Creative education debate

On Monday I spoke in a debate on creative education secured by my Labour colleague Catherine McKinnell MP.

You can read my speech and the debate in full here. I have also copied my speech below:

I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I will start on a personal note. Thirty-three years ago, in the wake of Aled Jones, who had just got to No. 1 with “Walking in the Air” and who sang in the choir at Bangor cathedral, some primary school teachers at a small school with an unfortunate name, Downhills, in Tottenham decided that a young black boy could be one of the first black cathedral choristers in the country. I wanted to contribute to this debate, despite all that is going on in our country and in this House at the moment, because I am clear that I would not be here as a Member of Parliament were it not for that opportunity to go to one of the country’s best state—I emphasise “state”—cathedral schools, the King’s School in Peterborough, attached to Peterborough cathedral. There I was able to express myself in the context of a fantastic music education, but I also learned the rigours and discipline of music, which is why I take umbrage at the idea that the performing arts, music or drama—I will come on to that—can be sidelined as somehow less than, not as academic as and not as important as other subjects.

I challenge anyone who has got to grade 8 in any part of the musical repertoire to tell me that it is not fantastically hard and difficult to do. If we have a future king, Prince William, who can go to St Andrews and study art history, why are we suggesting that these disciplines should be denied to so many young people in our country? I am hugely concerned at the direction the Government have taken. It is very important to have had the petition and to be having this debate in the House at this time.

In the Government that I was part of as a Culture Minister, there were intense arguments about the place of the arts and the performing arts—music and drama—in the curriculum. The truth is that there were some serious turf wars between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education, but fortunately we achieved great partnerships. We had something called Creative Partnerships—a fantastic scheme that got musicians, architects and performers of all kinds into schools. It was pioneering and much was learned from that scheme. Of course we had to go into the evidence-based arena and try to explain, defend and demonstrate the benefit, but it was a partnership between the DCMS and the Department for Education.

When we look at what is happening in the DCMS under this Government—the White Paper, policies on heritage and support for museums—we get the impression that that Department gets it. The problem is that the DCMS is losing out in the Whitehall turf war; the Department for Education is riding roughshod over it and saying, “No, we are utilitarian in this Department.” It is interesting because it is almost as though, in order to compete with China and India, we have to ensure that the basics—maths, English and science—are there in the curriculum to the exclusion of other subjects, yet ironically, when we speak to leaders in those countries, there is something missing, and that missing component is the British creativity that means that we have one of ​the most important creative economies in the world, and the intangible of how we achieve it. We achieve it because of those fantastic—now I am going to get emotional, thinking of the music teachers who got me here—music, drama and performing arts teachers across our country who are really bringing that into the curriculum. For so many young people, particularly those from more deprived areas, that is sometimes their way through to other parts of the curriculum that feel remote.

I grew up in a home with only two sets of books. We had the “Encyclopedia Britannica”, which took a long time for my mother to buy, on loan, and Mills and Boon. It was my ability to excel at music that enabled me to access other parts of the curriculum. Time after time—we learnt this through Creative Partnerships, the scheme we set up in those years of Tony Blair’s Government—the professionals say that that is how it works, so I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution.

There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that 40% of the jobs that young people who are in primary school today will do when they grow up have not yet been invented, and those jobs will require a degree of creativity. Many of us have an iPhone. The iPhone is nothing as technology alone. Design is at its heart, but those disciplines are dropping out of the curriculum. Design and technology is really losing out in this new horizon.

I recommend the Diamond Fund for Choristers to the Minister, if he does not already know about it. Cathedrals are not struggling to recruit young people from all sorts of backgrounds—things have moved on a lot since I was one of the first working-class choristers, and there are now many across the country—but they do need support, so the Diamond Fund for Choristers has been launched. It is hugely important. Many cathedrals are concerned about what is happening with music.

The Ebacc decision is compounding cuts to local authority support for music across schools. With many schools becoming academies and the Department placing emphasis solely on the more utilitarian subjects, there is not only a collapse because of the EBacc; local authorities are moving away from funding music, local museums and local arts as well.

It is depressing that we are having this argument in the country of Shakespeare, the Beatles, so many wonderful actors who pick up awards internationally and domestically every single year, the west-end theatres, and some of the world’s best musicals. I was Minister for Higher Education and I remember that successive Governments made some very poor decisions which resulted in a huge diminution in language learning. There has just been a big national debate on the importance of Europe; the potential for exchanges like those that people of a certain age in this room may have had with young people in Germany and France has been diminished. This debate is so important because there is a sense, in the petition and in the House, that in this fundamental area of our lives, we are taking the wrong course.

Our debate today is being had in the field of performing arts and is live in universities. I was recently at the London College of Fashion, which with Goldsmiths and all the other art colleges is asking, “Where are the working-class students?” They have disappeared from the system. Of course, they are concerned about fees and the way in which we are forcing young people to make decisions based solely on how much they will earn when they leave education. Excluding expressive arts subjects from the EBacc will compound the problem.

If we want to see the multi-layered complexity of our country played out on our screens, in our music halls and in the charts in the years ahead, it is important that the Minister recognises what hon. Members are saying. Rather than use statistics selectively to defend his corner, he must recognise that people have taken the time to sign the petition and to come here this afternoon because there is a profound problem with the direction that the Government are taking.​

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