Help! We need to end this age-old snobbery

A music teacher had two Beatles on roll, yet academic lessons left their talent undiscovered – and our anti-vocational bias persists
7th November 2014, 12:00am
Mark Featherstone-Witty


Help! We need to end this age-old snobbery

In the 1950s, Paul McCartney and George Harrison attended the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys (the building that now houses the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, where I am founding principal). It was an outstanding grammar school in the traditional sense: academic. Pupils regularly won scholarships to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Liverpool.

A few vocational disciplines were offered, pretty much as an afterthought. Amid the academic striving, pupils enjoyed these classes as a respite (and, for many, a skive). There was an art teacher as well as a music teacher, but neither subject had a high status. The school had pupils who were so talented they would go on to form half of the Beatles, yet the music teacher didn't realise it. Why? Because what you did in music lessons was listen to music and then comment. The last thing you would do was create music. So, as McCartney says now, the young Paul learned no music at school. And this is effectively what is envisaged for the new GCSEs.

It doesn't appear to have occurred to former education secretary Michael Gove and his curriculum-reforming acolytes that if no one creates music, books, plays, dance or design, there will be nothing to comment on in class. No academic curriculum can function without a practical, vocational one feeding it.

It's difficult to feel enthusiastic about commentary alone. As American playwright and director David Mamet puts it: "As in performance, as in combat, as in sex, the theoretical is all well and good if one is a commentator, but the thing itself can only be understood through experience."

What did we do when we studied English at university nearly 50 years ago? We read books written by grand masters and commented on them. But what experience of living could we draw upon? What did we know about publishing writing?

We read commentaries that took us away from the material. Then we compared commentaries. And then we wrote essays commenting on the commentaries. We knew nothing about "the thing itself". It was like writing about sex without ever having been to bed with anyone. How useful is that, really?

And nearly 30 years ago, when support was needed for the idea that eventually became the Brit School, people in the music business dismissed the notion of teaching popular music in a school environment. They believed the only way to learn pop music was to do it, and to do it in front of an audience that wasn't made up of friends and family. Unlike classical music, pop music could not be taught - it wasn't for clever people.

There we have it: the gulf between the academic and the vocational. The former prized, the latter viewed as second best. There are those who study music and there are those who get their hands dirty and actually do it.

Come together

A recent report from management consultancy McKinsey, entitled Education to Employment: getting Europe's youth into work, finds that in four of the seven countries surveyed, more than half of young people taking an academic course would have preferred a vocational one.

Even now, when exam results are announced, the discourse is about students from disadvantaged families being accepted to elite universities, rather than the 16-year-olds and sixth-formers who have discovered occupations that they love. This is an enduring snobbery.

We have accepted atomised learning for too long. We tell young people that they can only do one bit of learning, when we know that learning anything is a process and you need to participate in all of it to understand "the thing itself".

Educational theorist David Kolb describes the process in four stages: experience, reflection, analysis and planning the next step - then it's back to experience again. What we have ended up with is a system where we tell one group of young people that they can do the analysis (academic commentary) and another group that they can have the experience (vocational).

The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts has just opened a primary school, where all learning feels experiential. This leads, we hope, to the "higher" functions developing later on. But the education community is guilty of mistaking "higher" for "better" - we give it kudos, gowns and mortar boards.

We expect teachers to teach what they haven't experienced - they are usually academically trained in their subject but often not able to actually do it. It is certainly not an expectation, for example, that an English teacher will write (and even get published) in their spare time. But teachers need practical experience - as do politicians, generals and the rest - and they need to constantly renew it. We need to treat learning as it actually is: a process. And, in the process, we need to change what we deem to be important.

That way, the teachers of the future might actually spot the great musical talents in their classes. Or even a potential Einstein in BTEC engineering.

Mark Featherstone-Witty is founding principal and chief executive of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and creator of the Brit School in Croydon, South London

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