Peter O’Connor is an expert in applied theatre and a professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

Why do I feel a little sick in my stomach, rather than excited, about the newly announced government initiative, Creatives in Schools? The word creative is an adjective, it describes a process where novel, beautiful and wondrous things are made.

Creatives in Schools uses creative as a noun, and as such, creates a false, and I believe unhelpful, binary that suggests there are creatives and non-creatives. The reality is that we are all inherently creative and it’s important that teachers see themselves that way, with or without a visiting ‘creative’ in their classroom.

Schools as we know them were originally designed at the same time as mass industrialisation began. Not surprisingly, factories and schools centre around the testing and standardisation of the products they make and value conformity and uniformity.

Creativity in these environments shrivels because its fundamentals include a willingness to take risks, to be curious, to be playful with ideas and to consider possibilities to make something not seen or imagined before. This approach has never been a feature of New Zealand schools, except in isolated instances and for a brief period in the 1950s, when progressive education philosophies were introduced.

The vitality of schools at the time was based on the twin ideas that the arts train the imagination, and the social imagination is vital for social progress, social justice and national wellbeing. There was a strong belief that the arts and education were foundation stones for a strong democracy.

It was understood that one of school’s primary functions was to create critical, creative, empathetic citizens as a safeguard against the rise of extremism. The arts have struggled ever since to gain traction in a system that has valued particular forms of knowledge over others. And although the arts are a major industry, contributing billions to the New Zealand economy, they aren’t seen as valid as so-called ‘hard disciplines’.

I believe nine years of National Standards essentially killed off creativity in New Zealand schools. The overriding focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) was highly effective in dismantling the arts across the whole education system, including schools and the tertiary sector.

The provision of training in the arts in Initial Teacher Education in New Zealand is appallingly inadequate. Teachers trained in the last ten years, who then had to implement National Standards in primary schools, have little or no understanding of how to be creative teachers or how to teach or use the arts in their classrooms.

Music, dance and drama have particularly suffered. Teachers have been starved of professional development in the arts, alongside so many other discipline areas. Teachers need opportunities to engage in this field and to understand the potential for cross-curricular learning to skilfully build the arts into their everyday teaching.

The Ministry of Education hasn’t developed any new resource material to support the teaching of the arts in more than 15 years, so there is very little available that is recent, relevant and geared to the New Zealand context or curriculum.

In the announcement of the Creatives in Schools scheme, there is no mention of the arts curriculum. Instead it ties the outcomes of the project to the same old generic and self-limiting competencies belonging to every subject. Its almost as if the Ministry has forgotten we still have the arts in the National Curriculum.

The arts curriculum is the vital tool for teachers to be creative with their children and to be creative themselves. If the  project was pitched to support that curriculum rather than support artists into work, I might not feel so uneasy. However, unless there is significant investment in reinstating and resourcing the arts curriculum, creativity will remain a rare sight in New Zealand schools.

The initiative also exists outside any wider context or strategy for the arts  across government. At a minimum, the initiative needs to be part of a wider policy direction on the arts and young people. There remains an opportunity to develop a national arts strategy that considers how the arts feed into all areas of government policy.

A national strategy should centre on the vital role the arts play in protecting democracy and averting the appeal of radical and dehumanising ideologies. That is a genuine wellbeing goal. The arts in education would then be of central importance in this wider strategy, and Creatives in Schools might begin to make sense and make a difference.



  1. For Creativity to be more important and overt in our Teaching and Learning processes we need to re-generate not only the Arts but also the ways we teach (perhaps a new NZ Curriculum?? ). So we need a whole new paradigm of teaching and learning that reduces the impact of an assessment system that rigidly requires specific criteria and that becomes part of the development process. To do that we need to reduce the impact of subject-based learning and assessment (but not remove it!) and develop a new-look teaching and learning model that includes Diverse Literacies (Media, Personal Health, Environmental, Information Technology, etc.) and Numeracies, together with the development of Competencies through Concept-Based Inquiry that leads students to stimulate their thinking and actions using both Rich Tasks and Wicked Problems. At this time, when we are expecting the report on Review of TS, we are at a critical crossroads in not only educational administration, but also in teaching-learning-assessment processes and strategies. We need a better framework that enables students to Know-Understand-Be and Do and to develop Learning Dispositions. Creativity will be an important part and focus in that framework.

