Subtitle: Imagination taking power

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17 October 2019

“We decided to create a school”: talking imagination with Andrew Brewerton.

This post is the first of two that will be exploring the story of Plymouth School of Creative Arts, a remarkable new school in the south west of England. It is a fascinating example of a school designed around the nurturing of imagination, right in the heart of one of the UK’s most deprived cities. In this post, I speak to Andrew Brewerton, Principal at Plymouth College of Art, one of the key people behind the creation of the school, where he also chairs the Board of Governors. In the next post we’ll hear from Dave Strudwick, the school’s Head Teacher. As you’ll see, Andrew is a leading thinker in terms of how education can build, or crush, the imagination, and I started our conversation in his office at the College of Art by asking him to tell me how the school came about, and what was the gap, the hole, it was trying to fill:

“We decided to create a school.  It’s unusual for Art colleges to create mainstream city centre 4-16 all through schools in areas of significant multiple deprivation.  In fact we’re the only one.  The idea to create the school came out of two things really.

The first was a preoccupation with just what was happening, not only to creative arts subjects in the school curriculum, but also creative thinking in education, in schools.  16 year old, extended diploma, Art, Design and Media students coming to Plymouth College of Art would say to me when I asked them, “How’s it going?”, they would say, “Oh, it’s great.”  And you’d say, “What’s great?”  And they’d say, “It’s different.”  And you’d say, “So what’s different?”  And then would say, “It’s different to school.”  And then they would tell you that at school they just teach you how to pass exams but here we can think for ourselves.  So this was a major stimulus.

It was 2011, the coalition government was talking about EBacc, the Brown report on higher tuition fees had been published in 2010.  The potential threat of some of these developments to what we were doing as a small specialist at that point in our history as an FE college, it was potentially so threatening it was a little bit exciting.

Because you felt that actually the supply tap of creativity that you then nurtured was dwindling?

It was a really peculiar climate.  It was my first engagement with further education.  But there are 17 sixth forms in Plymouth and against a rapidly declining demographic – 16-18 demographic – there was a climate of protectionism.  We weren’t allowed into schools.  Schools were ringing up our students and offering them computers and whatnot to re-enrol in their sixth forms.  There was a really serious ecological issue in terms of the education landscape.

There was the issue of what is the direction that creative learning might take, at variance with teaching-to-the-test culture.  But there was also this idea that creative learning and art education is one of the most accessible routes into progression from school to further and higher education.  So when we wrote the application to DfE, we said this school’s got two strategic objectives and they’re inseparable.

One is what we called at the time ‘pedagogical innovation’.  The other is what we called at the time community impact.  Plymouth College of Art, the governors signed off our five year plan over the summer which says we’ve got two strategic aims.  One is creative learning and the other is social justice.  That’s what you see all over the building.  We said this is a trans-generational project.  It’s a project that will join up early years, primary, secondary, FE, HE, and the employment agenda.

We will demonstrate in years to come that creative learning transforms the life chances of young people, especially in very deprived neighbourhoods, and in essence that’s the project.  It started out as a question around practicalities really, but also a deep philosophical difference in terms to the approach to learning.  So we created a school in the arts college ethos of learning through making in all subjects.  Food was one of the key manifesto points even in the application to the Department for Education.

Plymouth College of Art.

It’s wonderful to see the kitchen and food right in the heart of the school.

The argument in the application is this is the quintessential agenda for 21st century skills.  It’s everything.  It’s language, it’s culture, it’s history, it’s chemistry, biology, maths and physics.  It’s project management, it’s creativity.  It’s all of those things.  So in a nutshell I think there was a conversation around risk actually, in which my job was to challenge the management team that I was just getting to know in my first year.

When people talk about risk, they talk almost invariably about downside risk.  They don’t talk about opportunity.  So our question was, “What is the opportunity in this very thorny context?”  I guess it’s not that the college didn’t have links and relationships with schools but they were quite transactional.

My question was, “What do we think we’re selling?  What is it that’s transactional about what we do?”  So we stopped doing that and we put the college onto a campaign footing.  From then on we’ve been campaigning for enduring values in creative learning.  The thing that arts schools have always been about.  But it effectively has become a kind of propositional position.  The key thing is making it as important reading and writing.

The atrium at the heart of Plymouth School for Creative Arts.

When you started to dream about this, when you started to imagine this school that you could create, did you have other examples in mind, or case studies, or places you’d seen something like that, or were you really starting from scratch in creating something?

