The Friday arts diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Design

Valentino: Master of Couture, Somerset House, London WC2, 29 November 2012 – 3 March 2013

Recently described by Decca Aitkenhead as looking like "a mafia boss who has been confined under a sunbed for the past 20 years, then dressed as an Edwardian dandy", Valentino is arguably most iconic fashion designer of the last century. Somerset House is currently showing 130 of his most delightfully impractical creations in a retrospective exhibition. If you’re able to screen out the sycophantic fawning over "the life of the master" which constitutes the first part of the show, it’s worth persevering for the chance to admire close-up the hand-stitched masterpiece that is Princess Marie Chantal of Greece’s wedding dress. This Saturday there is also a screening of the outstanding Storyville documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor– indispensible for anyone seeking to properly appreciate the craftsmanship of the clothes and the eccentricity of their designer. Best of all, this show offers all the guilty pleasure you get from flicking through the latest issue of Vogue, with the smug satisfaction that what you’re looking at is culturally credible. Hey, it’s in an art gallery, after all.

Music

Sharon Van Etten,  Shepherds Bush Empire, London W12, 3 December

Yes, we're just as sick of hearing about trendy new "Brooklyn-based singer-songwriters" as you are, but Sharon Von Etten, though she resides in the aforementioned New York borough, is a cut above your average hipster. Her 2012 album Tramp has slowly but steadily been gaining international acclaim, and she has developed a near-fanatical following for her hauntingly mournful music. This show at the Shepherds Bush Empire is the only chance to catch her in the UK this year, so grab tickets while you still can.

Film

Nordic Film Festival, various locations, London, until 5 December

Nordic television has swept these shores and it seems film-makers want a slice of their success with the first Nordic film festival in the UK. A range of independent films from Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden will be shown. Tonight’s opening film is Love is all you need at the Ciné Lumière. The Danish feature film is a romantic comedy and was part of the official festival selections at the Venice Film Festival 2012 and Toronto International Film Festival 2012

Theatre

A Clockwork Orange, Soho Theatre, London W!, until 5 January 2013

This all-male adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s controversial dystopian novel has been widely praised. Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s testosterone-filled production has Martin McCreadie take on the role of Alex, the charismatic yet terrifying young man hellbent on enjoying some "ultraviolence" with his friends.

Set in Manchester the play seems apt following the riots, according to the Independent review, and the fury and anger unleashed by the characters is not too dissimilar from the scenes we saw in August 2011, only violence in this ‘horrorshow’ is directed at citizens of the same society.

Art

Antony Gormley, White Cube, Bermondsey,London SE1, 28 November - 10 February 2013

Antony Gormley claims that his latest exhibition has been three decades in the conception. The artist who brought us the Angel of the North has never lacked ambition, so we shouldn't be be surprised to discover that what he has created this time is a cross between an art work and a climbing frame.

Gormley has filled Britain’s biggest commercial space – the White Cube Bermondsey - with an overwhelming maze-like sculpture, created from more than 100 tonnes of steel welded together. Viewers are invited to walk, climb, crawl through it -  “whatever they want really,” the artist saqys airily. 

Valentino with model Natalia Vodianova (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/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