Parents can improve the way their children learn, even if our education system does little to boost their free thinking, schools expert Sir Ken Robinson tells Etan Smallman
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When Sir Ken Robinson delivered his first TED talk, entitled “Do schools kill creativity?”, to a small audience in California in 2006, he had no intention of recording it or even of it being posted online.
Once it was shared, however, his rallying cry for a system that cultivates more than just academic intelligence went on to become the most-viewed TED video in history.
It has now been watched well over 50 million times – more than double the hits garnered by the presentations of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs put together.
There is some irony in this. In the late 1990s, Sir Ken spent more than a year writing a 243-page report as chair of a government commission on how to improve the promotion of children’s “creative and cultural development”. But almost 20 years on, the educationalist from Liverpool has no choice but to admit he achieved far more with that single, jokefilled, 19-minute speech – delivered off the cuff – than he did with that weighty Whitehall document.
The report, All Our Futures, was quietly shelved, abandoned by a New Labour government that Robinson says was too “in thrall to the popular press”.
The 68-year-old, who has spent the bulk of his career advocating for a framework that has creativity baked in, recalls one minister at the time explaining that they had to fix numeracy and literacy first. His incredulous response: “That’s like saying, ‘let’s make the cake and, if it’s all right, we’ll put the eggs in’.”
He believes too many schools are modelled on Victorian factories; children are put on a production line and churned out at the other end “in batches”.
Some of his conclusions make traditionalists baulk. He thinks all subjects deserve equal prestige and classes should not always be grouped by age. He condemns schools that “educate people from the neck up” and insists it is just as important to teach youngsters dance as maths.
“Children dance all the time if they’re allowed to, we all do,” he said in that seminal TED talk. “We all have bodies, don’t we? Did I miss a meeting?” If anything, his manifesto for change has become more, not less, pertinent in the intervening years. Children face an increasing onslaught of standardised testing and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010 (which only covers “core” subjects) has seen uptake of music and art plummet.
But he has not met a British minister in several years and laments: “Certainly this administration is never going to ask my advice.”
“We’re still discussing grammar schools,” he adds despairingly. “I mean, really? Can we grow up about that?” One gets the impression that Robinson, who has lived in Los Angeles since 2001, has given up on trying to convert governments anyway. He sounds sick of civil servants determined “to keep a clean desk” and the shorttermism of MPs “seduced by international league tables” and who “simply tend to run on railway lines”.”It’s not my role to go round and make life comfortable for politicians who are trying to balance their polling numbers,” he says. “If I can encourage parents and teachers to feel more confident about doing things which are manifestly in the better interests of their kids, then I shall do that.”
It is in this spirit that he has written his latest book, You, Your Child and School – his first addressed directly to parents. “Real social change tends to come from the ground up anyhow, because there’s a shift in the culture,” he insists.
Robinson, who grew up as one of seven in a working-class family yards from Everton’s football ground, recognises the manifold concerns of modern parents and his book covers everything from home-schooling, homework and play to cyber-bullying, sleep and self-esteem.
He warns that parents “become part of the problem” if they subscribe to the outdated notion that university is a guarantee of a good job for life, and sign up to non-stop homework and testing “as some sort of relentless preparation for a false goal”.
Robinson has united an unlikely coalition of figures to his cause. Everyone from singer Charlotte Church to footballer Scott Chaplain and Twitter’s boss in Europe, Bruce Daisley, have cited him as an inspiration. Hypnotist Paul McKenna has called him “the most fantastic mind on education of our time”. And Robinson not only shared his Desert Island Discs with Kirsty Young in 2013; she revealed four years later that he had “made me think completely differently about what I wanted for the education of my children. I think I’ve taken my foot off the gas a lot”.
The father-of-two met schools minister Nick Gibb when he was serving in the same post under David Cameron.
“He was very receptive and welcoming,” says Robinson, but adds: “I can’t think it had any effect on him whatever. And, to judge by things he went on to say subsequently, I think he finds what I talk about inimical.”
How, I wonder, does he believe his critics caricature him – do the purists think he is some kind of airy-fairy hippy who wants kids to spend all day dancing in forests? Robinson chuckles before responding, tongue only slightly in cheek: “It’s not a bad thing to do, by the way.
“I think they think I’m anti-academic, which I’m not – that I’m some kind of old hippie who’s offering a rose-tinted view of how the world works.” In fact, he has a PhD and was a professor of arts education at the University of Warwick.
But Robinson, who after 17 years of sunshine is looking at moving back home, is sanguine about the criticism. “It would be very odd for anybody to be in any kind of public position and not attract fire from somewhere; it would suggest it’s all a bit too benign. If I didn’t piss somebody off, I’d probably be doing something wrong. But I don’t set out to do it.”
And if another British government tried to commission Robinson to investigate creativity in schools, how enthusiastically would he respond? “That is part of the problem, truthfully. There’s a kind of cultural amnesia,” he says. “I’d ask them to read the one I did 20 years ago.”
‘You, Your Child and School: Navigate your way to the best education’ by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica (£18.99, Allen Lane) is out now
How parents can help
Asked to distil his advice down to three points, Sir Ken Robinson says parents should first remember that every child has got their own personality, disposition and interests.
“Pay attention to your children, and don’t judge them all by the same criteria. What’s good for one may not be good for another,” he says.
“Second: be prepared to engage constructively with the school. In my experience, good schools want that.
“Third: if circumstances allow and you really feel that this isn’t the right school, be prepared to look for alternatives.”