Brilliant things, exciting things, happening in one part or another of the whole continuum.  The amazing Reggio project in Reggio Emilia and Loris Malaguzzi ‘s legacy.  But nothing that was putting the whole thing together.  Actually I remember now a conversation – Anna Cutler is now a member of our Board here but Anna Cutler was Director of Learning Research at the Tate and I had this conversation with her in London back in 2011.

She said something interesting.  She said, “yes, I get it.”  She said, “But this isn’t about creating a new kind of school is it?  This is about creating a new kind of student.”  And that’s exactly in a way what it’s about and the new kind of student is that individual who from their earliest years has been driven by their intrinsic interests and curiosity and creativity.  They never signed that contract in which the child learns that their job is to double guess what the teacher wants them to say.  They’re never not learning for themselves, they never fall into the trap of learning for somebody else or for some ulterior motivation.

My colleague Wang Dawei, around the same time – in Shanghai I’ve got long standing relationship with Shanghai University and the Academy of Fine Arts there, 20 odd years – so he was saying, “Okay, so what are you doing in Plymouth?”  And I spelt out this project.  He said, “We think that’s an artist led project which somehow you’re doing inside the system.”  Occasionally people respond to what we do in a way that gives you a kind of insight.  You recognise a truth that you might not have articulated quite like that but it’s there.

How would you assess the state of health of our collective imagination in our education system in 2018?  How is it serving the nation of young people?

The imaginations of young people survive despite the system.  My first response to what you said earlier before you switched the machine on – this divergence of academic achievement and imagination – is it strikes me that there’s something even more pernicious than, if you like, the marginalisation of arts subjects in schools, the massive reduction in footfall in terms of GCSE enrolment and A-level and so on and so forth that is the consequence of EBacc and Progress 8: it’s the target culture.

The need to measure everything.

The need to measure.  So metrics driven target culture upon which league table positions depend.  Upon which institutional reputation and leadership careers depend.  It’s the target culture that is destroying creative learning.  Because it’s so pernicious.  Because it affects and hollows out the motivation of learners.  Because it only ever serves those whose positions are already advantaged to the point at which they understand what the game is and how to profit from it.

I did this slightly mischievous TEDx talk in Bath Abbey in September in which I talked about the hostile takeover of the education system by the assessment industry.  And, actually, it’s not such an exaggeration.  You know, the old cliché of they count what can be measured rather than measuring what counts.  I think what happens, the dilemma, is that the metrics based assessment systems presumably by which IQ is calibrated, or whatever, disable other kinds of value systems.  The lack of an alternative value system by which you might ascribe achievement or progress is an extraordinary omission.

I’m trying to find an analogy but one thing I really take exception to is what people say about William Morris, that these wonderfully designed artisan chairs but the craftsmen couldn’t afford the thing that they were making.  But that’s only true if your value system is predicated on your ability to consume.  But if you switch the value system around and the value system is predicated on your ability to make things, then it’s these poor rich people who have no alternative but to buy the thing that they don’t know how to make in the first place.

I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s the framing of the question in terms of the assessment criteria which are metrics, that the long-term impact of that, I think, might account for this odd divergence between IQ and imagination.

If we have the cut in spending, the cut in teaching hours, the EBacc, that moving of arts subjects out of having any importance or role really, what are we doing to the young people who are coming through an education system where they get almost none of that at all?  How does it impact people?  How does it affect the people that they become do you think?

I think the risk is they become less creative scientists and less creative engineers and less creative business people.  Or people with less sophisticated value systems.  And that the culture is sucked into consumerism basically.  So what I’m saying is it’s a much bigger problem than a problem for art education.  Obviously that’s not valued by this government.  They don’t value it, because actually they don’t really value learning.

They seem more interested in control measures, institutional structure and the metrics.  There’s no thought as to the consequence, intended or otherwise. One reason is perhaps because the schools that ministers send their kids to don’t necessarily have to comply with all this. You know.  And art education is live and kicking in public schools, independent schools.  But at the same time DfE trots out to Shanghai to work out how Shanghai schools keep topping the PISA league tables, my friends in Shanghai just laugh.  They say “how do you think we do it?”  But it’s no substitute for childhood.  The kids do nothing else.

PISA is now looking at how they can develop a measure for creative learning, and Ofsted is saying we’re no longer going to make these very, very data based judgements.

Plymouth School of Creative Arts.

This is just in the last year isn’t it?

Yes, it’s under Amanda Spielman.  There’s a reaction: a gently growing acknowledgement that the metrics based assessment system s are ineffective.  There is not yet the acknowledgment that they do massive damage to the learner and to schools as institutions.

The other way in which obviously schools are being undermined is because they’re not sufficiently well funded, or there are massive discrepancies in the funding.  Allocations that the same kinds of schools get in different parts of the country.  If you wanted to design a system to undermine creative learning you’d be hard pressed to better what we’ve done by default.

