold out of saffron buns…’

We make up stories all the time, quite unconsciously. They give us direction and certainty. If we develop this innate ability further through creative activities, we can explore more complicated issues; we can try on other people’s stories, which helps us to develop empathy and a deeper understanding of what life is.

Creative writing gives us access to experiences we would never have in our own lives.We can imagine ever further, extending the limits of our self.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world ~ Albert Einstein

Creative dreaming is the same. If we unhook dreams from the shackles of interpretation, they also become experience for the self, just like waking life, opportunities to go to places and meet people and have adventures and insights beyond our normal range.

You don’t have to teach creativity – you have to allow it; you have to nurture and value it. You can’t measure and assess it, the way you can test academic knowledge.

But imagination is the start point of everything in life, including learning. We shouldn’t be trying to cut children off from their inner world, by loading the curriculum with academic subjects and stealing more and more of their free time for homework and extra tuition. 

Children in the UK are among the least happy in the developed world, and they are also among the most tested. But even if happiness is low on our priorities, it makes no sense educationally to focus everything on academic subjects and intellectual skills, because the story-making mind is the seedbed from which knowledge and understanding grow.

The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap ~ Albert Einstein

That’s it. I have nothing more to say. I’m completely fed up with politicians on both sides of the House narrowing our children’s abilities and aspirations, and harming their happiness, through their obsession with  ‘rigour’, ‘standards’ and testing. But please feel free to add your own views in the comments!

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26 thoughts on “Gove levels – give me strength!”

  1. I do agree, some people may not be able to get a satisfying job and if all their life is channelled into this sort of aspiration then those lives will be barren. We need to educate our imagination,let it run free and to take care of our values and souls . As for politics ,voting is important and we must vote for whichever party seems to be the most humane and that is never the Tories for me.

  2. Values and souls – yes, that’s exactly what I feel we are neglecting in the education system, and I passionately believe that if we fail to value and educate our imagination, our lives become more barren. But for me, it seems that this obsession with narrowing things down and doing endless assessment seems to go unquestioned across the political spectrum 😦

  3. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Spot on, Jenny! Children over here in North America (I live in Central Ontario, Canada) burden under the same wrong-headed political system).
    Sadly, though happily for me, you can (and I do) “teach creativity” — not because it is something that you can nail to a wall — but because these methods have drummed it out of people from the time they entered those hallowed halls at age 4 (it’s called Junior Kindergarten). Ludicrous as this all sounds to those of us rebels and mavericks who have rode the waves and survived — only because of our grasp on the necessity of thinking, acting, being CREATIVE!
    Here I am in my mid-sixties and I still work full time trying to fix what these waffling buffoons in our political system have done to public (free) schooling. I have 6 children and have seen so many experiments totted out and rammed down our throats as “the best way” to run schools and to teach our little darlings.
    New math, open concept, whole reading and the list goes on as long as your arm (or rather a orangutan’s long arm).
    I say stop using our children as guinea pigs Politicians and get out of the way of the people who love and know them, parents, teachers, educational assistants and social scientists.
    Let’s truly consult and let’s allow these wee minds to grow as nature intended.
    Let’s take them out to look at the night sky and see stars (which would allow “dark” bylaws so that the stars would actually be visible).
    Let’s take them out in the summer to lay down in meadows, pick wildflowers and write poetry akin to that of Emily Dickinson.
    Let’s listen as they tell their stories and let’s tell them ours.
    Let’s let them record their stories, make little movies, enact little plays.
    Let’s take away their TVs, computer games, iPads and iPhones (for a spell) and allow them to experience time in the quiet with nothing to do but pay attention; give them crayons, paint, brushes, and lots and lots of paper, old cardboard, small (sanded) slabs of wood and let them experiment with mixing colours and seeing what happens when you splatter, brush, scribble and doodle.
    And while we’re at it let’s do it with them…and see what great ideas sprout as we connect with our minds high on art!

