When I was at school, careers’ advice – at least at my girls’ grammar school – was essentially non-existent. Perhaps boys’ schools did better; after all, for my generation of women, ‘careers’ weren’t a matter for serious concern. I certainly believed, as I expect many of my peers did, that going to university would lead to a few years of random work followed by marriage and housewifery with a child or three to keep me busy. The pictured advertisement from my school magazine illustrates neatly the sort of expectations that were implicit in society around 1970, if not in my actual school where we were at least encouraged to get a degree. Get yourself some nice high heels and a tight skirt and girls like you could become ‘cashiers, supervisors, income tax specialists and officers in the Executor and Trustee Department.’ As even more of an inducement this ad added ‘Barclays has two women branch managers’.
My own life didn’t turn out like that. I neither became a Bank manager nor settled down at 25, but that wasn’t because at any point I was offered serious careers advice other than from mentors once I was already on the path of research. It would be nice to think that schools were able to do rather better than on this front these days, but it all seems incredibly patchy. Following the 2011 Education Act
‘responsibility for careers education was transferred from local authorities to schools and colleges, but without any associated extra funding’
according to the introduction to a recent House of Lords debate on the topic, introduced and championed by crossbench peer Lord Aberdare. This shift in responsibility has led to fairly disastrous consequences for years of students in many schools. Reading the report of the whole debate in Hansard gave a gloomy picture of what has been, but more optimism about current changes.
As Lord Aberdare said, with the best will in the world
‘Teachers are not the right people to deliver careers education; most have neither the skills nor experience needed. That is why schools need access to independent, impartial careers guidance from trained and qualified professionals.’
A new organisation, set up in 2014 the Careers and Enterprise Company, seems to be moving things very much in the right direction. Bursaries are available – although not necessarily enough –to help schools identify and train their careers leaders. Skilled help should be becoming available to the children coming through the system now and in the future.
Speaker after speaker in this debate talked with passion about the importance of appropriate advice and the recent past failures in the system. Some considered the issues around inequality, inclusion and the path for those destined not to go to university. Others looked with optimism towards the future with its new structures. However, I spotted another problem starting to raise its rather ugly head. If we want to believe CP Snow’s Two Cultures are a thing of the past, that such boundaries between Art and Science have vanished in our brave new world, I see a parallel division being introduced in some speakers’ minds from this debate hinging around the word ‘creative’. Creative is now used to mean something very different from what I might wish. The overall and alarming sentiment is perhaps best captured in the brief sentence
‘As we have heard, there is a growing need for STEM skills, but not at the expense of creative skills’
a remark made by LibDem Peer Baroness Garden of Frognal. Science is, apparently, not creative!
This is of course not a new sentiment. William Blake perhaps was the first guilty party, with his 1826-7 engraving of Laocoön including the words
‘Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death’
quickly followed by Thomas Carlyle in 1833 with
‘The Progress of Science…is to destroy wonder, and in its stead substitute Mensuration and Numeration.’
‘The purpose of artists is to ask the right questions, even if we don’t find the answers, whereas the aim of science is to prove some dumb point.’
I wonder how many ‘dumb points’ she has benefitted from generated by ingenious and creative scientists around her.
Nobel Prize-winning Peter Medawar had it right when he said in 1968
‘All ideas of scientific understanding, at every level, begin with a speculative adventure, an imaginative preconception of what might be true – a preconception that always, and necessarily, goes a little way (sometimes a long way) beyond anything which we have logical or factual authority to believe in.’
His views have clearly fallen on deaf ears. We are still up against the idea that scientists need to be segregated from the creatives of the creative economy (you know, people like those who design and write computer games – not techie STEM folk of course). Who believe that our schools cannot teach creativity in science as well as in art or music (although to be fair the curriculum may not make it easy to do so, but that’s not the fault of the science). It was reassuring to hear from Christopher Frayling (in a private conversation over dinner last week) – former Chair of Arts Council England and Rector of the Royal College of Art no less – that he too was deeply irritated by this abuse of the word creative. I hope more people will speak up about this travesty of the use of our language, as well as a complete failure to understand how science operates.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe we should ensure all our school children get exposed to the whole spread of disciplines. The government’s emphasis on STEM education is absolutely part of a drive to ensure our children are equipped to deal with the world as it is, but it definitely should not drive out the richness of the other subjects. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to wonderful musical opportunities at my school and I did 3 languages at O Level as well as History for my humanities dose. I loved most subjects (with the exception of biology). Careers advice may have been non-existent in my school, but I certainly got what these days would probably be termed an excellent STEAM education (with the added A being arts). Let us push for a world in our schools that recognizes the reality not these false dualities which limit choice and imagination.