The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art 

Serpentine Gallery, London, W2: Yoko Ono: To The Light, 19 June – 9 September

The first London exhibition of Yoko Ono’s work for a decade, To The Lights surveys the 50-year career of an artist who may, after her lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Venice Biennale, have finally succeeded in turning the spotlight away from her marriage to John Lennon and onto her art. Featuring key works, archive material and new installations, films and performances, the exhibition will draw out enduring themes in Ono’s work, not least her faith in the sixties’ ideals of ‘peace and love’, seen in new participatory project SMILE, which uses multimedia to collate the smiles of those who view her work.

Film    

BFI Southbank, London, SE1: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry + Q&A with Alison Klayman, 17 June

Alison Klayman’s timely and engrossing documentary follows dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei over three years, from the Tate Modern sunflower seeds installation of 2009 to his two-and-a-half month detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011.  Klayman gains unprecedented access to Weiwei at a time when his social networking activity and growing international reputation are met by intensified government censorship. Catch this sensitive and ultimately celebratory film at BFI Southbank together with a Q&A with Klayman.

Theatre 

New Diorama Theatre, London, NW1: Borges and I, Idle Motion Theatre Company, 19 – 23 June

Fringe success Idle Motion return with their award-winning show about Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. Borges and I interweaves scenes from Borges’s life and writings, which lend themselves to Idle Motion’s distinctive blend of prop-based visual and physical theatre, honed since the actors’ met at school. The multimedia show portrays Borges on the brink of blindness, and features fantastical imagery from labyrinths and tigers to a love story and universe of libraries.

Music

Barbican Hall, London, EC2Y: Sir Simon Rattle/Vienna Philharmonic, 17 June

Grab a ticket to see Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic perform the Third Symphonies of Schumann and Brahms in a programme of musical borrowing. Brahms’s romantic, evocative work, written in 1883, borrows from Schumann’s symphony, known as the "Rhenish" after a happy visit to the Rhineland with his wife Clara. Rattle’s much-publicised tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic has seen a focus on the German Expressionist canon, notably at the Proms in 2010. Here he conducts the dramatic and challenging Six Pieces for Orchestra by Webern, who continued the German musical legacy by borrowing from Brahms, with an orchestra no less renowned for its skill and sound.

Festivals  

Various UK locations: London Festival 2012, 21 June – 9 September

Thursday sees the start of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the four-year Cultural Olympiad leading up to the Olympic Games. The festival will be Britain’s biggest, with some 12,000 events and performances of dance, music, theatre, film and much more across the country. Highlights include the World Shakespeare Festival and Big Dance 2012, the country’s largest ever celebration of dance. Events to mark the opening include The Voyage, an interactive spectacle from 21 – 24 June in Birmingham city centre; a pyrotechnic firework extravaganza above Lake Windermere on 21 June; and the Peace One Day Global Truce concert in Londonderry. Visit the website to download a brochure.

Thinker and dissident: Ai Weiwei is the subject of a new documentary (Photo: Peter Parks/Getty Images)
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times