Open Thinkering


Why ‘high culture’ for pupils is highly wrong-headed

BalletBBC News reports that the Children’s Secretary Ed Balls and Culture Secretary Andy Burnham will today launch an initiative that promises access to ‘high-quality cultural activities’. It proposes visits to theatre shows, museums and galleries and the opportunity to learn how to act and play musical instruments. “Great!!” one would think. I disagree.

Whilst learning an instrument and visits to the theatre are things I would want my son Ben to experience, that’s my choice. All too often the middle class way of life is held up as some kind of paradigm. Well yes, on the whole I like it, but it’s not without its problems and shortcomings. If it was all a question of money (and the lack thereof) then I would welcome this with open arms. But it’s not. I can afford to take my family to the ballet, opera and performances of Shakespearean plays but, to be quite honest, I’m not that interested and would rather spend my money on other things.

I think that, like most things the Labour government do as regards education, this initiative is focused not on the individual well-being of children but on a more national picture. Here’s the telling paragraph in the BBC News article:

“[Children] will learn through culture using engagement with the arts and other activities to boost attainment, other skills and personal development.”

So it’s all to do with boosting attainment and making the UK a destination for ‘cultural activities’. I know a lot of people may disagree with me on this one, but I can’t help but feel that this is one part of the population dictating to the rest… 😮

11 thoughts on “Why ‘high culture’ for pupils is highly wrong-headed

  1. I think it is really interesting that they have left it to schools and county councils to decide how the money is spent. What is particularly eyebrow raising is the fact that it mentions students with a particular talent will be supported. Great in theory but if you work in a middle class area and most of your students play instruments, surely they would apply for the lion's share of the money? It appears, on first look, not one part of the population dictating to the rest, but one part encouraging the same part to attend performances. We will see – you know me, I try to be optimistic!

    The other thing that caught my attention was the comments at the bottom saying that the government should change the strictures of the curriculum to allow students to take time off to do cultural activities and not worry abouts SATS and league tables. Yes please! :)

  2. I'm not sure whether it's better for the government to be dictating what kids should be interested in or parents. Listening to R4 this morning, it was still unclear whether the 5 hours a week are meant to come from out of curriculum time or after school. And there seemed to be a pretty broad idea of 'culture' on offer.

    1. Well Doug, I never had you down as a Marxist! ;-)

      I think there's a big difference between promoting 'high culture' (whatever that may be) and 'high quality cultural activities'. While I agree we do need to be mindful of the impact of the hidden curriculum, and that 'class' is still a very powerful, if taboo, influence on schools, I see this as a positive move.

      When I went to see John Cabot school when we were researching models for the SMART programme, one the things that most impressed me was that they made a commitment to ensure all pupils experienced some kind of activity from a list they published. This included theatre and cinema visits, book readings and many more I can't remember. Last year we took all of our year 7 pupils to the theatre to see Kensuke's Kingdom and this had a real impact on many of them, some of whom may otherwise never get to see live drama. Surely THIS is the problem with schools – the narrowing of the curriculum when we should be allowing pupils to experience things they might otherwise not come into contact with, whether that's quadratic equations, a new language or a trip to see an exhibtion of Dali's work?

      The big question now will be whether the government will realise that this is more important than the high-stakes testing and follow Wales and Scotland in scrapping SATs and letting teachers get on with the job of 'educating'
      If we also take into account the announcement last week of plans to make school trips easier ( I'd say the future was looking a bit brighter!

  3. I do disagree with you. The reason to have an arts curriculum is to expose students to the ideas and forms of expression that they might not otherwise have exposure to. When children are raised without a sense of appreciation for music, dance, theatre, visual arts, etc. they are much more likely, as adults, to consider it a frill for the culture to engage in it at all. As taxpayers, they will support removing it from the social agenda because it isn’t something they ever learned anything about. When public dollars do not support it, it ceases to exist. And, just in case you have any illusions… in a society that doesn’t support the arts…the only people who get to engage in artistic endeavors are the very rich… not the middle class.

    There’s a principle here that is, in one respect, more important than whether it’s the arts or sports or community service or civics… exposure means a larger experience base for children than they could otherwise get… if the educational system doesn’t provide exposure to these things, then children can never appreciate or experience anything that the parents don’t already appreciate, which is a limitation pure and simple.

