Where to hear he sound of excellence;News amp; opinion;Opinion

5th November 1999 at 00:00
IF TONY Blair really wants to discover a culture of excellence rather than excuses in one public service, he should hurry on down to the Albert Hall next week. And if he can manage to fight his way in through the eager throngs of school pupils, parents, teachers and other fans, he could become part of a notable experience.

This year the Schools Prom celebrates its 25th anniversary, but what matters is that it has consistently provided a public showcase for the National Festival of Music for Youth, which is to say the very best of schools music, and has done it with a verve, style and quality which demonstrate every year that music still thrives in our classrooms.

It would have been easy to make excuses for schools music during many of those 25 years, for not putting on such a high-octane performance, or even for cancelling the show altogether. Time after time, our philistine politicians have sidelined the arts when it came to curriculum reform - and somehow forgotten about music altogether when they reorganised local authority finance.

It became progressively harder to provide instruments or tuition for children whose parents couldn't afford to pay for them, or for local authorities to sustain music advisory services or their magnificent youth orchestras. Money spent on their organisation, nurture and rehearsal to concert standard counted officially as money held back for bureaucracy.

Yet in spite of everything excellence, rather than excuses, has remained the keynote. Every year, young performers have touched professional standards for everything from flute quartets to stop-the-show jazz solos. Swaying across the auditorium, the kids in the audience may treat it like a football match in their passionate support for the home-team performers. But there is a serious message behind the reprises of "Land of Hope and Glory" (apart from misgivings about the junior jingoism), and I believe it is about excellence.

It is impossible to sit through one of those concerts without reflecting how much talent, dedication and sustained hard work has been put in by both the young performers and their teachers. It couldn't happen, against all the odds and cutbacks, without those teachers working way beyond their prescribed hours and duties to nurture in their pupils a self-discipline and inspiration that should illuminate the rest of their schooling and lives.

Oddly enough, those are the very virtues ministers used to cite when they wanted to put money into sport for young people, though they never seemed able to transfer the idea to the arts. I was particularly struck by this thought at a Schools Prom during the leaner Tory years, when the banners were pleading us to "Keep Music Alive in our Schools", but John Major as prime minister preferred to give his backing and our money to sports academies.

On that occasion Virginia Bottomley was there to say the right things. It has often been a culture, rather than an education minister, who accepted an invitation, as if it wasn't really anything to do with schools.

Neil Kinnock brought his family once, as Labour's shadow education spokesman, and Cherie Blair also came with the children (but without Tony) in Opposition. John McGregor was one Conservative education secretary who attended and was impressed. "It's so good that we obviously don't need to put any more money into schools music" he joked (I think).

Now David Blunkett is providing extra money and support for music - partly, I suspect, in response to The TES campaign - and next week he will be a most welcome guest at the 25th Schools Prom. So will Prince Charles, that other spokesman for excellence. I hope they both enjoy themselves - and spread the word.

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