Someone change the classical record please!

The government's approach to teaching culture in schools doesn't work.

The government's latest drive to find a solution for teaching culture in schools has missed a big opportunity. It's nothing against Classic FM boss Darren Henley. He had a remit. It's just that ultimately we all know the record and unfortunately adding another layer into the English Baccalaureate doesn't seem like an ideal result for kids or teachers.

The problem is that while we all know teaching cultural subjects for longer in schools should in theory produce more balanced, cultural and artistic young adults, the reality is somewhat different. Teachers we know struggle with making strict curriculum subjects relevant and it feels as though Henley's report will do nothing more than trigger self-professed maths lover Michael Gove into some sort of halfway house, knee-jerk reaction.

I'm not against teaching drama and dance in schools. I do fear, though, that any formal, Department of Education-driven changes may focus too much on the "higher arts" and alienate kids from culture still further. I am also not suggesting that we teach them just street dance, pop songs and Banksy. The balance will no doubt be set but it is the same old methods, formulaic approach and academic expectancy that concern me.

Teaching culture in schools is not about throwing in extra lessons and giving out certificates. Take music. The trouble with teaching music in schools is that it is difficult to define its benefits beyond the obvious value of learning to play an instrument. Yet music at all levels can boost confidence in kids (and adults) and this in turn can open new doors and breed new opportunities. You only have to watch Gareth Malone in The Choir to see it in action.

There should be more music in schools across other subjects and not necessarily as a stand-alone class. Music, dance, drama and art have the ability to feed into many subjects. They are engaging mediums that can bring alive other topics and while I know some teachers try and do this, many are under pressure, working within the constraints of league tables and the three Rs. It is the culture that is the problem and the unwavering insistence on a strict curriculum that no longer has much relevance with the real world we live in.

Is this a bit of government box-ticking perhaps? Is the government jumping on bandwagons and paying lip service to culture in an attempt to keep the critics happy? Either way I cannot see how this will change anything. Gove says he doesn't want it to end up being elitist but it is difficult to see it will be anything but. The good kids with most parental support will get better and the rest will be disenfranchised, again. What it calls for is radicalism, a re-writing of the system and recognition of relevant subjects and reference points while maintaining educational values. Times have changed. Kids are playing downloads but it feels like the government is still stuck on vinyl.

Martyn Ware, former Heaven 17 and Human League musician and founder of the Illustrious Company, will be speaking at X Media Lab Bath on 16 March.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue