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Nothing to Learn From the Culture White Paper

13/04/2016 10:50

Our much-liked minister for culture, Ed Vaizey, has produced a White Paper for culture, only the second of its kind. He is to be praised for putting down a marker for the government on culture. So how do his ideas stack up against the great Jennie Lee, who set the bar 50 years ago in the first ever Culture White Paper, A Policy for the Arts?

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Jennie Lee's thinking, published in 1965, changed how the UK saw and managed culture, as ambitious in her way as Aneurin Bevan's vision for the NHS. She grouped Government support for the arts under "three heads - education, preservation and patronage".

Lee's own story was a tribute to the power of education. From a mining family, she rose to political power and then a peerage via Edinburgh University. This at a time when university was an unattainable dream for most people from her background. While she wrote A Policy for the Arts, she was also the Minister charged with laying the groundwork to create the Open University.

Those were confident times for government. By contrast, Vaizey's Culture White Paper is set against the background of a general retreat by national and local government from culture. And while Bevan's NHS remains a sacred cow for each generation of politicians, Lee's vision has been watered down ever since.

Against this background, Vaizey had been expected to show how creativity drives the wider government agenda. This was to be a great broadening out. That intent is still referred to in the introduction. But it gets lost in the delivery.

When it comes to practicalities, we find a tight focus on the subsidised cultural sector. This is culture as delivered by museums and theatres, not the broad-based culture of film, of gaming, of interactive design and graphic design, nor of the behemoth of culture that is the BBC. It speaks to a government preoccupied by its residual subsidy to bricks and mortar... very literally, in a £20m gesture to cathedral roofs.

The most obvious absence, in contrast to Lee's ideas, is the hole where education used to be.

In this new White Paper, mainstream education gets a look in only to the extent that schools and universities facilitate education programmes in museums and arts centres. The rest is a thin list of existing and limited policies.

There is nothing new on the academic pathways and curriculum that will deliver the future talent of the creative industries. Apprenticeships are mentioned hopefully as a way into technical roles in cultural organisations - a worthy but tiny fraction of the creative industries.

There's a nod to the pupil premium, but no new money to back it. Schools would have to change priorities and there is no incentive to do so. There is also the bland assurance that Ofsted inspectors expect a balanced curriculum and extra-curricular opportunities that extend pupils' knowledge, understanding and skills in a range of artistic, creative and sporting activities.

But as the Cultural Learning Alliance has demonstrated using the Government's own figures, the STEM and EBacc has cut the hours of arts teaching and the number of arts teachers. Since 2010, there has been a 14% decline in the overall number of arts GCSEs taken, and the number of hours the arts were taught in secondary schools has fallen by 10%. Unsurprisingly, the number of arts teachers has dropped by 11%.

When interrogated by Bob and Roberta Smith on Channel 4 News, Vaizey said that his proposal for a Cultural Citizens Programme will get a "cohort of kids from secondary school embedded with an arts organisation". Is this really a better way into the arts than sustained teaching? Initiatives such as this should supplement proper teaching, not supplant it.

The absence of education is poignant given the isolated ministerial quote in the White Paper that "Access to cultural education is a matter of social justice." Perhaps a chapter went missing during the final edit? On the other hand, the quote is from Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, whose department is driving through the EBacc, with the unfortunate side-effect of demolishing cultural education. So perhaps not.

What does this mean? In the current climate, any government commitment to culture is an achievement. But the narrowness of that commitment is a strategy in itself. Withdrawal of government support for cultural education from primary, secondary and tertiary state education has consequences.

We know what Jennie Lee would have made of this.

She thought education was foremost in culture. "The place that the arts occupy in the life of the nation is largely a reflection of the time and effort devoted to them in schools and colleges". In a reflection of our own time and effort, the creative industries will survive, posher and narrower. Sadly, this is consistent with government policy, if not with Vaizey's intent.

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