Combating the 'wasted years' of childhood for our industry's future

Creativity in schools shouldn't finish with Fuzzy-Felt, pasta shapes and glitter.

I was brought up in a nice house. I went to university. I am white. I am male. I hold a senior position in an advertising agency. So, who am I to write a piece on diversity?

The irony is not lost on me. I am painfully aware of how different it is for many young people and how different it could have been for me.

At The & Partnership London, we have our Sparks programme where we ditch CVs to ensure we hire more diverse talent, enabling us to employ the next generation of true thinkers, doers and creators. Sparks is one example of the many initiatives our industry offers, varying in size, ambition and scope to help school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds, from mentoring programmes to networking schemes to scholarships.

But I think there is still one crucial piece of the puzzle missing that we need to address. Young people don’t define their paths at 16-plus; they’re defined at a much earlier age, between the ages 11 to 14 – a demographic that we’re currently ignoring and that I believe we need to inspire.

This age group is a mass of creative talent like never before. There may be a "no phones" policy in the classroom, but the moment these kids step out of their school gates they’re instantly creating and sharing content on their phones.

Yet these critical years are being overlooked and under-supported within the UK education system; no longer garnering the interest that primary schools enjoy and too far away from exams to be of importance. It’s no wonder that the 2015 Ofsted report on key stage three (aged 11-14) was called The Wasted Years.

To understand why this age group is creatively starved and how the advertising industry can help, you need to understand a little of how the school system works.

If you go into a primary-school classroom, you’ll instantly see that it’s rich in colour and imagination. Creativity smacks you between the eyes in the form of Fuzzy-Felt, glitter, straws, crayon, cardboard, pasta shapes and the heady scent of dried PVA glue. For the UK’s under-11s, there are music, art, drama; creativity is celebrated in all its forms. It is regarded and recognised for its value.

Then, from age 11, kids leave primary school and go to "big school". These schools are ultimately judged on how they do in exams and understandably they steer towards subjects that have a clearer formula for achieving a pass and which attract the majority of parents who still see an "arts-based" job as a pipe dream or luxury. Creative subjects, and creative employment, are simply seen as riskier because, by their very nature, their subjectivity is harder to appraise.

Music, drama and art require more independent learning, more need for young students to use their own initiative and be self-motivated. Creative subjects require kids to come up with their own ways of problem-solving. All of which are hard for teachers to control and tough for them to evaluate.

The creative problem is even more acute when it comes to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those who show academic promise are often encouraged to follow more traditional pathways into more esteemed professions such as law or accountancy. Those who don’t are often seen as problems to manage. Who knows what creative potential is being overlooked or snuffed out at an early age, simply because they don’t know that our industry exists?

These young minds are shaped by schools (for whom the creative arts are not top of the list) and parents (for whom the creative industries are not top of their list either), and due to a lack of external support there currently exists too few ways for young people to learn that creativity is an exciting and rewarding pathway to venture down.

Our industry is in a unique position to help: to create initial engagement at this key stage of a young person’s life that can then feed into all the other great projects we’re already doing. That is why The & Partnership London is extending our current Sparks recruitment scheme into a Young Sparks programme.

This year, we are working with Football Beyond Borders to encourage creativity through something that kids already love: football.

We are helping disadvantaged school kids to design, develop and produce their own creative ideas; putting creative industries on their radar that will, in time, feed through into the other great projects that the industry has already put in place.

These young people are energising, passionate and inspiring; we need to capture their attention now, as they form their ideas and goals for their future, by letting them know: "People actually get paid to do this." There is power in knowing that the creative industries are an option for them. 

After all, you can’t aspire to something you don’t know exists.

Micky Tudor is executive creative director at The & Partnership London

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