Absolutely.  We could talk about that for hours and hours.  It’s heart breaking reading all the stuff about the degree of the cuts and the number of jobs lost and all that.  It just feels like it’s such a betrayal somehow.

But at the same time the government has just published new data that show that the contribution of the creative industries to the UK economy has just gone through £1 billion value.

20% of the economy or something isn’t it?

It is 1 in 11 UK jobs. And bigger than aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, and the life sciences industries combined.  The Chinese are desperate to work out how creative education has driven the creative economy in this country, which is regarded as world leading, so that they can replicate it.

My friend Wang Dawei said two years ago we’ve been watching what you’ve been doing.  We’re going to move the Academy for Fine Art to this new brownfield site.  It’s a former Baowu steel works in the north of Shanghai.  It’s part of a very big urban development project, the creation of an Arts city.  The first phase is move the Shanghai Academy for Fine Art into the former rolling mill of the Baowu steel works.  This building’s 856 metres in length.  And that’s Phase 1.

By 2040 they will have invested 40 billion US dollars in what they see as a creative industries hub for Shanghai in the 22nd century.  So other economies are thinking – I guess the other point about the metrics and the target culture is that it’s incredibly short-term-ist in its thinking.  They are very, very short-term horizons.  They’re almost annual horizons.  I don’t know.  I just think we’ve got it very, very wrong.

What happens is people find nooks and crannies and spaces – non-institutional, post-institutional spaces— in which to be creative.  That was always the case.  A lot of the pop music industry came out of Arts schools and bedrooms.  Games industry certainly does.  There’s a big question around what we call the space of learning.  That’s to say, as soon as you close that room with a sink in it, how do you teach art?  Or when you switch the kilns off, or when you close the performance spaces.

That’s one of our propositions, that the space of learning either offers or withdraws possibility.  What’s happening as well is the learning environment is shifting in a way that is less and less conducive to creativity, creative practice.  Sticky, messy, space hungry practice is seen as a luxury, seen as something we can’t afford.

Should just be lots of people on their laptops. 

We’ve done the opposite thing here.  So we’ve invested in analogue.  In 2013 and 2014 we opened two phases of our new craft, design and fabrication workshops.  We built a painting, drawing and print-making studio.  A big one.  With north light.

From 2010 when I arrived where we had this one lovely 1862 Columbia relief press, we’ve now got about 15 printing presses that we’ve sourced.  So star wheel etching presses.  We’ve even got an 1840 blocking table.  You know, a Victorian wallpaper press.  Hand block.  Large plate.  Not because we’ve spotted a niche in the handmade wallpaper industry but because there’s a kind of aesthetic sensibility and intelligence that you only really acquire in direct contact with materials and processes and by thinking through materials and processes.

You can by all means export what you make in those materials into digital but it doesn’t work in the other direction, and nor does the experience of colour.  There’s a film called Thinking Making directed by Henry Ward and commissioned by the Freelands Foundation in London.  It’s a 30 minute film on the college.  The word Plymouth occurs once and it’s actually the last word that’s spoken in the film.  It’s my voice saying we’re not saying that we’ve got everything right, we just know why we’re doing what we’re doing here in Plymouth.  Then it’s only in the credits that you find out that this is Plymouth College of Art.  The whole journey has been around thinking through making and what not.

So when you sat down with this amazing possibility, “We’re going to design a school from scratch.  We’ve got a site.  We’re going to create a school that goes from 3 to 16.  We’ve got an architect, we’ve got a site, we’ve got a dream.”  What was that process of creating the school that I look around today?

We didn’t have a site.

Okay.

So we had an idea.  And what we said was – because in the DfE application you had to indicate your preferred location –  we said we want Derry’s, which was an empty department store.

Right in the centre.

Right in the centre.  And it was very interesting.  Interesting because when we went for the interview in Westminster we were expecting to have a real hard-time on that vision for the school, so we went in prepared for an argument if necessary.  But the first thing that the Chair of the panel said to me was, “The vision for this school is very powerful.  We have no questions about your vision.”  Their second question was, “But we need to know whether your preferred location is a deal-breaker.”

I said, “Well, let me put it this way.  This school needs big open floor plates.  No corridors.  No room that resembles a cell designed for 30 inmates.  We want very specialist performance and studio spaces.  We want it to be totally accessible to an inner-city neighbourhood, walk-in off the street.  And the problem is that this is the only building that fulfils those criteria.”

