Music and meritocracy

The charts are dominated by public school pop stars. What does that tell us about meritocracy in Bri

The days when working-class lads and lasses with guitars would dominate the charts are gone. Today's pop stars are the expensively educated progeny of the middle classes, according to a new survey by The Word magazine.

During one week this October, 60 per cent of chart acts had been educated at private schools, compared to just 1 per cent during the same week in 1990. Pop music can now be added to the media, politics and law in the long list of public spheres dominated by the products of private schools.

Potential pop stars in the state education system don't stand much of a chance. Music has no place in a system obsessed with league tables. Excellent music facilities do not improve the number of students getting 5 A*-C. As a result, some local authorities dedicate as little as £1.15 per child per year for teaching music (£).

Unless they are pushed on at home, children in the state sector get virtually no access to music lessons – and even when they do, the teaching leaves much to be desired. In my local authority, lessons last 20 minutes and are shared with up to four different pupils. As a result, a child in the state sector can, in effect, expect five minutes' individual tuition a week.

The decline of music in schools in no recent phenomenon. The fundamental blows came under the previous Conservative government. The Education Reform Act 1988 defined instrumental lessons as "non-essential", meaning local authorities no longer had any obligation to provide music services to pupils. In 1993, further legislation was passed that allowed local authorities to pass on the cost of lessons to parents, reducing access to music teaching solely to those who could afford it. Labour failed to rectify this situation in its 13 years in power.

Is it any wonder that the pop charts are today flooded with former private-school kids? This situation is not unique to music. It's the same story in sport.

More than half of Britain's medals in the 2008 Olympics came from privately educated athletes. Britain did well in slightly leftfield disciplines such as rowing, sailing and cycling – sports that are expensive and the preserve of private schools.

Recent coalition proposals to scrap the School Sports Partnerships would yank away the chance offered to poor kids to try a sport that did not involve chasing a ball around a field. If Michael Gove's cuts are approved, unless you are good at rugby, hockey or football, sport is not for you if you are at a state school.

The cuts in sport and the ongoing evisceration of music in schools is part of a wider trend in state education that denigrates any part of the curriculum that does not result in a palpable economic benefit at the end of it.

Students need a good understanding of maths, English and natural sciences to succeed in the workplace. But they also need the confidence to present to a room and a competitive streak.

These soft skills are gained outside the classroom, through music, sport and drama. As state schools chip away at these activities, such skills will increasingly become the preserve of the privately educated.

The reason why politics, journalism and the media are dominated by former private school pupils is not because private schools produce students with better grades. Privately educated pupils receive a well-rounded education – with plenty of emphasis on the arts and sports, and all the benefits that this brings.

Forget about a few posh kids dominating pop music. The problem is much bigger than that. If the UK is to retain any semblance of a meritocracy, its education system must go beyond the fundamentals. Students need music and they need sport. The sooner Gove realises this, the better.

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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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