The Tory MP (declared personal hero William Morris) seems to have an impressive grasp of the complex argument that craft, creativity and making is fundamental to the human condition, that few other politicians share. He said that ‘the work of the hands, and the body’, was just as, if not more, ‘likely to lead to the sublime as the pursuit of academia’.
His references – Ruskin, Morris, Keats, Lord Shaftesbury – suggest a depth of reading only undertaken by the genuinely interested. He acknowledged the errors of governing with a policy system that only recognises as valid evidence economic arguments, rather than such abstract but important concepts as the pursuit of truth and beauty. (Yes, he actually said this.)
In policy terms, this conviction has led to his championing of an unprecedented commitment to increasing apprenticeships, to reinstating the guild system – to reinforcing the dignity of the non-academic.
So far so good, what a great champion for skills. But when the Department for Business are making such progressive statements, the question on everyone’s lips, the elephant in the room, is what on earth is the Department for Education up to? The two Whitehall departments say they are talking to each other, but in actual fact their policies or, dare one say it, ideologies, appear to be widely divergent. A casualty of Cameron’s hands-off approach when headstrong Ministers develop policies in line with personal convictions, perhaps?
The renewed focus at the Department for Education on numeracy and literacy is clearly important, but also a classic politicians’ answer: if British children are crap at English and maths (as OECD stats suggest), it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s because they are not being taught for enough hours or tested rigorously and frequently enough. This is a rumination for another day, but the relevance here is that the worrying over numeracy and literacy will make a casualty of some other skills, squeezed out of the compartmentalised timetable.
Why, if craft, designing, making, inventing, manufacturing, is so important to the country and the economy (as the closing lines of Chancellor Osborne’s budget speech declared) is the Department for Education instituting a mainstream educational system that sidelines craft, design & technology, and art?
These activities shouldn’t only be available to those with a ‘practical’ tendency, as Hayes seemed to be suggesting (and in fact they are probably just as important for pushing the bookishly clever out of their comfort zone.)
They are not niche subjects. And they are not non-academic.
If we want to build a creative knowledge economy full of entrepreneurs, high-tech manufacturers, agents of innovation and ambitious start-ups, we need individuals well-versed in the literary greats who can manage the financial side of a business – but who also manifest exemplary creative thinking skills.
Finally: beyond the cold hard implications for UK GDP, denying children the opportunity to learn how to express themselves creatively is basically inhumane – and won’t drive up educational outcomes in other areas.