So when the Education Funding Agency project managers were appointed, that was where they began.  But they very clearly had deep reservations about this building because they could see what a difficult proposition it could be.  So we had a long-running conversation in which our position was, “Yes we know there are a hundred reasons why we shouldn’t have it.  But the problem is there’s one very important reason why we should.”  And in the end they said, “There’s this other site, but it’s too big for your purposes, and eventually came back and gave us the whole site.

We said, OK, if we can’t have the department store, build us a department store that we can occupy as a school.”  And that was the most extraordinary brief for the architects and it really turbo-charged our thinking about what the space of learning could be.  Which for us remains a continuing research inquiry really.  The whole question of the space of learning.  So in a way it was always a making project, it still is.

It hasn’t been a blueprint experience at all, and I personally hope it never will be definitive, because of the ways in which it can still develop.  There were two kinds of thinking here.  They had to do with the core concept of the studio as opposed to the classroom.  That was formative.  And as a workshop –  so, specialist spaces, a dance studio, a science lab or whatever.  Then on the other hand, they had to do with the relationship between inside and outside.  That for me was very powerful.

Always there’s that sort of dialectic. Our architects really ran with that.  We have these huge picture windows that mean that there’s always a relationship between inside and outside and these are not just physical perspectives but they are also imaginal perspectives.  Recently there was an event at the Southbank.  We were invited put these installations into the Southbank undercroft, the school and the college.  The school made a huge map of the Tamar and took it to London, and a group of pupils took questions and were extraordinarily articulate about what they were doing.  The college had this installation as well which is part of our manifesto project.  Then there was a panel discussion.

Actually this has sprung to mind perhaps because I talked about the relationship between inside and outside in that context.  The event was staged by Feilden Clegg Bradley studios, our architects. So the School, The Red House, was never a blueprint.  It was a devised project.  And we were working with architects who really enjoyed that journey and were very, very sophisticated thinkers around space.

Plymouth School of Creative Arts.

So now that it’s built and you can walk around this thing, and you’ve had people working in it for a few years, how is it performing do you think?

One of the issues has been that every year since the school opened with 100 pupils, it’s become a different school every year as it grew from that number to 300, then to 480, then 600, 780, 900 and at full roll 1020.  The scope and the scale of it has shifted every time, as has the scale of need the school is addressing.

And this year is this year the first year it’s at its maximum isn’t it?

Quite, yes.  So now we know what the building can take.  But the behaviours inside those big open studio spaces have really evolved.  Dave Strudwick will I’m sure have mentioned this, that the degree of transparency in terms of teaching practice can be quite threatening for teachers who are used to shutting the door and then being in that kind of control.

Because you’re kind of on show all the time when you’re teaching?

Quite.  Yes. And that isn’t always comfortable for everybody.  And then there’s the question of acoustics and how the learning community regulates noise levels.

That was one of my main observations I had in there was that when everybody was… the acoustics could be quite overwhelming I think at times of the day.

Yes, there are some local issues which the school is addressing but the school as a community self-regulates it.  The other thing that is really striking for me, and was so from the outset, was that if you have real engagement on the part of learners, there’s this other inside–outside space which is ‘the zone’.  If you’re really focused on something you go into the zone and the rest of the world, and time itself, seems to disappear.  That’s what I observe there quite a lot, and it’s coming out of the pedagogy, and the intrinsic motivation of learners.  But I just think there’s so much more to learn about the space of learning.

One of the questions that I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed is if you, in the last election, had been elected as the Prime Minister, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ – so you had felt that we’ve got all these huge challenges which are arising out of a dwindling collective imagination, a dwindling sense of change being possible, a dwindling sense of what the possibilities are that are open to us, so we need to be seeing a revaluing and re-nurturing and rekindling of imagination, whether in politics, policy making, in education, in public life, in architecture, in landscape design, planning, everything.  In the same way we might say we need to have an economic revolution, we need to have an imaginative revolution, and that was the platform on which you came to power – what might you do in your first year in office, do you think?  Where might you start?

On day one I would abolish the Ofsted Outstanding grade.

You wouldn’t abolish Ofsted in its entirety?

That might be day two.

Lull them into a sense of security.

No, no.  I’m caricaturing. I believe in external scrutiny.  It’s really healthy.  I think all schools need external scrutiny.  And the more transparent that is, and the more supportive it is, the better.  But what we seem to have arrived at is a target culture whose unintended behavioural consequence encourages teaching-to-the-test, ‘off-rolling’ and the gaming of data.  This sets a quite appalling moral example or behavioural models for young people.