  4. Spot on, Jenny! Children over here in North America (I live in Central Ontario, Canada) burden under the same wrong-headed political system).
    Sadly, though happily for me, you can (and I do) “teach creativity” — not because it is something that you can nail to a wall — but because these methods have drummed it out of people from the time they entered those hallowed halls at age 4 (it’s called Junior Kindergarten). Ludicrous as this all sounds to those of us rebels and mavericks who have rode the waves and survived — only because of our grasp on the necessity of thinking, acting, being CREATIVE!
    Here I am in my mid-sixties and I still work full time trying to fix what these waffling buffoons in our political system have done to public (free) schooling. I have 6 children and have seen so many experiments totted out and rammed down our throats as “the best way” to run schools and to teach our little darlings.
    New math, open concept, whole reading and the list goes on as long as your arm (or rather a orangutan’s long arm).
    I say stop using our children as guinea pigs Politicians and get out of the way of the people who love and know them, parents, teachers, educational assistants and social scientists.
    Let’s truly consult and let’s allow these wee minds to grow as nature intended.
    Let’s take them out to look at the night sky and see stars (which would allow “dark” bylaws so that the stars would actually be visible).
    Let’s take them out in the summer to lay down in meadows, pick wildflowers and write poetry akin to that of Emily Dickinson.
    Let’s listen as they tell their stories and let’s tell them ours.
    Let’s let them record their stories, make little movies, enact little plays.
    Let’s take away their TVs, computer games, iPads and iPhones (for a spell) and allow them to experience time in the quiet with nothing to do but pay attention; give them crayons, paint, brushes, and lots and lots of paper, old cardboard, small (sanded) slabs of wood and let them experiment with mixing colours and seeing what happens when you splatter, brush, scribble and doodle.
    And while we’re at it let’s do it with them…and see what great ideas sprout as we connect with our minds high on art!

  5. Yes indeed! It’s important to value children’s creativity so that they will learn to value it themselves – I think the great damage we do by fixating so completely on intellectual and academic achievement is that we’re showing children how little we value creative and imaginative adventures.

  6. Yes, yes, yes! I agree with you completely! And yet we get the likes of self-publicist Nicola Horlick over in the UK actively suggesting that people who do creative degrees should not get funding because they do not earn money for the economy. Utter utter twaddle, and so wrong. Our creative industries provide a great deal of revenue for a start, and who can quantify the immense value – to mental health apart from anything – of nurturing a child’s imagination? This is a classic example of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    1. Oh my goodness, yes – the creative industries, and creative thinking in every other industry, for innovation and business-building – and empathy for social values and teamworking… I didn’t know Ms Horlick had suggested cutting funding, but it doesn’t surprise me 😦

  7. Hear hear, Jenny. When I went for careers advice at 14 to decide what subjects I should study based on what I would like to do, and told them I wanted to be a fashion designer, I was laughed at. I went to secretarial college instead after school, and hated it! I can’t believe that 30 plus years on we are still in the same place!!! Grrrrrrr! You can probably hear my blood boiling!

  8. I wanted to be a designer all through secondary school, Abi, but I was laughed at too. It was the 60’s – the world was dragging itself out of a sludge of brown and bursting into psychedelic colour – the perfect time to create wonderful butter-wrappers and cereal boxes! I had enormous pressure to go to universitybut I hated it so much I tried to leave – the Principal told me it was too late to go to art school by then as I’d already had a term of grant funding and I wouldn’t get any financial support. Anyway, she said, my artistic ambitions were childish, like every little boy’s dream of being an engine driver. That’s actually what she said! Can you hear my blood boiling too?!

  9. Am in total agreement with you here Jenny! Three cheers for this comment: “You don’t have to teach creativity – you have to allow it;” I have two daughters still at school and it is horrifying to witness the amount of testing they go through at such a young age. And the whole curriculum is geared to results. There is such limited scope for creativity or individuality, not just in english but in any subject.
    What a waste of our children’s minds!

  10. At least children whose parents value their creativity are getting something of an antidote to the prevailing educational values, Carolyn. It upsets me how efficiently the system can take a child’s natural delight in learning and turn it into a burden; how it can transform a child’s confidence into anxiety, and sense of empowerment into fear of failure. And instead of getting better, we seem to keep on digging ourselves into a narrower and narrower vision 😦

  11. “You don’t have to teach creativity – you have to allow it.” THIS. A thousand times this. I was lucky to have a teacher at secondary school who encouraged me to go to art college when I left, but the careers adviser couldn’t get his head round me wanting to do something creative for a living. I think his response was, ‘It’s really hard, hardly anyone ever manages it.’ Gee, thanks for the encouragement. Working in a creative industry *isn’t* easy – and neither is it easy to break into one – but the challenges are what makes it so satisfying!

    I also remember a teacher in junior school whose idea of being ‘creative’ was to get everyone in the class to draw a picture, step by step, at the same time, over a number of weeks… and the headteacher who made my parents write a letter giving me permission to read the books for older children in the school library, because I’d read everything that was supposed to be at ‘my level’.

    No wonder kids get turned off books and art and music etc when they’re force-fed such a narrow-minded view of what being creative is meant to be – when day-dreaming is seen as time-wasting and having an imagination is frowned upon. Thank goodness my parents never subscribed to that way of thinking! This is why I tell young writers I work with that if they want to become authors, they *can* – that anything is possible if they’re prepared to work for it.

    Thank you for such a fantastic post, Jenny (and sorry about the rambling comment, but as you can see, this is something I feel SO passionate about)!

