Wednesday 13 February 2008

Why schools can deliver the cultural commitment

One of the great myths about Labour's education policy is that it has been anti-culture and downplayed the arts. The decision to focus on the 3Rs in primary school has produced its share of tirades from authors who claim that to teach children to read, spell and write accurately can only be done at the expense of their enjoying their books (the illogicality of the argument is never questioned). But while this emphasis on the 3Rs was important, it was never at the expense of artistic and cultural activities. For example, Jacqui Smith, as junior schools minister one year after the introduction of the literacy hour, launched a special scheme to fund instrumental tuition, which continues as the Music Standards Fund. When targeted money was given to schools in 1998, their libraries were given injections of cash to fund new books. Museums and galleries have been expected to devote more effort to education, and in London, a forerunner of today's pledge by Andy Burnham that children should have the opportunity to enjoy five hours of culture a week, operated for several years through the London Challenge, with a clear list of activities that each child could expect to enjoy.

Given the growth of after-school clubs and other extended facilities, today's promise is far less ambitious than it sounds, and those teaching union leaders who use the announcement to whinge about SATs should stop talking rot. The real issue is not whether this can be delivered, but how it can be delivered in a meaningful way. It is right to allow local decisions, and the idea of an entitlement is a good one. The Times leader argues that the 'right' to five hours is too prescriptive, but then says it is too 'vague' about what should be involved. The writer has a better point with their concern about vagueness than in worries about prescription. A five hour entitlement in and out of school during term time is a reasonable expectation, including after-class activities. But the entitlement should be more precise: every child should expect to experience a live play or visit an art gallery during their secondary years, as well as the chance to take part in a live production and try their hand at a bit of painting or digital art. As the pilots develop, perhaps this could become clearer. However, none of this should detract from what is a good idea and a welcome announcement from the new culture secretary.

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