If they learn you succeed by gaming the system, that’s not very good really. You end up, as the OECD puts it, young people who are over-qualified and under-skilled.  The control measures that gridlock curriculum choice need reviewing, quite apart from the over-assessment that happens through our education system. Sometimes the very notion of ‘subject’ upon which the system is predicated can become an obstacle to learning.

Again, one of our propositions is that the purpose of learning isn’t separable from that of living your life.  And when those two paths diverge it’s the most disadvantaged, the most vulnerable people in our society are the first to lose out.  Our pedagogical ethos aims to develop creative thinking not as a subject silo, as something you do on a Tuesday afternoon, but as a mode of inquiry, and as inquiry-led, practice-based learning in all fields of human understanding,

You said that you would get rid of Outstanding.  What’s particularly obnoxious about Outstanding do you think?

Because it risks encouraging Headteachers to game the system in order to get ‘Outstanding’.  It encourages triage around borderline pass/fail.  I’m not sure that it serves the true interests of learners, rather than a league table. Who was it that talked about the English genius for taking diversity and rotating it through 90 degrees to produce a nice hierarchy?

We need to review the curriculum and the pedagogical approach and put making back into learning because making is as important as reading and writing.  Critical and creative thinking develop life skills people need increasingly for resilience in the sort of world that we’re moving into.

A world in which 87% of jobs in the creative industries are viewed as resilient to future automation, and you can’t say that about a great deal of other professions, increasingly white collar professions.

In your experience of being around the arts and creative education for a number of years, if you were to set out some of the ingredients for creating a space in which people can be as imaginative as possible, as creative as possible, what would those ingredients be?

The studio is a really interesting paradigm.  Because it’s a social space.  Because the social dimension of learning, or the social nature of all learning, is very apparent in a studio.  No serried ranks of people all taking instruction from the front.

Or a lofty garret.

Yes.  The studio is a workplace.  And people thinking through making.  I’m not suggesting we throw the whole thing out of the window and start again.  But I do think we should be asking why we do things in certain ways.  Questioning the effectiveness of the current assessment culture and asking just who exactly is it serving?  Whose purposes?  Who is gaining from this?

When Ofsted came to the first post-opening inspection in the second year of operation of the school, they were with us for two days.  And we only had at that point reception year 1, 2, 3, and 7.  No year 6, no year 8.  And we said, “If you want to see the year 7s, you have to do it today because tonight they walk to the ferry port which is about 150 yards away, they take the night boat to Roscoff.

Tomorrow 100 of them, they’re free range, and they’ve got a task to fulfil which is they have to buy all of these French ingredients.  Because when they come back they have to cook a French meal for the whole school.  And by the way, they learn culinary art in French because if they want to learn how to cook, they’ve got to learn French to get there, and that’s a motivation.  And by the way, this will be the first time that most of those kids have been outside of Plymouth.”

So one of the thematics that I talk about a lot, but we work with, is the horizon.  That again is the inside/outside dialectic.  If there are children in your school who were born 800m from the sea and have never been to the sea, you realise that the question as to where your horizon lies is possibly the most important question in their lives.

Dave (PSCA Head Teacher) told me that as the boat trip got closer in time a group of boys began to show signs of anxiety.  He asked them if they were worried about the boat trip, and what was it that was bothering them. Was it going to France? – No.  Was it speaking French? No, that wasn’t the problem either.  It was the boat, they said, they didn’t think they could row that far. At night.

So the next day at morning assembly they did a pop-up project about the ferry, to the almost audible relief as all the Year 7s.  I’m just telling that as an anecdote, but it matters where your horizon is really.

I’ve drifted a long way off your question I know but part of it is about how connected your own learning space is to the world out there and to the big questions, and the environment is certainly one of those things, and so is the whole business of human migration.  And so on and so forth.

That’s all of my questions I had.  Just whether you had any last thoughts on imagination that you’ve’ been thinking, “I hope he asks me that.  I’ve got this thing to share” but I haven’t asked you the right question.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrote, in a little book he published about the same time that we were thinking about the school, that “Creativity is part of human nature, it can only be untaught.”  What he’s saying is that education systems grind creativity out of learners through prescription and proscription in the service, I guess, of the assessment process.

There’s a little film by Michael Moore on Finnish schools (not finishing schools!). It’s very much a Michael Moore film but there’s one point where he asks this group of teenagers who’d been on an exchange to the States what was the thing they had found most interesting about or difficult there.  They said ‘multiple choice questions’, to Moore’s stagey incredulity that it were possible to identify an answer that was not one of the four multiple-choices.

They said, with equal incredulity, that you have to know what the answer is.

Nobody believes in the target culture.  Nobody. Everybody resents it.  It’s driving a lot of the best people to their wits end and out of the profession.


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