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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.