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  1. Culture
1 March 2012updated 05 Oct 2023 8:54am

Someone change the classical record please!

The government's approach to teaching culture in schools doesn't work.

By Martyn Ware

The government’s latest drive to find a solution for teaching culture in schools has missed a big opportunity. It’s nothing against Classic FM boss Darren Henley. He had a remit. It’s just that ultimately we all know the record and unfortunately adding another layer into the English Baccalaureate doesn’t seem like an ideal result for kids or teachers.

The problem is that while we all know teaching cultural subjects for longer in schools should in theory produce more balanced, cultural and artistic young adults, the reality is somewhat different. Teachers we know struggle with making strict curriculum subjects relevant and it feels as though Henley’s report will do nothing more than trigger self-professed maths lover Michael Gove into some sort of halfway house, knee-jerk reaction.

I’m not against teaching drama and dance in schools. I do fear, though, that any formal, Department of Education-driven changes may focus too much on the “higher arts” and alienate kids from culture still further. I am also not suggesting that we teach them just street dance, pop songs and Banksy. The balance will no doubt be set but it is the same old methods, formulaic approach and academic expectancy that concern me.

Teaching culture in schools is not about throwing in extra lessons and giving out certificates. Take music. The trouble with teaching music in schools is that it is difficult to define its benefits beyond the obvious value of learning to play an instrument. Yet music at all levels can boost confidence in kids (and adults) and this in turn can open new doors and breed new opportunities. You only have to watch Gareth Malone in The Choir to see it in action.

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There should be more music in schools across other subjects and not necessarily as a stand-alone class. Music, dance, drama and art have the ability to feed into many subjects. They are engaging mediums that can bring alive other topics and while I know some teachers try and do this, many are under pressure, working within the constraints of league tables and the three Rs. It is the culture that is the problem and the unwavering insistence on a strict curriculum that no longer has much relevance with the real world we live in.

Is this a bit of government box-ticking perhaps? Is the government jumping on bandwagons and paying lip service to culture in an attempt to keep the critics happy? Either way I cannot see how this will change anything. Gove says he doesn’t want it to end up being elitist but it is difficult to see it will be anything but. The good kids with most parental support will get better and the rest will be disenfranchised, again. What it calls for is radicalism, a re-writing of the system and recognition of relevant subjects and reference points while maintaining educational values. Times have changed. Kids are playing downloads but it feels like the government is still stuck on vinyl.

Martyn Ware, former Heaven 17 and Human League musician and founder of the Illustrious Company, will be speaking at X Media Lab Bath on 16 March.

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