  2. Well said, Peter. I’m going to hazard two definitions. A “creative” is a huckster from the advertising industry, i.e. someone who creatively sells crap. An artist is someone who in their creative work reveals to us something about our lives, particularly things we might not otherwise (want to) see, hear, read, or experience. Why is this programme not called Artists in Schools? Who’s ashamed or scared of the word artist?

    I agree entirely that this should be part of a broader national arts strategy, but as it stands, my immediate concern is that the scheme gives work to artists, not self-proclaimed “creatives.”

  3. Great article Peter. Another symptom of a lack of understanding amongst those that direct the system of the many inadequacies of our current educational model (or at least the implementation of a model) that is stuck in an industrialised era – where curiosity, creativity, collaboration, problem solving and ‘dispostions’ are not seen as worthy of basing an educational approach on. There is also a lack of an appreciation that teaching is a constant journey of learning as well and need to be supported in that more as well. Well, many parents are waking up to these inadequacies and lack of vision and leadership from officials, Ministers and schools and starting their own schools that deliver a rich, experiential and broad based curriculum. For example, Ako School in Northcote (, AGE School in Takapuna, Deep Green Bush School in Clevedon, Harbour Montessori Colleage in Albany. But this isn’t the way things should be – we need leadership and innovation from within as well.

  4. I hope you’re not suggesting that creativity must be in-housed? Don’t underrate what those in other sectors and walks of life can bring into a school environment. Schools are way too closed off in my opinion. They need to be more open and accessible places. Teachers could do with a bit of refreshing outside inspiration I reckon. Three decades later, I can remember every artist and other interesting non-teachers who popped into our school to do workshops and so on with us. Poets, musicians, photographers, actors, filmmakers, activists, politicians, designers, lawyers, circus performers, even travellers… I remember vividly what each of them had to say. They brought vibrant, uncommon perspectives, independent of the of the school routine, the curriculum and the teacher assumptions. Frankly, they nurtured by starved mind. My regular teachers were inspiring too, but I was a hungry caterpillar, and in any case, these highly creative teachers were not intimidated by those whose different experience came as gusts of fresh fragrant air. If anything my teachers relished this outsider input and their own creativity as teachers ascended. I hate the word “creatives” too, for the reason you point out. But people doing creative or just plain unusual and innovative work are not always artists. Having people who are creative or just have something interesting to offer come into the system doesn’t suggest at all that this function is being outsourced.

  5. Kia ora. I’m an artist that works regularly with schools on creative projects such as murals and illustration. I’m a children’s book illustrator, run my own extra curricular arts programme and am a practicing nz artist. I was one of the 48 artists selected in the 2008 and 2009 “artists in schools” project where I created school wide arts activities that worked alongside teachers and selected areas of the curriculum. The culumlated in a whole school art exhibition and murals depicting g maori legends. It saddens me to hear you felt sick to your stomach.. The feedback I received from teachers was hugely positive.. Those already confident in creating art with their students found new and exciting methods and materials to try out for future class projects, and those teachers who claimed to not have a creative bone in their body found themselves fully engaged and excited with outcomes.

    The murals I facilitated still exist in those schools today. Since then I have worked outside the MOE in a private capacity offering my services to beautify and enhance school environments by engaging with students, teachers and local iwi directly to create murals that have won resene competitions and created lasting taonga for both the schools and their pupils.

    The creative in schools project gives teachers the opportunity to introduce students to practicing artists in their communities which brings hope to creative children too (they see a future in their interest and meet role models much like they would with sports people) this only enhances the overall school environment.

    I think the creatives in schools project is even better this time around because it also provides funding for the lead teacher who organises and facilitates these projects with the school and across the school body.

    I’d live to see the MOE fund art rooms in every school so teachers can carry on creative projects with tamariki as an ongoing basis.

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