Bob and Roberta Smith, Portrait of Michael Gove, 2013
Genuinely, I like politicians and take my hat off to those who throw themselves into public service. Sure, there’s a risk of self-aggrandisement, but that’s true of any job requiring a bit of performance. You should meet some headteachers. You won’t be surprised to know that this one is a Radio 4 listener who has her horizons widened by arts programming.
So, knee-deep in half term’s laundry (my own, you understand, I don’t take in washing for the community) I heard young Miliband explaining his aim to beef up arts, culture and creativity, a response to the Warwick Report demonstrating how creative and cultural opportunities for young people have vanished from schools. He cursed Gove and all Goveites and set out on a mission “to guarantee every young person, from whatever background, access to the arts and culture: a universal entitlement to a creative education for every child”. OFSTED bloodhounds will seek it out.
Hmm, I said to the socks. In 2011 Darren Henley (Classic FM and the Arts Council) produced the excellent Cultural Education in England for the DfE and DCMS. It made 24 recommendations, 15 directly involving schools. So what happened to culture in school?
Arts decline easily. Despite our pre-eminence as a creative nation, we leave culture to the same divisive market forces as everything else. We don’t prioritise access to the arts in school because Secretaries of State say things like ‘I want England to be top five PISA for English and maths by 2020’. They don’t realise that if state schools have to increase time and funding for maths and English then other things go and the arts deficit isn’t made up by children going to the opera with their parents.
As I remarked to the tea towels, politicians misunderstand the purpose of education and are diverted by falsehoods. Here are 7 that were comprehensively debunked by the OECD earlier this month.
- Disadvantaged pupils always do badly in school: no, successful systems mitigate social inequalities.
- Immigrants lower results: no, not anywhere.
- It’s all about money: no, there is no correlation.
- Smaller class sizes raise standards: no, teacher quality and workload reduction raise standards.
- Comprehensive systems are fair but you need academic selection for higher results: no, there is no tracking, streaming or grade repetition in top performing systems.
- The digital world needs new subjects and a wider curriculum: no, in top systems the curriculum is rigorous, with subjects taught well and in great depth.
- Success is about being born talented: no, all children can achieve at very high levels. Top systems "level up" so that all students meet standards formerly expected only from elite students.
So if the current SoS wants to be top 5 she’s going to have to look coolly at some vote-losing issues:
- Stop describing poor families as a drain on the system
- Stop talking rubbish about immigration
- Stop fiddling with school funding
- Sort out teacher recruitment and workload
- Value comprehensive schools
- Stop adding things to the curriculum
- Believe that all children can learn
A more equal society raises standards and a less equal one depresses them. Schools should enable children to build a better future and wedge the doors open to their cultural birthright, starting with the arts. Systematically open up the palaces of privilege and high culture. Dial down the exclusive rhetoric on STEM and the economic functionality of education, talk up the balance of things that help children fly. Architects need artistry, maths and music go hand in hand, science needs philosophy, drama explains everything and what is life without poetry?
At Tallis every week is culture week but children still need persuading that this is theirs too. So this week we've hosted a world famous violinist, 100 year 8s have made a film, year 9 premiered a National Theatre competition performance, sixth form artists are in Berlin, we hosted hundreds of little dancers from primary schools yesterday and trained colleagues from a nearby PRU. We value equality and justice and culture opens doors. Education to understand the world and change it for the better.