A subject hierarchy created in one stroke

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Ministers’ denials that the EBacc has downgraded the ‘creative’ subjects are dishonest, says Dr Bernard Trafford

I confess that, when the autumn term comes to an end, I usually pray that educational news will calm down as well. Instead of doing so at the end of 2015, something that had been simmering through the autumn raised its head again, and given my background as a music teacher, it was close to my heart.

Plans are afoot for a spectacular new £200 million concert hall in London’s Barbican Centre. The argument is that, when the Queen’s Hall was bombed in the Second World War, the capital lost its finest concert hall. The Royal Festival Hall and Barbican are poor buildings. The Albert Hall is something special: but very particular and enormous.

Birmingham boasts one of the best concert halls in the world: Symphony Hall, opened in the 1980s, was designed (unusually, though that seems peculiar) with the acoustic engineers in at the blueprint stage.

However, a world-class orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra demands a world-class venue. The City, high-profile sponsors and perhaps government will find the money for that concert hall, which will reassert London’s pre-eminence as the music capital of the world.

Against that argument stands a powerful group led by Julian Lloyd-Webber, former solo cellist and now principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire. They aver that, in times of austerity, money should be spent on music education, not on a glitzy performance venue.

They would have a point, if the money were being diverted from arts education. It isn’t. If the concert hall is not built, the £200 million won’t materialise, let alone be put into arts education. I’d argue that we need both.

We certainly must protect arts education. I recently read yet another disingenuous piece where schools minister Nick Gibb trumpeted the success of the EBacc. Since EBacc scores are now a league-table component, schools are under pressure to ensure their pupils sit well-regarded (by ministers) core academic GCSEs rather than using dodgy courses to boost their GCSE figures (as has been alleged).

Okay: except that, at a stroke, government has created a hierarchy of subjects. EBacc signals that there are important courses, and then the “fun” ones – such as art, music, drama, design and technology...

The so-called “creative” subjects have thus been downgraded. Ministers’ protestations to the contrary are dishonest. Yet, perversely, business and employers complain regularly that it is the softer skills which children lack on joining the labour market: team-work, cooperation, initiative, creativity, even punctuality and determination.

It is invidious to claim that one type of subject promotes those qualities more than another: but candidates cannot pass GCSE drama, for example, without working in teams to devise and stage their own creative work.

Sport naturally contributes hugely to pupils’ understanding of team-work: but it doesn’t necessarily present the same challenge in terms of long-term goals. The average school team need look only a week or two ahead to a forthcoming fixture. By contrast the school orchestra, band, choir or show cast may have 12 weeks to prepare the next performance. Music and drama teachers must persuade their pupils that only long-term commitment to regular rehearsal will produce excellent performance. Taking the long and patient view is one of those skills that young people have to learn: it is also another of those qualities the lack of which employers deplore.

This country must promote creative subjects, and prevent their relegation to the bottom of a false hierarchy. Simultaneously London must have a world-class concert hall that will make a powerful statement about the UK’s commitment to the arts. The two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I’d call them symbiotic.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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