Sunday, 30 March 2008

A cultural High Five

'The second-rate mind is in command of the ponderously spoken platitude. In the liberal rhetoric, raised to principle' (C. Wright Mills, 'The Power Elite')

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced the 'Cultural Offer', which aims to 'give young people the chance to discover and develop their talents with the intention, ultimately, to offer children five hours of arts and culture a week, in and outside of the school day. This will include the chance to:
* perform on stage and attend top quality performances, exhibitions at museums and galleries, and heritage sites;
* get hands-on experience of the creative industries including film making, radio and TV;
* learn a musical instrument, and take part in a musical performance in front of an audience;
* produce creative writing and appreciate authors and how they work;
* learn about - and practise – new media and digital art; and
* develop art and craft skills.'

Having worked in the arts for nearly 20 years I think I understand the a) apparent scale of the ambition, b) absolutely zero chance it has of being effected in reality and c) the flimsiness of the supposed benefits - and the fallacy of the 'creative learning agenda'. Let's have a look at them one by one...

a) Look at the bullet points again. They all seem very laudable. But wait! Should there be an 'and' or an 'or' between each of them?; do they really mean that every child has to take part in all of these activities, totalling five hours per week - in which case, those young people who have no artistic inclination are going to have a really rotten time, considering for one that they're going to have to 'take part in a musical performance in front of an audience' - or is it actually that some young people might take part in some of the activities; a much more prosaic aim. So, one young person's English lesson will go towards the 'produce creative writing' element, whilst their attendance in art will enable them to 'develop art and craft skills'. And those that are in a band outside school, and/or go to a gig, that will count towards their 'five hours' (and you can bet your bottom dollar that when the reality behind the linguistic soft-soaping is exposed, this is eventually how it will be counted, and justified).

And what is meant by, and who defines, 'top quality performances'? I'll wager my judgement is different from yours. Is every young person in the country going to be taken to the opera (and where's everybody else going to sit)? Or the X-Factor? Can they go local to am-dram, or is the Royal National Theatre the one that 'counts'? Does one two hour average play 'count' more than one one hour very good one?

And then there's the five hours of sport that is already part of the Government's 'commitment to young people'? Presumably that stays, so we now have ten hours of directed time per week - with the implication that a large part of this total should take place in addition to the school day (after all, if it took place within, the school day would be about 15 hours long).

Many people I know that work in the arts see the 'Cultural Offer' as a vaguely good thing, if a little cumbersome; after years of the Tories - when the 'fight' for arts education was at its most strident - the New Labour approach to the arts enabled everybody to jump on board. Once those in power started to talk about the Creative Learning Agenda, and ploughing money into Creative Partnerships, the arts community rolled over and had its belly tickled. The claims were grandiose; a whole new approach to the curriculum - with creativity at the core - was going to transform young peoples' learning, develop their self-esteem (although developing self respect would have been much more useful, and might have resulted in a few less youngsters shouting, showing their knickers and throwing up on a Saturday night) and offer a whole sector of new career opportunities.

Now, I've looked through the Government and Creative Partnership's website - you can too, on the left - and I can't find, after six years or so, one concrete example of any wide-ranging positive impact on the lives of young people. And I look around, and at other statistics, and see (as I mention below) that literacy and numeracy standards - the basic building blocks of a child's 'opportunity' - have plummeted disastrously, and violence among young people is on the increase, with catastrophic results (maybe somebody should be commissioned to establish a causal link between engagement in the arts and subsequent propensity to violence?).

So (phew), we get to the nub of it; New Labour knew that, to get the liberals onside, they had to adopt the language - 'empowerment', 'opportunity', 'creativity', 'cultural offer'- used by the arts community; as Hywel Williams argues very persuasively ('Britain's Power Elites - The Rebirth of a Ruling Class'), all elites need to construct their own 'meaning', to the exclusion of others, and can then retain and exploit power for its own sake. Those of us who have worked with young people know the positive effect that arts activity can have on some of them (and, indeed, that access to the arts is a complex but genuine concern); but we should also know the limits of that impact, and that it is certainly not appropriate for all (I hated biology, metalwork and chemistry at school, and if forced to do five hours a week in and outside of school, no matter how it was taught, I would've run a mile; others didn't, and that's called a diverse, pluralist, multi-skilled society).

But the arts community will jump at the money - the closeness to power and the 'validity of purpose' such closeness engenders will ensure that they do - the language will become more feelgood but opaque, the benefits even more so, and the kids will wonder if they'll ever have time to just fucking relax.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The 'Transformational Government Programme'

There really is such a programme, and its title is intentionally, and scarily, accurate; its aim is to transform the relationship between the Government and the people. The whole population is to be logged, followed, managed, and 'transformed', once again demonstrating that - if not in the matter of slaughter, but certainly in terms of state ambition and control-freakery - New Labour has no rival other than Stalin.

An example is the National Pupil Database (NPD). This is a staging post on the road to a national ID card, with children and young people being used as a form of 'mission creep' - as you can see in the report on the No2ID link on the left. The NPD tags all children with 40 pieces of information - from behaviour to ethnicity - without consent, and in perpetuity, and a similar database does the same for teenagers. The Government's Every Child Matters programme also logs everyone until the age of 18, with children 'at risk' being 'tagged' for further intervention.

Meanwhile the Education Secretary Ed Balls - that maniacal, evangelical stare can only belong to somebody attempting to attone for a lifetime of surname-related abuse (and his wife Yvette Cooper's refusal to take his surname is either an admirable symbol of feminist independence, or for some other reason that must cut him to the quick...) - has denied, despite overwhelming published research, that Government interference and mismanagement in primary and secondary education over the past decade has irretrievably damaged the numeracy and literacy of a generation of schoolchildren.

So, a child aged 5 in 1997 has been subject to countless initiatives, tested to distraction, taught by ever-more-stressed teachers desperate to achieve marks rather than education, and now emerges at 16 liable to be less numerate and literate than a teenager from the generation before. And, if their lack of development has contributed to some 'behavioural problems', they're marked for the rest of their lives. As a letter-writer in today's Independent remarked, in terms of damage to Britain this could - really - be the worst Government ever.