Welcome to the website of Susan M. Coles, Artist & Arts, Creativity & Educational Consultant.

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There has been a large gap between the last blog and this one. No reason but for the fact that I sometimes need to sit and to think. I have been busy too and part of that was the #askNicky campaign which is currently “resting” due to teachers being on holidays and perhaps Nicky is too.

It has been a useful campaign, not a resounding success but, yes, a success. I was going to write a long blog, which focused on the Nicky Morgan and Nick Gibb education speech, but so much has been written which supports my own views that I will just make a few comments. I enjoyed this one by Martin Robinson. (and Martin, I’d love to have a cup of tea with you one day).

We all know the books and the writers who have influenced us- I understood capitalism only after I read Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. Read the chapter “The Great Money Trick” and you will share my understanding. I was 17 when I read it and the impact has been huge. I think our whole education system is based on capitalist principles, and that the current obsession with going to university is enslaving young people at a very early age, through debt and being captured by the establishment. That’s my view.

I came across Lewis Mumford more recently (whilst studying for my MA in Fine Art and Education) and I do recommend reading his book “Technics and Civilisation”. The most influential invention of all time, according to Mumford, was not fire, the wheel or the printing press, it was the clock. The monks who first created the burning candle to measure the hours of the day.

“Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.”
We effectively became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers” with the invention of the clock.” “The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age. The clock is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.”

The clock changed it all. We abandoned the cyclical life of nature and gave everything a time and a space, which could be measured. and that’s the point of why I am writing this. The whole English education system isn’t about the people in it any more, it’s about measurement and quantifying. It’s about assuming that everyone progresses at the same rate, it’s about testing factual knowledge rather than applying it. It’s more about the inside of a book, a screen, a classroom, than it is about the world outside. And, it’s about setting some targets that are impossible to achieve, so that failure is almost guaranteed for some young people and for some schools.

Karl Marx writing about education always appeals to me, as his approach is largely constructivist. His beliefs are very much about active learning, collaboration and critique. Critique of course, being one of the main components of a robust art education. Marx opposed the passive absorption of knowledge that seems to dominate our own English system at present. His discourses on student centered education were also honest in realising that education can not always rise above the problems inherent in our society. We’ve got a lot of damage in our society through that gap between the rich and the poor, and social mobility is an insulting term. Why should it be about people escaping poorer backgrounds, why isn’t it more about creating a more equal society?

Back to reality now though, Karl Marx isn’t here, Robert Tressell isn’t here, Lewis Mumford isn’t here. The government is here. I don’t really know where they get their evidence from, their advisers from, but I rarely meet anyone that has been a part of that. Maybe that’s because I work in the Arts?

I despair of the English Baccalaureate, because when this was first suggested, by Michael Gove in 2010, the Arts were mentioned as being a part of the structure. So, where did this set of subjects come from? Nobody seems to offer evidence other than “well, when we talk to people these are the subjects they want at university” and that’s it then. We therefore now have accountability policies that measure school performance on a narrow set of abilities. Yes, sounds great doesn’t it?

OFQUAL recently said (via Glenys Stacey) that the Ebacc subjects were becoming more “popular”- hold that thought. I’d challenge that straight away- more people doing a subject doesn’t make it more popular, in some of our schools students have no choices or limited choices, they have to take the EBacc subjects. In some schools, those in the “higher” streams are discouraged from taking any Arts subject because they can do another Science or another Language instead. Students, parents, carers, all being mis-informed by school leaders who themselves are mis informed by the DFE. Does the EBacc exist- is it a certificate? Do colleges and universities recognise it? Or is it all yet another Emperor’s new clothes scenario?

The other reason why I’m not going to pick apart Mrs Morgan’s Arts speech is that I guess she didn’t even write it. I know much more about government and politicians now than I ever did, and I know (as you do) that some “better” informed civil servants or advisers write those speeches. You can tell by the metaphors and the inclusion of “topical” people, events, and rebuffs. I imagine them at the desk saying things like yes, “Okay then, let’s stick in One Direction and that Banksy bloke”. The speech is a real blur of meanings too, confusion between Arts and learning about culture (we want them to be involved in personally taking part in and experiencing the Arts Mrs M) and she brings up (unsuccessfully) that old chesnut of “British values” once again.

And, I don’t want to get personal either, because Ministers do what they are told to do and tomorrow can be asked to drop that portfolio and pick up another one the next day. In fact, Mr Gove was one of the longest serving Secretary of State for Education (four and a half years). Unfortunately. Fundamentally though, should we have government departments being run by people who don’t have qualifications in that area? Where else does this happen? Imagine going to the dentist, but then find that your fillings are being done by a car mechanic. Neither Mrs Morgan or Mr Gibb (the latter becoming more powerful and influential by the day it seems) have an education background.

So, I’m trying not to be too vague here but this is what drives me to carry on. I see such joy in young children, from their first days as babies through their discovery of the world, laughter and tears, walking and talking, singing and dancing, drawing and making, listening to and making music, wonder and amazement, creating stories and acting them out, playing and imagining, making choices, making relationships, imagining and then always asking questions……and every one of those is an individual. Each of those is a vibrant and resourceful young person. Everyone is different. History tells us that. Common sense tells us that. That’s why this obsession with measuring and being average or above or below is so self defeating.

So, we pick them up and send them on a journey through school, which is now about setting targets, measuring, setting more targets, learning and churning out facts, measuring, setting more targets. A secondary school education where their path will be determined by the Ebacc, so we all know the same, about the same, and same is seen as safe. That’s why this government don’t like the Arts, these subjects don’t measure in the same ways, don’t always have rights and wrongs, Artists have historically questioned, rebelled, collectively inspired and empathised – all the qualities that perhaps this government hold in both contempt and suspicion.

So, let’s continue to act as the moral compass. Let’s stand by our own beliefs. Let’s work together to make a difference. Let us showcase and celebrate the schools and head teachers who continue to promote and value the Arts and ask them to share this publicly.

We send young people to school, all of them different. Let them be different. Let them be themselves.

William Blake “How can a bird that is born for joy, sit in a cage and sing…? “


Steve the art man

2561 days ago

Great to hear where your influences come from and nice to say that I think you now influence people. We feel very let down by the government in the Arts and must, as you say, do less moaning and more showcasing what is happening that is good and where headteachers show courage. If you are out there HT’s- get on board- share, shout, influence.


2561 days ago

yes, we all need to put the child first.
I’m fed up of targets, charts, graphs when there are lovely young peeps sitting in front of me.


2561 days ago

You give us hope- arts givE us hope. Long Live Arts.
From Austria.

Jessica Austin-Burdett

2561 days ago

A spirited and informed message, spot in as usual, I am determined to spend this year focussing on the students and not the bloody data!!

Kelly Tindall

2561 days ago

I’m moved. I’m moved because we live in this very false society and we don’t look outside of it. We are made to feel guit if we are not part of it. But, this is right, everyone is different and we so need to appreciate and celebrate this fact. The government don’t own us. I heard you say that once-” we own ourselves.”

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