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Revisioning the marginalisation of creative curricula at a time of political change: What can we learn from the work of Manuel Alvarado?

Michelle Thomason, Senior Lecturer at University of East London Warren Kidd, Senior Lecturer and Teacher Educator at University of East London

The dissolving of UK parliament ready for a general election in 2024 and the subsequent new parliamentary term provides an opportunity for those vested in education to reflect upon the past and speculate about future policy directions. It is an opportunity to reflect upon a values-informed base for education and educational policy. In this blog post, we use the pre and post period of the 2024 general election to think about the marginalisation of creativity in education and of ‘creative curricula’ in particular.

As teacher educators, we have found the work of the late Manuel Alvarado a useful legacy to explore, especially given the diverse and (g)local context we work within in east London, UK, and its continued relevance for educational change at this moment in time. We are especially interested in his critique of social realist views of education and what he saw as the value of creative education to act as a counterpoint within curricula, especially within creative subjects such as, for example, his own field of media education. We will use this legacy to extrapolate generalised ideas applied to all curricula and knowledge.

Alvarado was born in Guatemala City on 15 March 1948 and subsequently brought up by his mother in east London, part of a migratory and diaspora journey that informed his writing on creative and media education. As editor of Screen Education, head of education for the British Film Institute and an ‘activist intellectual’ (Miller, 2010), Alvarado problematised education, seeking practical and politicised outcomes of education to help students understand their world better: ‘The problem of theory is not one of how to relate it to practice … rather it is the problem of how and why to construct a theory of education?’ (Alvarado, 1993, p. 182).

Writing in the early 1980s during a time of economic decline, political and social unrest, education cuts and a ‘back to basics’ movement in Britain, Alvarado’s work is contextualised by the shift from a decentralised approach to education – previously managed by ‘curriculum reformers, theorists, and academics’ (Alvarado & Ferguson, 1983, p. 21) – to a more government-controlled ‘core curriculum’. In 2024, after over a decade of highly centralised curriculum policy with narrow, hierarchical conceptions of ‘valuable’ knowledge, revisiting Alvarado’s work on curriculum is both interesting and pertinent.

Alvarado was an early critic of the social realist views of education of the ‘new sociologists’, such as Michael Young, that positioned certain types of knowledge as more ‘powerful’ than others. He considered that this conception of knowledge, which currently dominates existing education policy, is inadequate to handle the complexities of ‘real life’ and entrenches static knowledge hierarchies that perpetuate rather than break down social class barriers. For example, the English curriculum’s predominant focus on canonical literature, coupled with fewer opportunities to engage with diverse and alternative voices, may limit students’ ability to critically examine and challenge issues related to identity, power dynamics and representation, both within literature and in broader contemporary societal contexts. In creative subjects such as media studies and drama, students have to study a range of set texts determined by the examination boards. These texts are chosen for their perceived high quality and ‘worthiness’; however, their fixed nature reduces the scope for the study of other diverse and alternative texts. The value of ‘creative education’ and of ‘creative subjects’ such as Alvarado’s own media education is that they encourage critical thinking but only if we as educators change our relationship to the curriculum.

Alvarado advocated a radical reconceptualisation of the curriculum, suggesting that teaching should focus on discourse rather than knowledge, as knowledge is meaningful only within a discourse. For instance, history students studying the Industrial Revolution should engage in critical debates about power, class and ethics rather than merely learning facts. Alvarado’s approach promotes collaborative, discussion-based learning that helps students critically understand the world by interrogating ‘discursive and symbolic systems and practices’ as representations (Alvarado & Ferguson, 1983, p. 31).

Alvarado’s inclusive, critical approach argues for flattening knowledge hierarchies and supports a greater role for creative subjects in schools. He critiques the notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ within subjects, a critique that can extend to ‘powerful subjects’ within the curriculum. The last decade has seen the marginalisation of creative subjects in favour of STEM-based subjects; however, more recently, there have been signs of the narrative shifting. Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, in the Art and design research review (2023), recommended that art education – as a ‘creative subject’ – was vital to schools since ‘high-quality art education can help pupils appreciate, interpret and create art’. Through the lens of Alvarado we rewrite this: high-quality creative education can help pupils appreciate, interpret and create the world. This is Alvarado’s legacy at this time of potential educational change. Moving forwards, the creation of the new parliamentary term post the 2024 UK general election provides an opportunity for education policy and its settlement in educational organisations to be reshaped. We urge policymakers that creativity in education and creativity from ‘creative subjects’ be a lens through which we might reposition marginalised knowledge and, as Alvarado asks, reposition the purpose of our theory of education.

If you wish to read more about the life and work of Manuel Alvarado we recommend as a starting point his obituary in the Guardian and the 2010 special issue of Television and News Media (volume 11, issue 6) exploring the legacy of his life and work.


Alvarado, M. (1993). Class, culture and the education system. In M. Alvarado, E. Buscombe, & R. Collins (Eds.), The screen education reader (pp. 181–190). Palgrave Macmillan.  

Alvarado, M., & Ferguson, B. (1983). The curriculum, media studies and discursivity. Screen, 24(3), 20–34.

Miller, T. (2010). Manuel Alvarado’s thought. Television & New Media, 11(6), 434–441.