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.

Follow @DuncanRobinson on Twitter.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.