Last week I was asked to speak at a Careers Forum for the Arts at Sevenoaks School, which is where I did my A Levels nearly *mumbles* years ago. It was a great honour to be asked, and a delight to meet the other panellists who were all old girls as well. Sixth formers interested in the Arts came along to hear us speak briefly about our careers and then ask questions. I was there to represent the world of children’s literature, but also to talk about publishing and the study of creative writing at university. The others were Stina Richardson, who designs jewellery, the journalist and award-winning poet Olivia Cole and the podcaster and comedy writer Helen Zaltzman.
There has been a significant decline in take-up of Arts subjects at GCSE level, which of course means fewer pupils are going on to study them at A level and Higher Education, and this in turn will have a detrimental effect on the future for the Arts in our country. So, it was heartening to see a room full of sixth formers interested in creative subjects and fantastic to see that the school was encouraging this.
All of the speakers came from very different areas in the Arts and we had come to our present careers by varying means. However, the more we were questioned about our careers, the more it became clear that we had two things in common:
- At sixth form level, we had NO IDEA WHAT WE WANTED TO DO WITH OUR LIVES.
- We have found ourselves where we are today by remaining flexible and open to new opportunities.
And yet, the over-riding concern of all the pupils was, ‘Which subject should I study and which university should I go to if I want a job like yours?’
It was clear from the questions we were asked that the sixth formers were anxious that they had to know RIGHT NOW what it was they were going to do as a career and they wanted us to tell them EXACTLY HOW they should be going about it.
“I think students nowadays are more geared towards the job market and, although the Arts generate millions of pounds for the UK economy they somehow seem less tangible – their specific jobs less definable – than a career in, say, science or accountancy. Gone are the days when knowledge for knowledge’s sake was seen as a way of enriching people’s lives. Students are ‘taught to the test’ and schools themselves are monitored and graded. A truly rounded education doesn’t even seem to be a goal in the 21st Century.”
This is a real problem. Not only are we dissuading children from taking up the Arts in the first place, attaching unhelpful words such as ‘soft skills’ to subjects such as Drama, English, Art and Music, but we are also making them paranoid about studying the ‘right’ courses at the ‘right’ universities. (Of course the fact that a university education is no longer provided free of charge does nothing to help this.)
My experience of being an Arts student was very similar to that of my fellow speakers, even though they were all about ten years younger than I am and all are in different fields.
Stina, for example, started out as a model. She soon realised this was not going to be a career she was likely to be able to continue with throughout her life and also said that ‘much of the time I was bored – hanging around, waiting to be told what to do next’. She noticed someone making jewellery one day and asked them to teach her how to do it. Before long she was spotted wearing something she had made, and she had her first customer. That customer was seen in a magazine wearing the jewellery and was asked who had made it, and Stina had more sales off the back of that. She said that at school she enjoyed spending her days in the art room, but could never have predicted she would end up as a designer.
Olivia and Helen both described themselves as being a ‘bit of a nerd’ at school. They both loved English and went on to read that subject at university, but neither of them made that decision as a conscious career move. They just ‘loved words’.
I was the same. I loved languages, loved words and had only a vague idea that I wanted to write. I studied French and German at university and most of the literature I read was ancient stuff, from Mediaeval to nineteenth century – hardly a career move, unless I was going to stay in academia. But the point was, I LOVED IT. Getting an Arts degree was about following my passion, not about ticking a box.
I hope that if the sixth formers took anything away from the Careers Forum, it was this: that the Arts will only survive in this country if we have new blood coming from our schools and universities and that if you are passionate about something, be it making things, writing things, painting things or drawing things, JUST DO IT! You never know where it might lead.