Scaled back investment in arts education in schools has sparked concerns about where the next generation of creative thinkers will come from. But Further Education is also an important piece of the puzzle, and its role in nurturing curious minds during those formative late-teenage years is often overlooked.
“The FE sector nurtures the pipeline for the next generation and gives young people the confidence to go out and be creatives,” explains Miriam Venner, Associate Dean of Academic Standards at UAL Awarding Body. “But FE teachers are paid less and have worse conditions than schools and universities. You have to be very, very dedicated to stay as an FE teacher.”
Venner speaks from experience, having spent almost 30 years as one herself. “I watched the changes to the national curriculum brought about by then-Education Secretary Michael Gove, with the introduction of ‘Progress 8’ resulting in many creative subjects being squeezed out at primary and secondary school level,” she recalls. “That trickles through.”
BLOCKAGE IN THE PIPELINE
The relatively high per-student cost of delivering creative subjects, and the difficulty of finding specialist teachers, has been felt across the board: schools, FE colleges and even universities must make difficult choices about what to fund with limited means. And as a result, far fewer students are taking Arts subjects at GCSE and A-Level: in Design & Technology alone, entries were down 42% in 2022 compared to 2010.
But it wasn’t always this way: the UK’s creative industries boomed in the two decades before the pandemic, with the figures telling a powerful story that’s starkly at odds with the de-prioritisation of creative education in recent years.
Between 2000 and 2019, the sector’s contribution to the economy tripled from £38bn (GVA) to £116bn. Relatively speaking, between 2011 and 2019, it grew twice as fast as the UK economy overall. And on the global stage, the UK was the fifth-largest exporter of creative services in 2020: behind the United States, Ireland, Germany, and China.
Despite the clear evidence for this economic contribution, post-Covid that pride and urgency has seemingly been lost amongst policy makers. There is increasing focus on the holistic value of creativity and culture, however, and UAL’s new social purpose strategy makes the case that it should be considered alongside economic value. So how can we shift the narrative, and lay the groundwork for another 20 years of booming creativity?
A CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE
First, we must acknowledge that this success was powered by people. Innovative, passionate individuals across film, television, stage, music, fashion, art, digital, games, architecture, advertising and more, all of whom have cultivated not just practical skills, but a particular way of seeing the world.
“There are still lots of young people who want to learn creative skills, but many come late to it because they were pushed into something less risky from a parental perspective, like computing,” Venner continues. “The wonderful thing about FE is it can also capture people who went a different route and help nurture them into a creative profession.”
Venner gives the example of someone coming out of school with very few qualifications. “They’re labelled as a failure,” she says. “Maybe they come to college and take electronic music DJing, alongside some Maths and English. Some people might criticise and say, ‘How many DJs does the world need?’ But it’s not necessarily just about producing DJs: it’s about engaging these young people in something that they love.”
“Even if they’re only doing it socially or in their bedroom at the weekend, they’re still better-rounded people,” adds Venner. “It’s about finding what makes someone tick, the niche that they can finally be good at. That’s really that’s life changing, isn’t it? Because then they get that confidence to do more.
EXPERIMENTATION WITHOUT JUDGEMENT
Part of University of the Arts London, UAL Awarding Body designs and awards creative qualifications that empower FE educators at almost 300 centres across the UK to help their students reach their potential. With close links to one of the world’s foremost arts universities, it has access to valuable insights from the world of HE – making it well-placed to champion creative education and support a flexible approach to teaching and learning.
According to Venner, young people exploring their options in the creative sector need a supportive, non-judgemental environment in which to experiment. “Our learners aren’t judged on the outcome,” she explains. “They’re judged on their process and how they evaluate that outcome. Say your amazing sculpture collapses. In traditional education, you’d fail. For us, it’s about how you can use that collapse to inform your development.”
One of the biggest takeaways for young people at this stage is confidence. Rather than honing design skills and discipline knowledge to perfection, it becomes about problem-solving and critical thinking. “We want them to be inventive, to take risks, and to be resilient,” adds Venner. “All of those things are agnostic in terms of outcome: it applies to art, design, performing, arts, music, media – anything.”
TAP INTO THE HIVE MIND
FE teachers will often be dual professionals, teaching part-time while holding down their own creative practise alongside their educational responsibilities. “That’s really valuable because they’re giving genuine, real-world advice,” explains Venner. But while supporting the next generation is rewarding, being part of an overlooked, under-invested sector can be frustrating and demoralising.
“Embrace a network of like-minded people who are out there trying to do the same thing,” is Venner’s advice. The FE teaching environment can involve anything from a small department with just a couple of teachers, to a huge college with 400 or more staff. “Find them, collaborate with them, and you’ve got safety in numbers.”
This is exactly the thinking behind UAL Awarding Body’s Teach Inspire Create Conference. Three years ago, for instance, Venner recalls how one college shared its experiences of putting on a drive-through zombie show to give their performing arts students a stage without compromising anyone’s safety at the height of the pandemic.
“It was such a lovely idea, and everybody in the room was like: ‘I’m going to try that with my students,'” she recalls. “We didn’t come up with that idea: we just put those great minds together. And that’s what this conference is about.”