  12. I love your rambling comment, Emma – I so relate to absolutely everything in it! The point you make about levelling is another big problem with the system, and my own kids suffered stultifying boredom at times throughout their schooling, repeating things they’d already done when they wanted to get on and try something new. On the upside, my own experience has meant I’ve never had the slightest inclination to try to steer my kids, but only a strong desire to support them as they found their own way.

  13. It seems to me our Western ‘education system’ (as opposed to individual teachers who can be utterly brilliant & inspiring) is increasingly being designed to produce capitalist cannon fodder drones, who blindly accept & believe in the ‘status quo’ but have little or no faith in themselves, or humanity, or any dreams of creating a far better, saner, happier world – to ensure that they stay slaves to a social system which is, for the great majority, no longer fit for purpose.

  14. Ooh, I’m so glad you mentioned individual teachers! As Emma showed in her comment, an individual teacher can make a big difference, and I think many teachers feel frustrated by current educational policy. You’ve got to wonder, given that this approach is inimical to learning, why politicians seem so fixated by it. Maybe they’ve had all the imagination squeezed out of them and simply can’t conceive of a different way!

  15. My parents had always scoffed at my aspirations towards a career as a fiction writer. They wanted me to study computer science, which was a burgeoning field in the early 1980’s. I didn’t feel I had much of a choice. So, when I graduated from high school in 1982, I began studying computer programming and went through 3 years of not knowing what the hell I was doing! Eventually, I switched majors to filmmaking, much to my parents’ consternation. In retrospect, I can see why. They didn’t have the opportunities growing up that I did. But, I just sort of quietly rebelled and pursued my creative writing career while eventually earning a degree in English. Now, I’m working as a technical writer. That doesn’t allow for much creativity, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Still, I remain determined to publish my first book before the end of this year and continue with my first and only true love in life.

    1. Hi Alejandro – you make a really important point about your parents not having the opportunities you did – they didn’t want to crush your dream but to guide and help you towards a successful life. We’re lucky now that following your dream can feel like a successful life, even if it doesn’t give you financial security along the way

  16. Undervaluing creativity is extremely shortsighted. It’s not just the “unproductive” arts that suffer; every major scientific and technological advancement in human history started with a spark of imagination, someone asking themselves, “What if?”

  17. Definitely children need to use their imaginations. But they also need a good, and if capable, an academic education to take them through life, and they can have both. Children should be learning music, drama and art as part of their education. They should be reading and not watching TV. They should be playing out doors, in all weathers, running and climbing trees. Listening to the bird song, and picking flowers. Picnicking and playing.
    I am English married to a South African and we live in South Africa. I see the children in England incarcerated by their parents, who mollycoddle them and don’t allow them to explore the world around them.
    In actual fact the schools need to be streamed, as those children, with a high IQ need as much attention as those children who struggle. You cannot do that in the same class, it is impossible. One or other suffers. I see the children in England with little respect or manners for other people that never used to be the case.
    Education is essential to life, I see in South Africa, children who have an inferior education, and no amount of imagination will help these children get jobs or better lives.
    Discipline and manners should be taught at school and at home. I get the feeling that a lot of parents cannot be bothered.
    Politicians need to put the guide lines down and teacher and parents should do the rest.
    Ann Knight

    1. I don’t know if it has always been this way – I’ve only been a parent for 14 years, and have worked in an Australian primary school for 2 years – but anecdotal evidence suggests that many 21st century parents expect to not have to participate in their children’s education at all. “I shouldn’t have to read to my kids; it’s the school’s job to teach them to read,” is one sentiment I’ve heard more than once. Many families have two working parents, or only one extremely time-poor working parent, and the business of putting food on the table, clothes on backs and roofs over heads becomes the sole priority. I see kids who get to high school and don’t know how to use a knife and fork because the only meals they eat are takeaways in their laps in front of the TV. It’s a complex, multi-layered problem, and it’s not going to be fixed by politicians imposing more standardized testing.

      1. It certainly is complex, Tracie, and the direction of education policy is definitely not helping, I so agree. As parents spend less time with their children, the time teachers spend with them is more important than ever to their social development, and to tie it all up in academic teaching and testing seems disastrous and short-sighted.

    2. I totally agree with you, Ann, that children should have opportunities at school for both academic and creative development – it’s the ever-increasing imbalance here in England that upsets me. Another important thing you mention, manners and discipline, is taught by example, in relationships between adults and children, and I feel that when teachers are working under pressure to tick targets, that relationship is undermined. There’s no time and little flexibility to respond to social issues as and when they might arise. I’m lucky that I brought my children up in Cornwall, which is very rural, so they could come and go to school and various social activities on their own, but I do remember a group leader suggesting it was neglectful of us as parents to let our 8-year-old walk five minutes down the road at 6 in the evening to the meetings. But I imagine it’s a very different ball-game for people in cities.

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