The arts continue to be cut

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

Dr Bernard Trafford discusses yet more evidence that policy-makers view the arts as being unessential

It’s always gratifying to be proved right even if one’s forecast was less than palatable. In truth, my last SecEd column was less a prediction than a commentary: news out last week furnished not so much blinding proof of my rightness as tangential corroboration. Let me explain.

On January 25, the Daily Mail reported a £30 million “fire sale” being announced by the Ministry of Defence. Smarting from the pain of having to administer swingeing cuts, MoD’s wheeze is to close the famous Royal School of Military Music and to sell off its Twickenham home, Kneller Hall, which should attract a tidy sum.

That’s logical, isn’t it? We’re paring down our spending on defence: if we’re still agonising about the cost of our nuclear deterrent, by comparison the place where servicemen and women learn to march in time and play music for events like the Trooping of the Colour and Buckingham Palace’s Changing of the Guard is a soft target.

No lives will be lost: no soldiers will be inadequately protected by not having a row of euphoniums behind them; and, frankly, when you’ve heard one military march you’ve heard them all. Besides, the best ones are American, written by Sousa.

These are hard times, austerity is biting and we all have to tighten our belts. So the military loses some glitz, but its ability to fight and afford protection at home and abroad is unaffected. Job done. At this point you might ask, what has this to do with secondary education? In my view, quite a lot.

In that last article of mine (, I complained that government’s promotion of the EBacc has given rise to a hierarchy of subjects in which creative subjects are undervalued relative to others. Having arrived at the bottom of the curricular heap, they receive less attention, looser focus and fewer resources. Kneller Hall is in its own right a college of music.

To be sure, it’s somewhat different from the Royal Academy, the Royal College and the other conservatoires. It nonetheless trains musicians to a professional level of performance: moreover, on leaving the services many Kneller Hall graduates go on to teach boys and girls to play musical instruments in schools.

(Parenthetically, those military musicians are also trained to act as paramedics and stretcher-bearers heroically saving lives and treating the horrific injuries caused by modern armaments under enemy fire).

See where I’m going? I can already hear the hawkish voices taking issue with me. What kind of idiot would prioritise a few shiny bands above the troops and expensive weaponry essential to maintaining a viable military and deterrent?

I would answer: that’s not my job. I was caught up in the same argument a few years ago after stating publicly that Newcastle City Council was wrong to axe its entire subsidy to the city’s arts. The council leader replied that either the arts took the hits, or children’s services and care centres.

That dichotomy was as false as my example above. Ordinary citizens cannot make those choices: presenting them to us as the only options is mere posturing. We elect politicians so they may assemble the information and make decisions.
Closing Kneller Hall and grabbing all the money government can seize is nothing to do with choosing between the safety of the realm and teaching people to play the clarinet while marching in step. It is, rather, another sign that, at bottom, policy-makers view the arts merely as a “nice-to-have”. They’re content to disregard the (inter)national goodwill generated by the world’s finest military bands, and the money tourists spend to enjoy them.

In fact, all the arts create colossal revenue for the country: sadly, politicians appear unable to regard the cost of training musicians, dancers and actors today as an investment that will bring tomorrow’s return. Short-termism reigns and brings with it barbarism. Told you so.

  • 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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