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A Hodge-podge approach to high culture

With Margaret Hodge slamming the Proms as too posh, and schools spoonfeeding children ‘quality culture’, it's clear New Labour doesn’t know its arts from its elbow.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Politics UK

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UK culture minister Margaret Hodge was hardly revealing a dirty secret on Tuesday when she observed that the audience at the Proms – that annual festival of bowler-hatted-Union-Jacked-patriotism with Elgar and claxons – might be the narrow preserve of a certain section of society. In a speech to New Labour’s favourite think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), Hodge said: ‘The audience for many of our greatest cultural events – I’m thinking in particular of the Proms – is still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease in being part of this.’

The Proms does tick some of New Labour’s boxes: it is a shared national experience and it is about cultural identity. Unfortunately, the Proms is not nearly as shared or as cultural as Hodge would like it to be. Instead, the culture minister offered TV soap opera Coronation Street as a shining example of what she has in mind.

Tory leader David Cameron’s response was predictable: we all need to just get over being embarrassed by the Union Jack and our funny English ways. Others pointed out that not all the Proms are on the Last Night and those Union Jack types were a just a small rotten apple in a two-month deep barrel of classical music. Take away that Last Night of the Proms jingoism and you’ll find that the Proms audience is normally wrapped in the cultural inclusivity ushered in by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Ravi Shankar, Dame Cleo Laine and brass bands.

Why can’t we all like the same things?

What no one seemed to argue is that judging culture in terms of inclusivity, as Hodge would have us do, is illegitimate. Culture is not good or bad on the basis of how many people ‘feel at ease’ with it: classical music, in particular, is proof of the fact that something can be good without everyone liking it. Lots of people find classical music difficult and remote. It takes effort to appreciate – but it can still be excellent.

Nowadays, however, nothing so elitist can be encouraged. Hodge is arguing for a ‘culture’ that is bland enough not to excite any deep emotions, never mind patriotic flag-waving. Anything with the power to stir us up is off her list. She argued: ‘Culture can often be a source of intense difficulty and conflict, as the play Bezhti [about the Sikh community] in Wolverhampton or Jerry Springer: the Opera have demonstrated. Just as culture which pushes the boundaries can make some people proud to belong, it can make others feel isolated and deeply offended.’ Hodge just wants us all to get along and enjoy the same things. Exactly the same things. All of us. Imagine if absolutely everyone in the whole country attended the same cultural event and all felt perfectly comfortable? I don’t even want to imagine what kind of event it might be.

However, I don’t need to imagine it because it will soon be being taught in school. It is precisely this Hodge-Kultur that the government plans to expose our children to, five hours a week. On top of the five hours of sport, compulsory cooking and environmental awareness lessons, it’s a wonder there’s any time left for actual education in Britain’s national curriculum.

Replacing education with ‘culture’

Last month, UK culture secretary Andy Burnham and children’s minister Ed Balls announced a Pop Idol-style ‘Find Your Talent’ approach to education. At a cost of £25million, pilot schemes in schools will allow ‘young people in England the chance to experience high-quality arts and culture’. Clearly the government believes it has found the key that will ‘unlock the creative talent of all young people’ (1). At least, we have to hope they have, because this government couldn’t teach swimming to ducks.

The latest silver bullet for education promises exposure to ‘high-quality’ culture. Not ‘high’ culture, of course; that would be elitist. This is to be achieved through:

  • performing on stage and going to the theatre, museums and galleries;
  • making videos;
  • music lessons and taking part in a recital;
  • creative writing and ‘author appreciation’;
  • studying new media and digital art;
  • developing art and craft skills.

Presumably ‘arts and crafts’ get included to ensure that anyone overawed by the idea of theatres and galleries can at least optimise their self-paced appropriate developmental learning outcomes with crayons, driftwood and string.

‘Theatre, film, music, museums and other art forms can be life-changing for young people, broadening their horizons and raising self-confidence and aspirations’, says Andy Burnham. His remarkable insight only betrays the government’s own low aspirations: are £25million worth of pilot schemes really required to overcome the practical challenges involved in getting children to a museum? Does it really cost £25million to organise a round of author-appreciative applause? Don’t nine-year-olds make ‘mashup’ videos on YouTube already?

Over the next three years, a further £110million has been allocated to yet another new quango, the Youth Culture Trust. As well as running the ‘Find Your Talent’ show, this Yoof Kultcha Trust will oversee ‘Creative Partnerships’ – a scheme that will buddy up children with ‘creative professionals’ like artists, writers and filmmakers. There is nothing wrong with introducing children to culture, of course. It should be an integral part of education. There is something very wrong, however, with thinking that ‘culture’ is a subject that can be learned and deserves its own special place on the curriculum.

Culture is something we can be steeped in: we imbibe culture; breathe it in. Knowledge is something we devour: we eat books up; struggle to digest difficult ideas. Education teaches us new things and, crucially, gives us the ability to discriminate; it creates a framework in which our interests in the world and our understanding of it can develop. The educated mind is one that can become highly cultured.

It is precisely education that the government has abandoned, seeking instead to plug the curricular holes with ‘culture’ and anything else to hand. Last summer, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) announced five hours of sport a week for children (2). This is in line with the Department’s Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners (3). This was the five-year plan that criticised the postwar approach to education as ‘fundamentally elitist’ on the grounds that it assumed ability was limited to a talented few. No wonder the Department of Education and Skills dropped the word ‘Education’ from its title when it became the all-embracing DCSF (4).

