All STEM and no flowers

Where have all the creative people gone?

The UK education system has sidelined creative subjects in favour of putting increased emphasis on so called STEM subjects (Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics) and in doing so has implemented a bias that may deprive and disadvantage a generation.

Before hypothesising about the consequences I should come clean regarding my past. I am a retired teacher of Drama.  My 16+ (O Level) qualifications comprised a very broad spectrum of arts and sciences in keeping with the comprehensive ethos of the school that I attended in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

My A levels were in Engineering Science and Mathematics. It’s difficult to be much more STEM than that.

pauine2 and charles
Dancing with Vettriano Charter Theatre Preston 2006

That combination made me well qualified for my first occupation of Laboratory Technician and – apparently – entirely unqualified for my subsequent, and much longer-lasting role of Drama teacher.

How that transition came about is not especially pertinent to this debate. As with many things in life it was purely a function of good fortune. I simply wish to make it clear that I have no prejudice against science, technology or maths. I enjoyed them all and still take an active interest in some aspects of them.

Occasionally I may even draw on a tiny proportion of the knowledge learned in those subjects, though the last time I utilised differential calculus, the coefficient of friction, or the second law of thermodynamics was over half a century ago.


A beneficial curriculum

A broad and varied school curriculum is a good thing. The problem  with placing an emphasis on a narrower range of subjects is that it reduces the knowledge base of those exposed to it, as well as reducing the possibilities for an individual to discover his or her predilection for a particular field of expertise or interest.

Once school league tables are brought into reckoning the damage can be compounded, especially if certain subjects or subject combinations carry more weight than others. Under those circumstances young people and their parents are liable to have prejudices regarding the ‘value’ of individual subjects skewed or reinforced.

Anecdotal evidence from friends, online contacts and former colleagues confirms that creative subjects have suffered as a consequence of the emphasis on STEM and traditional ‘academic’ subjects.

That word ‘academic’ is the bane of creative subject teachers’ lives, yet it is an unjustified means of establishing a hierarchy of learning. It is usually defined by the proportion of cerebral to practical activity. Subjects with a high practical content are deemed less worthy.  That is lazy thinking. The academic is ultimately worthless without practical application.

Medicine is a supremely lauded ‘academic’ subject yet it is only of value when it is put into practice. All sciences have practical components. Some science subjects still feature practical examinations. Technology and engineering above all are intrinsically tied to practical purposes.

No one remembers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for their theoretical work.

There is no doubting the usefulness of STEM subjects. They are the basis of the world in which we now live. They are not, however, its soul.

Will at the tower Elizabeth and Jane
Will at the Tower  at Hoghton Tower Lancashire 2010

Sciences show us how the world works. The Humanities show us why it works in the way it has, does, and is likely to do. The Creative Arts infinitely expand the potential of what Science and Humanities can offer.

By narrowing the educational options of successive generations we limit those possibilities. It is also potentially damaging for STEM students. Forcing more young people into a smaller band of subjects increases class size, stretches resources and compromises the interest and competence of the peer group.

In addition to that it will ensure that an increased proportion of young people will find themselves in an educational programme that is not attuned to their taste or most potent potential.

Any teacher knows that motivation is half of the secret of success. Having learners in the class who dislike the subject is a retarding influence on the progress of that individual and also on their fellow learners.

When a learner has a natural proclivity for a subject they find a drive that fuels their own progress and adds momentum to the progress of their peers. More important than that are the benefits to society as a whole when creative and performance subjects are mastered by many.

It is when STEM and traditionally ‘academic’ subjects are blended with their creative counterparts that the greatest benefit can accrue.


Drama as an example

Not every young person should study Drama, but they should all have the chance to try it. Outsiders often have incomplete appreciations of what the subject entails.

There are four main benefits of studying Drama to a significant level:

  • It enhances prowess in physical and vocal communication.
  • It instils techniques for creativity.
  • It develops skills for collaboration.
  • It stimulates aptitudes for pragmatic problem solving.

Name an employer who does not value one or more of those.

Drama goes much further than that. Uniformed parents often consider the practical exploration in drama classes without fully appreciating the subject matter being investigated. It has to be admitted that the nature of the subject does vary in accordance with different specifications, schools and teachers, but get that combination right and the material explored can be as demanding as any other Arts subject.

If you doubt that assertion  try explaining the texts of classic ancient or Renaissance plays to those unfamiliar with the vocabulary. If you find that a walk in the park, take a look at the first three chapters of The Theatre and it’s Double by Antonin Artaud.

Bianca statue for theatre royal plymouth
When Arts, Sciences, Technology and Drama combine.  ‘Messenger‘  –  a giant bronze statue of an actor on her way to be installed outside the Theatre Royal in Plymouth

Drama as an educational endeavour is much older than all other subjects of study with the exception of Music and Dance.  There is no doubt that making dramatic experience was part of human culture long before written communication developed. To understand Drama is to appreciate how human beings have contemplated, celebrated and manipulated their private and public lives since science was magic, technology was flint knapping, and mathematics was counting In terms of one, two, or many.

Drama teaches aspects of history, sociology, psychology, politics and philosophy.  It frequently examines the consequences of religious influence.

Because the understanding gained through the study of Drama has to be communicated by loaning one’s mind, body, voice and emotions to another with whom one might not agree, it promotes tolerance, social awareness and empathy. It nurtures emotional intelligence.

It is far too useful to be relegated to an educational extra.


Arts and Sciences


The Arts in general, so often seen as the window-dressing of our world, are actually the processes by which the scientific and technical advances are made acceptable.

We can live in a purely mechanical society but not if we wish to retain our sanity and continue to improve our humanity.

STEM subjects are vitally important to the future garden of human habitation. Stems will provide the stalks, but if we want flowers, fulfilment and fraternity we should give equal value to the study and practice of the creative and performing Arts.


Influenced works

Drama cover DH

Drama – what it is and how to do it

A no-nonsense guide to acting, directing and producing for the stage

Making the Grade DN

Making the Grade is the story of two refugee women who need to find a source of income to remain residents in the country of their choice. Jasmine is a seventeen-year-old student dependent on her older sister India who has just qualified as a Performing Arts teacher. On the morning of a vital job interview, India is unwell following a night out, so Jasmine impersonates her and gets the job at the college where she is about to enrol as a student. Unfortunately, a mistake traps them into pretending to be each other for the next two years. Complications soon arise and somehow they must find a way through the problems or face discovery, punishment and deportation. The notion of truth as revealed by the performance of fiction is right at the heart of this enthralling drama.

Myra ppbk cover 2018

Making Myra paperback

Making Myra eBook

Sherlock cover 2018

The Sherlock Holmes Solution paperback

The Sherlock Holmes Solution eBook


Other related blog posts:


Where there was a Will

Kije and me

Swinging with the Singing Butler

Spare Parts from Sherlock

Horseplay on Princes Street

Making Making Myra


Paper Helium Day



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