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Gambling on the arts

How heartwarming it is that the Government has finally discovered the importance of developing a policy for the arts and young people. And how outrageous that the Secretary of State for the National Heritage should now claim credit for reinventing creative projects and policies which once blossomed in our schools and local communities, but which have been systematically destroyed over the last 15 years by Government policies.

Whether through cash cuts, national curriculum utilitarianism, the shackling of local authority powers and teachers' time, or sheer philistinism, the arts have been squeezed out of the official and unofficial timetables and outside sources of support bled dry. Look at the way that dance and drama have been downgraded in the national curriculum, how dance and drama students have been denied grants for study, and how Sir Ron Dearing's rationalisation has further marginalised the arts in the key teenage years. Remember how Theatre in Education inspired young minds until it was driven virtually off the stage as arts funding dried up, and how the National Festival of Music for Youth - that wonderful showcase for schools' music - has survived in spite of the decimation of local music advisory services.

And now Virginia Bottomley comes along with Setting the Scene and tells us what teachers have always known. Schools and governors are to be lectured about the integral place of arts in school policy, gaps in LEA support are to be plugged with musical instrument libraries, and national lottery money will also help fund artists in schools and visits to galleries or theatres which, while scarcely innovative, may relieve some of the pressure on parents' pockets.

The National Heritage department will be working with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education as well as the Arts Council, though without any very visible participation by the Department for Education and Employment. Perhaps education ministers are too embarrassed by an exercise which they should long ago have undertaken themselves. The Prime Minister didn't take part in the relaunch of this particular part of our heritage either, but then it isn't quite cricket.

Of course we have to be pleased that some money and prominence are at last to be given to the expressive arts for young people, in or out of school. Opportunities to perform, create, listen and observe are an essential part of a whole curriculum and the development of human personality and spirit, and can enrich or unlock understanding in other subjects too, though talent is unlikely to take flight though national curriculum Orders or inspection, and still less through that unacceptable face of PR, the Artsmark.

Setting the Scene claims to be the first major review of the arts in 25 years, and so it is in Whitehall terms, although that doesn't take account of meatier and more combative reports from the Gulbenkian Foundation, and Arts Council. A boost for culture in the curriculum will be very welcome to all such critics of arts policy, as it will to the teachers and local authorities who have always been good at doing the sort of things Mrs Bottomley is now asking for. But it is hard not to be angry at the way it is being done, or that once again so many of us are paying through our National Lottery taxes.

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