    1. I think two things could be important to try to combine in the way this is implemented:
      – if the power to decide how money is spent can be devolved to schools, can it be further devolved to young people to make decisions?
      – that it gives young people access to new experiences beyond those already available in their everyday life. It might not be bringing students to an opera against their will, but I suspect it does need to challenge them to experience new and sometimes difficult things…

  4. I listened to the same program, and my take on it was that it is aimed at KS3+, although should be for ALL, and is after school. So it is an attempt to increase attainment figures, and yet it is these very figures that are harming our children's education as they relate only to mathematics, English and science.
    What children want to see the ballet… not many, but I am sure SOME will, evenin if it is for the free ice cream in the interval. OK theatre, this does need more support, but who will pay, it isnt cheap, and of course schools DO do theatre as they got to panto at Christmas. (Yes I am looking at primary schools and also agree not all can afford to do this)
    Who will run these clubs/new learning opportunities? will they get paid for it?

  5. Hi Doug

    I agree totally with that there are very middle class and dictatorial overtones to this latest ‘initiative’. I think it is telling also, that it is being left to schools and teachers to introduce this ‘culture’ – they couldn’t possibly trust parents to do this themselves could they? After all these same parents can’t possibly being doing anything educational at all with children ever can they? That’s why parents can’t be allowed to take children out of school for holidays during term time – because the government-dictated curriculum is far more important and ‘educational’ than any cultural event / country / social gathering that a child might visit with his/her family.
    How do MP’s possibly consider themselves qualified to control every aspect of a child’s life? The same people are trying to force mothers out to work full-time, place their children in full-time expensive childcare with Ofsted inspections and curriculum, not allow holidays in term-time – and then worry about lack of children’s exposure to their own definitions of ‘culture’. Quite apart from the highly controversial artistic and philosophical debate around wether theatre is any more valid an art form than film, I object to finding the lives of children being controlled more and more by central authority rather than their own families – however non-conformist these may be.

  6. My earlier response to this post seems to have been swallowed up by my school network so I'll try again…

    As an Art teacher I'm glad of any extra money that might enrich the work that I do with pupils. Given the Government's track record of announcing initiatives and then actually delivering them it remains to be seen how long this will last.
    Dave Stacey is right to say that there is a difference between 'high quality cultural activities' and 'high culture'. The former can include hip-hop and bhangra (for example) as well as opera and ballet. What actually happens in schools will depend on who gets to decide where the money goes.
    In response to Audrey's post I would say that parents will no doubt continue to involve their children in cultural activities – although why these should be a richer experience in term-time rather than out I'm not sure. What this scheme does offer (potentially) is an economy of scale which would allow arts practitioners to deliver workshops and performances that might otherwise prove too expensive for many parents to access individually.
    I wait to see how this works out in practice but I hope it means a richer, broader multicultural experience for the pupils…

  7. No worries Peter – for you I can be Audrey!

    My point about term-time activities is that schools/Headteachers are being made to come down really really hard on parents who want to take their children out of school during term-time. The implication (particularly on our Local Authority standard permission slip) is that whatever you parents are up to is not educational.
    We have parents who have been refused permission to take their children to participate in International level concerts, or to go abroad (not just a beach in Tenerife either – parents here can only take their own holidays out of peak season as this is a tourist destination so they are working during the holidays as a result) because the assumption is that any activity outside school control can't possibly be 'educational'.
    I fear this does not mean a richer broader multicultural experience for pupils, but rather a controlled, cherry-picked experience, dictated from local authorities/schools. Art 'works' from the ground up, impositions of 'culture' are insulting and contrived.

  8. I agree with the idea that children should be given the opportunity to experience 'high quality cultural activity', and I also agree that parents pay a big role in this. I also think that school does too – just because your parents don't fancy going to see a ballet or Shakespeare play doesn't mean that you wouldn't enjoy it, just as kids don't necessarily support the same team as their parents.
    So schools can offer an experience that might not otherwise be forthcoming. I agree with Dave about enriching the curriculum and offering new experiences of whatever kind. I'm loving The Choir at the moment – last week, the 'beatbox-ers' saw how their style of music could be used chorally- and they were inspired. I suspect they go to the Schools Proms at the Royal Albert Hall judging by the photo in the publicity for this Friday's episode – previously not their thing but now…
    I don't know how this will work really, but I'm interested to see.

    With respect to Jo's point above about schools not valuing stuff done outside of the classroom as educational – I'm with you there – my kids' school makes all termtime absence unauthorised (unless you're ill) and fires off a 'you are wasting x days of your child's education that can never be regained' letter regardless of the purpose of the visit. Very annoying!!

    Finally, read an intersting article in yesterday's Telegraph… entitled 'Idle parenting means happy children' – whilst I think it's extreme, I do worry about over controlling kids' lives and not giving them space to be kids.
    I guess it's the balance between offering opportunities, and leaving space for them to decide for themselves.

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