“My goodness, we need empathetic intelligent creative people today.” So said the new children’s laureate, Cressida Cowell, in an interview with the Guardian at the weekend. The author believes reading is a crucial way for young people to develop these capacities, and plans to use her position to promote it. This is a laudable aim, and projects she has already supported are promising signs of what lies ahead. Last year she launched the Free Writing Friday campaign with the National Literary Trust, urging teachers to let children have 15 minutes every Friday to write whatever they want in a special book, in the knowledge that this work will not be marked or graded.
Clearly 15 minutes of creativity a week is not enough. Nor is writing the only form of artistic expression that needs encouragement. But Cowell’s voice is a welcome addition to those of campaigners already calling for an increased focus on imagination in schools. There must be a bigger focus on releasing artistry to open wide the doors of young minds. It ought to be the case that young people can go where their instinct takes them. The arts enrich people’s lives. Medical science can make us live to 100. If you haven’t got a feel for the wonder of the arts, one might wonder what’s the point of living until 100?
That the UK’s creative industries are important economically is not the only, or even the main, reason why children and adults should have the chance to sing, act, dance, or express themselves in other ways. But it is still worth paying attention to more pragmatic arguments for the arts. The Labour peer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg said recently that he dreams of a future in which the creative industries – film, TV, radio, photography, music, advertising, museums, galleries, literature, video games – pull the UK from its current slough of despond. He has a point: Britain’s creative industries, according to government figures, were worth £101.5bn in 2017 and have been growing at twice the rate of the economy since 2010. In 2019, 2 million people work in these industries. Lord Bragg urges that, playing to our strengths, we should aim for 4 million in 10 or 20 years’ time. After all, three of the biggest film franchises – Harry Potter, James Bond and The Lord of the Rings – were adapted from British novels.
Britain’s soft power is key to retaining some sense of its place in the world as political events cause an unwanted wider global reassessment. The country’s cultural power is highly rated – chart-topping music albums, the foreign following of our football and our contributions in the arts all make the nation appear much larger than its geography suggests. Then there is our second empire: that created by the English language. Never mind that the reason for the triumph of English is the triumph of the United States. As a repository of culture and identity, English is a way of transmitting our own distinctive heritage in a bigger way. Another reason for Cowell’s call to free up our creative selves should be welcomed.
Art for art’s sake need not be seen in opposition to commerce. As the National Theatre’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, has argued, creative confidence brings with it initiative and freedom of thought, an understanding of the relationships and communication that sit at the heart of any dynamic and successful working life. Creativity needs to be on the curriculum, not only because we should aim to nurture the next Andrew Lloyd Webber, Zadie Smith or Cressida Cowell, but because it equips even non-creatives with worthwhile skills.