"Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why authentic creation is a gift to the future".
What is going on in the jungle that is education? Last week, I reported Maria Miller, Culture Secretary, saying: "The arts remain a core component of any child's education. They are a must- have not an add-on". Miller also claimed that: "Our government is making great strides to ensure that the arts are a central part of every child's education." Note the careful wording. There is disagreement in Whitehall.
According to the Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA), the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, with a particular emphasis upon science, technology, engineering and maths, has had an adverse effect on arts subjects. Since its introduction, 21% of schools with a high proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals have withdrawn arts subjects and the number of young people taking arts GSCE has declined by 14%.
Michael Gove, Education Secretary, is determined to raise academic standards and few would argue against that. However, schools are under pressure to become autonomous, to set their own curriculums and budgets and to move away from local authority control and there is an argument that this policy together with a greater focus on narrow performance measures and less money is undermining the arts in education. Contrary to government claims, CLA report a decrease in the provision of arts subjects. This matters. The "creative industries" contribute 5.2% of GDP, provide 5.6% of jobs and are one of the fastest growing parts of the economy.
Many will be cheering on Mr. Gove in his fight with the education establishment, but his radicalism risks turning into dogma. Dogma is deaf and blind. How else can one explain the disconnection between official government policy to support the arts in education, declining provision and the ambition to improve numeracy and literacy? There is significant evidence that arts education from an early age contributes to improved literacy, numeracy, perceptual and language skills as well as social, personal and intellectual development. (see Cultural Learning Alliance; The Power Of Music by Susan Hallam)
I know from personal experience the impact that music has upon primary school children from the age of four. I am a trustee of London Music Masters (LMM), a charity established five years ago to remedy the lack of high quality musical opportunities for children in inner city schools. By teaching entire classes how to play the violin, LMM has helped to transform the lives of some of the most disadvantaged children in London. I interviewed Lilian Umekwe, the Principal of Jessop Primary in Brixton for my book and she told me:
"When I arrived five years ago, the school was in special measures and on the verge of being closed down. We now have 400 pupils from 40 nationalities. Most are so poor they are entitled to free school meals. But we are now above the national average having been bottom of the league and our most recent OFSTED report was 'outstanding'. It is hard to find the words to describe the impact LMM has had. The children learn valuable technical skills which does wonders for their self confidence. And the children have the privilege of learning
together. They learn social skills and how to trust and support each other. The children now have such self confidence that they believe they can achieve. We would not have been able to achieve any of this without music and London Music Masters. They should be in every school".
Unfortunately, Lillian's wish cannot be fulfilled. There is no public money. LMM is entirely private funded. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, LMM offers undreamed of opportunities and hope to children whose circumstances often appear hopeless. We must wish the Culture Secretary well and encourage her to persuade her fellow ministers to acknowledge the evidence that the arts empower the young and that by investing in arts education, we will develop a more dynamic economy and become an even more creative, innovative and interesting country. Surely, this is not very difficult to understand?
John Nickson is the author of Giving Is Good For You: Why Britain Should Be Bothered And Give More. He is donating his royalties to charity.