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6 December 2010

Music and meritocracy

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

By Duncan Robinson

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.

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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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