Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Tap dancing and poisonous trees

It was very interesting observing the kids from Northamptonshire at the award ceremony last night. It's made me think a great deal about access to the arts, and I've come to the conclusion that opportunities in this field aren't reserved for people of one specific gender or creed, they're simply reserved for those who can pay for them. And if you can't pay, you enter a lottery which you're becoming increasingly less likely to win.

I've written about the "Northamptonshire malaise" before. The locals say that it's no coincidence that the first two letters of Northampton are "no." But I witnessed it last night in its rawest form. A group of young people sat in front of me who seemed to be almost crippled with embarrassment. Zero confidence. Zero swagger. Too scared to raise their heads above the parapet, in case they looked silly or, worse still, arrogant. And if this doesn't change, if there isn't a magical injection of confidence, how on earth will they convince anyone - a University, a work experience provider, an employer - to take them on? If you want to be a composer, or anything in the arts, you have to have guts, chutzpah and a genuine belief in your own ability. The thing that public school kids have in abundance, and the thing that manifests itself as street smarts in kids from the bigger cities.

Music is getting sucked out of state schools. I spoke to a lad yesterday who'd had to transfer to the local girl's school simply to do music A-level, because they stopped running it at his previous school. The same is happening in state schools across the county. Many schools these days don't even offer music as a GCSE subject. Decent music teachers are rapidly leaving the world of education and extra funds in schools are, these days, ploughed into English, maths and science.

Within the state sector, a lottery exists, which is based on how much the head teacher values music. We were shown a film last night made at Northampton School for Girls'. At this particular school, Friday afternoons are reserved for creative time. 200 of their students spend this period exploring expressive and performing arts, and the results are staggering and uplifting in equal measure which is, of course, great, if your daughter is a student at NSG. But what happens if your child is a boy? Which school does he go to in the county if he wants to play or study music? Of course there are still other schools which value the role music can play, but a sudden change of head, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

Some teachers won't even allow kids out of lessons for 20-minute music tuition once a week. A perfect storm is brewing, which, I'm afraid, has its roots in that ghastly swine, Michael Gove, who downgraded music in schools to the level of a "soft subject" in amongst a set of other sweeping reforms, which were about as welcome in the education sector as his pudgy little face in a Conservative club after he'd screwed Boris over, which, I hasten to add, aside from a surprisingly good track record on supporting gay rights, is about the only thing I think he's done which is worthy of applause!

So why was Gove so wrong? Obviously music as an academic subject in schools is a fairly niche area. There are many brilliant musicians who simply enjoy playing music in their spare time and don't want to study the subject formally. It's hard to evaluate what a music teacher is bringing to a school if your only way of judging these things is based entirely on results. But music in schools ticks so many other boxes. It gives kids confidence. It teaches them to listen. It improves their linguistic ear. They learn to collaborate. To share. To count. To focus. It gives them a release from the high pressure of traditional subjects. It enables kids to let off steam.

And the biggest irony of all, of course, is that prospective parents often judge a school by its outward-facing extra-curricular activities. The school choir. The school productions. The orchestra. It genuinely seems to me to be a no-brainer.

If we don't do something now, music provision will become the preserve of people in public schools, and this mustn't be allowed to happen.

I went into Angel this evening to attend a speed awareness course. It was an odd experience. What I found noteworthy was the absolute diversity of people attending the course. Being a felon is a great leveller. There were women who looked like housewives, boy racers, a Polish lorry driver, a couple of city gents and a man dressed from head to toe in plaid. As I came in, the afternoon's cohort of speeders were exiting. A fairly well-known BBC journalist was in their number.


At four hours, it's a long-old course. The Chinese man next to me kept falling asleep. Another man kept asking ridiculous questions. There are no cafes or shops in the vicinity, which meant we had to use the vending machine. My tea was the colour of 1970s orange squash. I half expected it to make me hyperactive.

The information contained in the course was very interesting and I'm pretty sure I'll be a better driver as a result of doing it. The course leaders, who are lovely, have a habit of asking direct questions to the attendees. It keeps everyone on their toes, I guess, but unfortunately I know my mind, and the problem is that my tendency, under pressure, is to say the first thing that comes into my head, however surreal. I kept my head down and avoided all but one question which rather caught me off guard. The course leader had just flashed a photograph up on the screen of a road in a Hertfordshire town. He looked at me and before I could look away, asked, "what hazards can you see on this picture?" I found myself answering "tap dancers. Poisonous trees." Christ, I'm insane!

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