Don't smother culture, let it breathe

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

This morning, I read Last Tango In Aberystwyth on the way in to work, and booked the latest play at the Old Vic, Speed the Plow with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum, on the way back home. Over the weekend I watched the BBC's new thriller, The Last Enemy, and a couple of episodes of Friends for the umpteenth time.

I'm sure I spent five hours on these activities, but the question is whether they would count in Ed Balls' latest pronouncement about the five hours of culture in schools children are now to be exposed to.

It is probable that he would count Speed the Plow, written by David Mamet, and he might include The Last Enemy - reviewed on the Late Review - but I doubt he would include the rest. For the Children, Schools and Families Secretary has a very high view of culture. In his press release, he announced: "All children and young people should have the chance to experience top quality culture, whether it is seeing a play or dance performance, learning a musical instrument or producing some creative writing."

In some respects, his aims are very laudable. Children have plenty of exposure to popular culture but very little to the so-called high or top quality kind. Taking them to see a Shakespeare play or a concert by the London Philharmonic might stir them in ways that an episode of EastEnders or an iPod rendering of the Arctic Monkeys might not. Seeing a painting by Rossetti or Turner at a gallery might inspire them more then a poster for Hamp;M.

And even if it doesn't cause them to applaud that much, education should in part be about exposing the nation's pupils to things they would not necessarily see or hear in the normal course of their lives. Students on theatre trips when I was a teacher did come away with a different view of the play we had seen, even when it wasn't the best production. They were able to say what it lacked - something they could not have done were it not a live performance.

Nor is it only about observing culture. Mr Balls also talks about pupils participating. He speaks of them learning an instrument or trying out creative writing. Part of the money dedicated to this new initiative is to pay for writers and performance companies to come in and work with pupils. The English National Opera, for example, has a scheme whereby it goes into schools and helps the pupils put on a production.

Writers in schools, where a poet or novelist comes in and works alongside the teacher, can also occur. I remember once organising for a poet to come in for just one afternoon to talk to Year 9: they never forgot the experience. For one thing, they realised that a poet could still be alive; for another, that he could be a man. Years afterwards I bumped in to one of the class and he still had memories of being squashed into a cramped hall where an "amazing" poet read aloud his writing.

All this costs money, but the hope is that it can now be paid for. The Youth Culture Trust is a new body that will oversee the existing Creative Partnerships. It will have pound;110 million over three years and work with around 2,000 schools. But herein lies some of the problems with the initiative. To begin with, the Find Your Talent project is only operating in 10 areas around the country. Part of the project is to see what can be done with the money and part is to see what the problems are. Whether these will ever be fully discussed or even revealed is quite another matter. Another dilemma is how much school time will actually be given to the project. Some of it will be within the school day, but a substantial part may not.

Take a theatre visit. The average performance of a play is two to two and a half hours. Add to that the time it takes to get to the theatre and back and one week's entitlement has already gone. Many trips will, therefore, take part out of school hours. It is the same with an art gallery or a museum visit. One trip and you are down five hours and you have probably trodden on someone else's toes to get them out of school in the first place, however worthwhile the trip. And what if you don't live near a town with a museum or theatre?

But perhaps the most worrying part of the whole endeavour is that it might be possible to fit the five hours into the normal school week. Much of the dedicated five hours that is to be given to culture in a week may be subsumed in the normal course of teaching. Learning about art and craft - one of the chosen areas - could be done in art lessons. Hands-on experience of film, television or radio could be carried out in English, as well as the more obvious creative writing and learning about authors.

This is particularly worrying with a government that has starved the classroom of creativity. It has spent 10 years teaching literacy, where the word creative was markedly absent. Only now has it come back into the English national curriculum. But with the introduction of functional skills tests and exams for each level of the national curriculum being piloted; with art and music being compulsory only until age 14; and drama and media studies being voluntary throughout school life, it looks as if, yet again, culture is something just being bolted on.

Culture, whether popular or high, should be part of the air we breathe, not something given by dictat. Mr Balls needs to rethink his tests and exams, and his targets, and let culture have as many last tangos, anywhere he likes - maybe even Aberystwyth.

A little creativity, page 16

Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education, King's College London.

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