Recently I had the pleasure of attending the Music For Youth Concert at the Albert Hall. It was sponsored by, amongst others, the TES, the NUT, the DfE and Classic FM, and you don’t see them all together in the same bathtub too often. I went last year, and any suspicions I had that it would be a worthy, but ultimately tiresome experience of gritted teeth and polite applause were dispelled then. It was fantastic - a pick ‘n’ mix of styles, instruments and genres that reminded me of someone putting their iPad on omni-shuffle and pressing play. The versatility and craft of the performers was sublime, and within five minutes it had gone from a plus-one beanfeast to something I would have paid for twice.
And as I watched the performances - ranging from cheeky monkey blue grass to Tamil movie soundtrack - it started me thinking: these children were all at performance level in their fields, yet almost all of them would have comfortably sailed under the height bar for compulsory state education.
How does that happen? The fear among many is that the creative arts will be sidelined in secondary education (along with sports) because of cuts; that the focus on some subjects will marginalise anything external to the notional shibboleth of the EBacc. It’s a problem with any metric of school achievement; set a bar and schools will often bend themselves into contortions to reach it, possibly to the exclusion of all else.
Lord Puttnam, who presented two teachers with awards, summed up a particular ideology when he said to the crowd (composed mostly of performers, it seemed, and their families, glowing white-hot with pride) ‘There are those who think we should do less arts and sport in school; give a cheer if you think we need more of these things!’ If you think the crowd did anything other than cough up its communal epiglottis in a whoop of assent, then I have some real estate in Narnia I’d like to sell you.
Something’s got to give
And on the surface, it’s an obvious question to answer: of course we would; of course we’d like kids bouncing off climbing walls and swapping épée strokes as they played harmonicas and zithers. But in any cost/benefit analysis you have to ask the tough question: what would we lose? The curriculum is like an enormous Rubik’s Cube. Move a square and everything else moves around; add something, and something else falls off. You could have more sport, and then you’d be lining up something else in your sights before you pulled the trigger. What would you say to the head of that subject? Sorry, but you’re no longer required? I could bear it if it meant Thinking Skills or SEAL fell off the table; history or maths, less so.
But the answer isn’t really anything to do with the curriculum at all. We all know that the real crucibles of exceptional talent in the creative and athletic fields aren’t in lesson time, but in the clubs, and after-school art classes; in the workshops and the master classes; in the orchestras and choirs, the tutoring and the countless hours spent by teachers for little or no pay as they stretch and challenge the boys and girls for whom violin and pole vaulting isn’t merely a curricular chore, but a lifestyle choice. The classroom is an excellent place to introduce children to opportunities that life may have denied them, but future Mozarts and Mo Farahs aren’t created in mixed-ability laboratories; beyond the classroom is where the magic happens.
And that’s where the money is needed, because teachers can’t do it alone. If we want magic, we’re going to have to pay for it. And history, English, and all the others, needn’t suffer at all.