The future of design rests on diversity

19 : 10 : 2018 Youth : Design : Lifelong Learning

With UK schools reducing their focus on creativity, Kelly Mackenzie, founder of White Bear Studio, says it’s time for the design industry to step up.

SHAPE by White Bear Studio, London SHAPE by White Bear Studio, London

If we don’t work at making the design industry more inclusive, its future output will suffer.

Kelly Mackenzie, founder of White Bear Studio

From the end of exam season in 2018, the attainment of each UK school will be based on its average EBacc score. Why does this matter? Because the EBacc is a combination of subjects chosen at GCSE level by students and these combinations don’t include any creative subjects. With schools under pressure to keep their average ranking up, naturally efforts and funding will be skewed towards non-creative subjects.

Discovering this troubled me. Growing up in Ireland and studying art, I looked to the UK for cultural inspiration, whether I was writing an essay on punk, listening to Britpop or wearing Baby Spice-inspired platform trainers. The UK was my go-to for inspiration, enough so that 10 years ago I made the decision to move here. I was surprised, then, to learn that a government whose country is saturated in cultural history would make such an anti-arts decision.

The results of this change in approach to the curriculum may not be seen immediately. But the gradual knock-on effect will mean that much less focus and importance will be placed on creative subjects in schools. When a young and impressionable student chooses a creative subject it is a sign of self-expression. We shouldn’t put out this spark before it has the opportunity to shine, so we – as parents, carers, brands, educators and creatives – must encourage and support students’ desire for creativity wherever we see it. It is vital to nurture this expression in its infancy. It is, and will be, valuable.

There is another important reason for keeping creativity in schools: the arts are a powerful outlet for maintaining positive mental health, something that is crucial for young people. As the Cultural Learning Alliance has found, people who take part in the arts are 38% more likely to report good health.

We have already witnessed a 28% drop in the number of students taking creative GCSE subjects.
SHAPE by White Bear Studio, London SHAPE by White Bear Studio, London

So, as schools shift their attention to EBacc subjects, who or what will this affect? Arguably, the biggest impact will be on those from disadvantaged and minority areas, where funding is tighter and pressure is being applied to get a good school average. We have already witnessed a 28% drop in the number of students taking creative GCSE subjects. Not only does this mean there will be fewer students studying the arts in the future, but more worryingly, fewer students will attend higher education at all.

Critically, this will lead to a lack of future diversity in the creative sector – something it is already suffering from. If we don’t work at making the design industry more inclusive, its future output will suffer. Less diversity equals less depth of understanding, insight and cultural knowledge.

What can be done to help? As the Cultural Learning Alliance also notes, those students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree. In response, initiatives such as SHAPE are emerging to help foster creativity in schools. Standing for Support, Help, Advise, Play and Encourage, it enables school students to explore their creativity through workshops, problem-solving and artistic skills, with the aim of encouraging them to choose a creative subject at GCSE or A Level.

It is my hope that, with more awareness through movements like SHAPE, the design industry – as well as educators – can help to ensure the UK’s creative industry thrives in the future, nurturing and producing tomorrow’s David Hockney, Vivienne Westwood or Norman Foster.

Kelly Mackenzie is the founder and creative director of multi-discipline design agency White Bear Studio, and the creator of SHAPE.