For years, practitioners and recruiters at creative companies of all sizes have been shouting about skills shortages within the UK, an issue exacerbated (or simply exposed) by the reduced candidate pool following Brexit. It transpires that the talent pipeline isn’t a quick fix, partly because of where it begins: at school.
In the wake of years of austerity and the defunding of arts and design subjects within state schools, a group of “concerned leaders within the UK’s creative industries” have addressed an open letter to Jeremy Hunt ahead of the Autumn Statement this week. Their letter urges the government to invest in arts and design subjects, which are becoming viable only for students from wealthier families.
“We see an ever-increasing proportion of applicants from fee-paying school backgrounds where it is possible to study and gain qualifications in subjects like art and design, and fewer from state school backgrounds where these subjects are increasingly rare,” write the signatories, which include designer Neville Brody, Pentagram’s Marina Willer, Kate Stanners from Saatchi & Saatchi, and Aaron Garbut, head of development at Rockstar Games.
“My concern largely relates to what I see happening to my children and my friends in education, and fast forwarding 10 years,” says Sean Thomas, executive creative director at creative agency JKR, who also signed the letter. “The first teachers that are being culled amongst my friends right now are those who teach arts subjects. At the last parents evening I attended, we asked why the kids hadn’t done any art all term. It was largely because of staff cuts and a lack of materials.”
How many businesses or organisations in recent years have hit upon the idea of ‘innovation’ as their path to success? Innovation is creativity
Jack Renwick, founder of her eponymous studio and this year’s D&AD President, says that the situation is so dire that teachers are being left to pay for materials themselves, which is “not only ridiculous but unsustainable and is no doubt why 75% of them are looking to leave”. With fewer students exposed to these subjects, and fewer teachers willing and able to deliver them, it has created a self-perpetuating cycle that’s accelerating their demise.
It’s partly a funding issue, but it also reflects how higher education is perceived. “When you have a league table system informed by likes of the English Baccalaureate, which does not recognise any arts subjects, schools are going to be discouraged from offering quality (if any) arts education,” explains Renwick.
This in itself is a flawed logic. Outside of explicitly ‘creative’ sectors, the skills taught within creative education are applicable to all kinds of roles and career pathways, says Scriberia’s Chris Wilson: “How many businesses or organisations in recent years have hit upon the idea of ‘innovation’ as their path to success, growth, efficiency or competitive advantage? Innovation is finding new solutions to old problems. Innovation is creativity.”
“If there are no creative thinkers with creative skills within your workforce – whether you’re a fintech app, an engineering firm or an NHS trust – you will struggle to innovate. You’ll struggle to communicate, iterate, and engage people too,” Wilson continues. “And yet, instead of seizing the opportunity to develop these hugely valuable and versatile skills within in the curriculum, and then apply them all over industry, they are consistently undervalued. And, as a result, kids leave school wrongly believing that there is no place for these skills in their future.”
Thomas was part of a generation that was supposedly ‘lucky’ enough to attend university and work placements with few barriers to entry. Through his personal accounts, and through working with school leavers via Sparks – a JKR programme aimed at giving young people an insight into the industry – he has seen first-hand that those conditions he enjoyed have gone.
Careers in the creative industries are simply not recognised as the respectful, impactful and lucrative careers they should be
“Loans, grants, cheap accommodation in cities, agencies being able to afford internships … all those things are either gone or very expensive now. So today’s generation, if they don’t have parental support or a safety net behind them, are having to turn away from realising their dreams.” This dovetails with the underfunding of creative subjects in state schools to create a rigid class barrier. “Little by little, talent becomes more middle class or are those that were born into families already in these fields. That leads to less diversity, which means fewer interesting sources for ideas, fewer perspectives, and cultural homogeneity.”
Any reasonable person working in the creative industries would agree with that last sentence, but clearly, the creative sector still has an image problem – namely that it is not seen as a financial catalyst. “Careers in the creative industries are simply not recognised as the respectful, impactful and lucrative careers they should be. Society as a whole still views these jobs as ‘wacky’ or ‘colouring in’, and does not link business impact and effectiveness to the work we do,” Renwick says. “Art and design sit in too many people’s minds as being recreational or a hobby rather than an industry that is a major contributor to the UK economy, making up around one in eight businesses and accounting for 7.1% of all UK jobs.”
Thomas points out that “the commercial value of creative business solving, of design within brand and coming at problems from another angle has taken years to prove and validate. But we now have credible bodies like Deloitte and Ipsos validating the commercial power of creativity. And that’s before you look at the success of businesses that use creativity to fuel them: Nike, Apple, Netflix, Spotify, Lego, Nintendo,” he continues.
But there is still a sense that the creative industries are preaching to the choir, while successive governments fail to grasp their value. “I think a lot of the people behind these decisions are simply unaware of what the creative industries do. And that’s partly on us, for not doing a better job of celebrating and explaining it,” he says. “I imagine many decision makers enjoy reading a well-designed website, eating at a great restaurant or watching a brilliantly made programme on TV, but perhaps there is a lack of awareness of what those things take.”
The £115 billion contributed by the creative industries to the UK economy creates a clear financial case – and that case is likely to be the strongest for government ministers trying to appear in control of the economy. But to see creative education and practice only in transactional terms ultimately misses the point, Thomas says: “It’s also OK for some things in life to just be enjoyable and not return huge investments. If we all did the same thing, there’d be less outlets to relax and enjoy ourselves.” To paraphrase the old saying, all work and no play makes Britain a dull place.