Instead of oh-too-elitist education, talent is seen as a democratic leveller: we all have some talent, at the very least a party turn, even if we lack education. Much like foreign secretary David Miliband’s ‘democratic imperative’ to save the world, Burnham and Balls have a ‘cultural imperative’ to ensure that young people have their latent talents exposed and unlocked for them.

Lowering expectations

The five-year strategy also attacked the legacy of RA Butler’s 1944 settlement for education on the basis that it assumed education could deliver a ‘basic and standard product for all’. While Butler’s model might have been elitist, it was also universal. It held up educational and cultural excellence as something that could be achieved by all – even if, in practice, only a mostly privileged few made it.

Universalism and education have now been replaced by personalised culture, and with it we lose something very important. The recently published Children’s Plan criticises the ‘curriculum of the past’ since it was ‘dominated by content coverage led by the teacher’ (5). In other words, teachers taught stuff. Now they are basing the ‘curriculum around optimum progression for individual pupil learning’. ‘In the past’, the authors of the plan continue, ‘progress meant getting through topics. Today it is about pupils progressing in their learning.’ Every pupil will have a personal tutor to explain to them what this might mean, while the real teachers presumably take a break from all that boring content-based coverage. The children who put this plan to the government – and, yes, they were consulted – must surely be shocked and amazed that the grown-ups actually took their complaints about the amount of teaching seriously.

Personal tutors will chart individual trajectories for development, a ‘personal progress record’ for each child, and counsel intervention whenever a child strays from their allocated trajectory. This is a model for education openly informed by the approach now taken to children’s health: measure height and weight at birth and plot them on a predicted trajectory. Monitor regularly and intervene if height moves above or below the line.

Education does not work like this. One is not educated by getting five hours of culture a week any more than one is made healthy by eating five fruit and veg a day. You actually have to work at it. Even talent is not purely attributable to genetics. Duke Ellington, Martin Scorsese or Jackson Pollock: all made more of the gifts with which they were born. An excellent education means that we have to be demanding of children, push them to explore their limits, tantalise them with the unknown and the out-of-reach.

The Children’s Plan has far more modest ambitions, stating that ‘personalised learning must be learner-centred and knowledge-centred – paying close attention to learners’ knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes, connecting learning to what children already know’. What they already know is hardly the point. Where is the attention to what children ought to know?

Abdicating responsibility

The government appears to be more than a little doubtful about the actual ability of its new curriculum to inspire young people. So, the Children’s Plan wields plenty of stick as well as cultural carrot: £34million earmarked for ‘expert parenting advisers’; £66million to ‘target those most at risk’ of becoming young offenders; £20million on ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts’ for ASBO kids; and a youth alcohol action plan to ‘tackle parental alcohol misuse which can influence young people’s own consumption’.

In TV talent show The X-Factor, the final includes a slot where the real losers, the ones that were humiliated in the auditions, get a few moments in the limelight. Prime minister Gordon Brown’s government of the ‘talents’ seems to want to run schools this way, too. Lacking any educational standards, Brown’s ministers think it appropriate to endow ‘diplomas that reward vocational learning with the same status as academic A-levels’ (6). I’m afraid that the proud holders of these diplomas may find themselves humbled when they try to gain access to the same jobs and university places as the holders of those academic A-levels.

All of this is a patronising veneer over an historic and open abdication of responsibility: ‘Government does not bring up children – parents do – so government needs to do more to back parents and families.’ (7) It is true, of course, that government does not bring up children (although the New Labour government continually intervenes in that arena), yet here it is abdicating its responsibility to provide a decent education for the nation’s children – something that the government should do. Responsibility for education is even being handed over to the private sector, as the government asks McDonald’s and Network Rail to offer qualifications at school level (8). It seems the best education on offer consists of little more than a certain culture of acceptable behaviour and a set of on-the-job skills.

When excellence is seen as anti-democratic and we have a political ‘elite that no longer believes in the superiority of its cultural achievements’ (9) – even concerned that the Proms are too exclusive – little Johnny and Jane would be forgiven for telling the government to back off and let teachers get on with their jobs.

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport characterised compulsory cookery lessons as another half-baked idea. Dennis Hayes looked at the significance of the McDonalds A-level. Frank Furedi asked why teaching the pieties of environmentalism in schools is celebrated as ‘awareness raising’. David Perks explained how to get the buggers to behave. Michele Ledda believed children need to be challenged. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Young people to get five hours of culture a week – £135m funding boost announced, Department for Culture, Media and Sport press release, 13 February 2008

(2) Five hours of sport a week for every child, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 13 July 2007

(3) Five year strategy for children and learners, Department for Children, Schools and Families website

(4) See Mark Taylor thinks that the Children’s Plan is a contemporary ‘Minor Carta’, IOI Education Forum, 31 Januray 2008

(5) See The Children’s Plan, at the Department for Children, Schools and Families website.

(6) Inspired by talent shows, Brown gets the X Factor, Guardian, 13 February 2008

(7) See The Children’s Plan, at the Department for Children, Schools and Families website.

(8) Would you like relish with that A-level?, by Dennis Hayes, 29 January 2008

(9) p 218 The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, James Heartfield, Sheffield Hallam Press, 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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