Elegy for the lost arts

6th June 2003 at 01:00
As music and drama disappear in state schools, private schools can boast of an artistic golden age, says Nicholas Pyke.

You can trust private schools to know when they are on to a good thing. And the arts, they have decided, are a good thing.

If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, a re-run would look to victory in the hundreds of rehearsal rooms and drama studios springing up in every corner of the independent sector, where creative achievement has risen to pride of place alongside sporting prowess.

It is even true at Gordonstoun in the wilds of Scotland, an institution famous for its outdoor curriculum, where the regime of cross-country runs and cold showers was famously loathed by a teenaged Prince of Wales.

Thirty years later, the first two images on the school's electronic prospectus show a student playing the trumpet and a girl seated at an easel. Sailing, climbing and rugged pursuits dominate the rest, but the point is clear enough. Parents and pupils are impressed by art, music and drama.

As myths of empire recede and the muscular brand of teamwork associated with them falls out of favour, so public schools have reinvented themselves. The result, from an artistic point of view, is impressive.

St Paul's boys' school in west London, to take a random example, boasts a purpose-built music centre regularly used by professional performers. It has a specialist drama block, opened by arts guru Sir Jonathan Miller, and a four-storey building devoted to the plastic arts, including a gallery for outside exhibitors.

Over on the other side of south London, the less-fashionable St Dunstan's College can run to 15 full-scale drama productions a year as well as two orchestras, several choirs, a string quartet and a jazz band.

There are outstanding performers in the state sector, too, as the TESMusic for Youth Schools Prom demonstrates every year. Wardle high school in Rochdale and Abraham Darby in Telford, both regulars at the Albert Hall, are good examples, as are those schools given the Arts Council's ArtsMark award.

One of these is Phoenix high school in Hammersmith, just round the corner from St Paul's school, which runs an impressive out-of-hours programme of dance, rock, rap and drama.

It needs pointing out, however, that while St Paul's works out which classical ensembles are next to appear in its new concert hall, at Phoenix the children are pushing the desks to the side of the classrooms to make space.

More seriously, the Phoenix arts project is entirely paid for out of government regeneration money. Without this, says head William Atkinson, nothing cultural would be take place at all.

His views are echoed by Don Gibbons, head of Idsall school in rural Shropshire. Although his specialist sports college has a flourishing out-of-hours arts and music programme, he says it is not sustainable on staff goodwill alone.

To put it on a proper footing, Idsall needs to pay peripatetic teachers from the outside - which at present is what happens in sport - but, as yet, the cash is nowhere to be seen.

Added to the cash pressures are constant changes to the curriculum, increasing workload and the multiplying number of exams that have made life difficult for art, drama and music departments in all schools.

Local authorities have also been vulnerable and when they have been asked to retrench, support for the arts through such things as the peripatetic music service has been chopped. Private schools, meanwhile, enjoy longer and more flexible hours, better facilities and more supportive parents, not to mention the freedom to teach as they choose.

The point was made with depressing clarity by Nicholas Hytner, the new director of the National Theatre. Writing in the Observer, he said that in the arts we risked creating a two-tier educational system, with independent schools able to take pupils to the theatre while state schools struggled to do so.

"I have recently been in correspondence with a Midlands headmaster whose staff resist him 'letting children out' to see the very things their parents are helping, through their taxes, to subsidise."

It is no surprise, then, that privately-educated pupils are disproportionately represented at musical conservatoires. Trinity College reckons that around a third of its students come from the private sector.

At the Royal College, it is more than half.

Gavin Henderson, principal of Trinity, says they face a difficult choice because while council music services have been collapsing, private schools have been taking up the slack.

"Actually the standard of playing increased at the same time as the maintained sector was being run down," he says."The dilemma facing the conservatoires is that the supply chain has got narrower, but better."

Primary schools have suffered the most. As the TES Target Creativity campaign demonstrates, most forms of spontaneous activity have been squeezed to the margins under pressure from what heads recently called the "three Ts": tests, targets and league tables.

Roy Prentice, head of art, design and museology (museum study) at London University's Institute of Education, confirms that his subject, too, is struggling at primary school thanks to huge pressures from the Government.

There are signs that things are changing in Whitehall, thanks in part to the arrival of Charles Clarke as Education Secretary. When the detail of last week's primary strategy is examined, it looks more like a mild deviation than the vaunted "U-turn" on the importance of tests. But as an acknowledgement that there is a problem in the balance between assessment and creativity, it was significant. On the same day, he told a group of leading international instrumentalists that much more needs doing to help school music.

The Government's change of heart probably began with the 1999 report of the national advisory committee on creative and cultural education, chaired by Professor Ken Robinson, from Warwick University.

The committee, which included performers Dawn French and Lenny Henry, warned that "current priorities and pressures in education inhibit the creative abilities of young people and those who teach". It recommended that the arts and humanities be given parity with English, maths and science.

That has not yet happened. But there have been some significant developments, such as Creative Partnerships, set up so that artists and craftspeople can work with teachers in deprived areas.

Following Robinson's report, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority conducted two three-year studies on arts and creativity, and is about to launch new guidelines to help promote them through the curriculum.

Ministers also used pound;30 million of lottery money to establish the National Foundation for Youth Music (now called Youth Music) to promote singing and playing out of school hours.

A few weeks ago, it agreed to establish a national agency to promote youth dance. Even the chief inspector, David Bell, has suggested that anxiety about the tests has had a suffocating influence in some primary schools.

Whether such encouraging sentiments translate into long-term action is yet to be seen. Some primary schools dare to break the rules, which is to say that they have the confidence to make sure that creative subjects get a fair crack of the whip.

Some secondary schools manage, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of individual teachers, to produce music and drama that ranks with the best the independent sector can produce.

Most headteachers, however, believe with Ken Robinson that real improvement depends on a wholesale change in the current priorities and pressures heaped upon them - and that will involve a battle-and-a-half.

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