Why Cameron must not abolish the culture department

The abolition of the DCMS would be a disaster for the creative industries.

As we approach the Olympics, rumours that the government is planning to abolish the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – the creative industries' place at the cabinet table (as well as heritage, the arts, libraries, sport, the media and tourism to name just a few) – are becoming more widespread, and more grounded.

Anyone who works in the arts and the creative industries understands their worth – not only in terms of the value they provide to us as consumers, but the value they add to our economy; 1.5 million jobs and more than 10% of the UK’s exports – this is not a sector which should be underestimated or sidelined. A recent report by the Institute of Economic Affairs claimed that closing DCMS would save £1.6bn, a figure which will appeal to this government as they plan policy based on short-term savings, rather than long-term strategy. This figure is based almost wholly on funding which is distributed to other organisations such as the Arts Council. To make these savings in their entirety would mean abolishing schemes such as free museum entry.

The other, more likely, option which it is rumoured the government is actively considering, would be the redistribution of the elements of DCMS to other, beefed-up, Whitehall departments: the creative industries to Business, Innovation and Skills, Sport to Health or Education and Heritage perhaps to Communities and Local Government. To do this would be very, very short sighted.

The arts and creative industries provide both massive cultural and economic benefit. A decade of free entry to our museums and galleries has seen visitor numbers more than double from seven million to 18 million a year; a child at school in Britain today rightly has free access to learn about our important heritage and history.

Through the flagship creative partnership scheme, which Labour introduced, a young person had the opportunity to develop their creative skills and learn about work in the creative industries; a scheme which has been cut by this government. We are now able to enjoy festivals which embrace our unique identity, and our ability to lead in the world of culture – the Manchester International Festival, Animation Exeter, Sheffield Doc/Fest; all of these are the result of the championing of the DCMS during the Labour years.

Labour also understands that the arts and creative industries more than earn their worth. Free entry to museums has meant that not only have visitor numbers increased, they also earn Britain over £1bn a year in revenue from overseas tourists.

Creative industries rely on three elements which, although not perfect, were successfully fine-tuned in the last decade; a strong intellectual property framework (although this could be made stronger), a wide variety of skills with leading universities such as Central St Martin’s and the University of Brighton, and incentives to encourage exports, and inward investment. Fashion, for example, recruits heavily from UK graduates and contributes nearly £21bn to the UK economy. Since 1999, this vibrant sector has grown by an average annual rate of 3.3% and shows no sign of slowing down, despite the double-dip recession made in Downing Street.

But our position as a world leader becomes threatened without a department which champions the arts and creative industries and represents them at the government’s top table. We have already seen the disregard in which David Cameron and George Osborne hold these important sectors with the budget announcement on the heritage tax, and the misguided philanthropy cap. Thanks to a strong campaign from arts and heritage organisations, the latter has now been one of many U-turns, and the former has seen a partial U-turn but still leaves 93% of listed buildings in danger. The proof remains – we cannot allow the creative industries, the arts, heritage, libraries, tourism, sport and the media to be without a champion at the heart of government. 

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Harriet Harman, raised concerns at the potential abolition of the Department in April this year, at which point Number 10 stated that “it did not recognise” the reports, and yet these rumours persist. If David Cameron is serious about the arts and creative Industries, he should give a categorical assurance that he will not abolish this important department - unlikely to be forthcoming in the short term.

Last week, Labour held a reception with over 150 figures from the creative industries to demonstrate the immense talent and potential which these industries hold. The reception was attended by not only the shadow DCMS team, but also members of the shadow treasury, business, innovation and skills and education teams. Hundreds of people are feeding into our report A Vision for Jobs and Growth in the Creative Industries which focuses on what the government should be doing to provide much needed support – not one person has advocated the abolition of DCMS.

We know that the success of these vibrant industries relies not just on the continued existence of the department, but also on a department which champions it across government, and fights its corner. The abolition of DCMS would be a disaster for one of Britain’s true success stories, and we must not allow that to happen.

Will Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's department survive the reshuffle? Photograph: Getty Images.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

Getty
Show Hide image

"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”