HL Deb 08 June 1992 vol 537 cc1108-16

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Birk rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how they propose to protect the arts in schools now that they are no longer guaranteed under the national curriculum.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this debate, which comes at an early hour for an Unstarred Question, coincides with the unfortunate passage of the statutory orders relating to physical education, arts and music.

When the national curriculum was first outlined there was a wide welcome for the inclusion of music and the visual arts as foundation subjects. There was less pleasure at the way in which drama and dance were buried respectively in English and PE. However, at least the inclusion of the subjects meant that all children would grow up with some knowledge of the subjects and no one would leave school claiming that they had never encountered music and dance or had the opportunity to understand and enjoy them.

At the time of the passage of the Education Reform Act 1988 I argued by way of an amendment, and was within two votes of success, that the arts curriculum was too narrow and that the arts in total should be part of the core curriculum, not just music and art. It was a simple amendment which one would have thought the Government could have accepted. Several noble Lords on the government side of the House took the same view. At that time I pointed out that prior to the introduction of the curriculum drama was the fastest growing subject among 16-plus examinations and deserved better than to be treated as a minor branch of literature, which is what has happened.

Nonetheless, imperfect as the scheme was, protestations of commitment to the arts from Ministers and the inclusion of music and visual arts counted for something. I do not deny that. At the end of the debate noble Lords on all sides of the House were entitled to assume that the main strands of the arts would be guaranteed to children throughout their school careers from the age of five to 16 and, if they so chose, beyond. Now, with the passing of the statutory orders, that guarantee has gone, or has at least been watered down to the point where it is so innocuous as to be almost meaningless.

Going against the advice of the majority of those he consulted, the then Secretary of State for Education, Mr. Kenneth Clarke, laid the statutory orders. As a result, alone among the foundation subjects music and the visual arts can be dropped before the final stage of compulsory education. They become optional at the age of 14. Dance is in an even more parlous state. It does not have to be studied at secondary level at all, a direct result of its merger with PE, a situation which in other countries which take a more cultured view would be considered ridiculous.

The arts have always been treated less than fairly in all governments' education programmes, to be fair, not just by this Conservative Government; there has never been enough emphasis on the arts. However, a programme which at the outset appeared likely to achieve something has now been pulled back. That is inexcusable. Some subjects had to be the last to be considered, but no one was surprised when it became clear that in framing the Act a serious miscalculation had been made in the arithmetic concerning how many hours there were in the school day and the Government decided that some subjects would have to go and that those subjects were the arts.

These decisions, which were vociferously condemned by most of the arts and education organisations, place the arts at a serious disadvantage in a highly competitive situation, where all other subjects of the national curriculum remain mandatory. In this House I do not have to stress the importance of giving children opportunities for personal enrichment and cultural development alongside their education in the so-called basics. After all, what could be more basic to the idea of a civilised and civilising education than an education in and through the arts?

By reneging on their original commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum, the Government have effectively tied the hands of head teachers and governors keen to see the arts play a full part in their students' education. There is mounting evidence that schools are balancing tight budgets by cutting back on their arts education. Local management of schools and the new arrangements for devolved funding mean that schools can no longer benefit from the collective arrangements formerly made by local authorities for their advisory services; for the provision of instrumental music teaching; for school visits to concerts; theatres, museums and galleries; for the funding of artists and outreach teams to work alongside teachers and give performances in schools.

School managers are having to make difficult choices and unpopular decisions in an effort to cut costs and balance their books. With Her Majesty's Government signalling their lack of interest in the arts in schools—that is what is being signalled, even though I am sure the Minister will deny it—little wonder if the unkindest cuts of all fall upon those now severely weakened school arts subjects.

This is particularly paradoxical now that we have a Minister for the heritage (I presume it means for the arts as well) with a seat at the Cabinet table. That development has been widely welcomed by everyone concerned for the future of arts in this country. But is it not sad, as well as unreasonable, that with the belated recognition of the enormous importance of the arts to the nation the Government should be failing the arts in schools and failing just those children who will become, we hope, the next generation of writers, actors, dancers, musicians, painters and film makers over a wide range of the arts and media? The Government are failing to prepare the next generation of audiences and patrons. The Secretary of State for National Heritage certainly should have a word with the Secretary of State for Education so that they are both on the same track, which certainly they are not at the moment.

I would argue most strongly that if my amendment to the Education Reform Bill had succeeded in 1988, the present dangerous situation might not have arisen. As things stand, with dance subsumed under PE and drama encompassed within English, two of the major arts subjects could virtually disappear altogether from the school curriculum after years of growth and development.

We wanted to ensure that all children in the course of their schooling had experience across the arts and were able to choose at least one art subject for specialisation at the top end of the secondary school, that is to say at 14-plus. That recommendation has the support of the Arts Council. Last week, at a meeting organised by the Parliamentary Group for the Heritage, the Chairman of the Arts Council, Lord Palumbo, stressed that it was most important that every child should have the opportunity to take one arts subject in his or her 14-plus years at school. He said that the Arts Council would be pressing the DES along those lines. In its strategy for the arts and media which has just been published, the council points out that education in the arts is one of the most important, if not the most important, matter with which it is concerned and with which we as a nation should be concerned.

In an attempt to deflect criticism, the Government recommended—though they stopped short of stipulating—that all senior pupils should have what they call an aesthetic experience. I am not quite sure what that means. Perhaps when the Minister replies she will tell us. Eating a bar of chocolate could be an aesthetic experience and so, I imagine, could a number of other things which probably do not come under the arts agenda. I suggest that a serious experience of one of the major arts subjects means a great deal more in terms of imagination, feeling, knowledge and understanding than is covered by the vague phrase "aesthetic experience".

The curriculum for English schools has been debased further by the exclusion of significant parts of the advice given to the DES by its working parties. They sought to make sure that music and art were discovered by children in the way that they were experienced: in three parts, which for both subjects involved creating, doing and understanding. Those were the attainment targets that they laid down. The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, who was chairman of the arts working party and had intended to speak in this debate, gave me permission to say that he was very unhappy that the attainment targets had been reduced from three to two. The same applied also to music. That advice was not complicated and the Welsh Office has had the good sense to recognise its advantages. My noble friend Lord Morris will enlarge on that point a little later. It does not ask for anything revolutionary or different. Instead, it argues that the arts should be taught in the same way as science, sport or languages. These come alive when we do them—as in music, both in performance and when there is the opportunity and help in composition. When the blackboard comes first, interest dies very quickly. In music, composing is the key to enthusiasm and understanding, whatever the style or age. That is as true for teachers as it is for children.

The need for this debate is clear. The original guarantees for arts in the national curriculum have been reduced to the nominal and impractical. Elsewhere in the system charge-capping has cut into extracurricular opportunities for young people to enjoy the arts. It has deprived many of the opportunity to train as actors, dancers, technicians or directors by forcing local authorities to abandon discretionary grants. The latest orders cut away at the base requirements for teaching arts subjects properly.

I cannot see how that will build the cultured and informed public envisaged by the newly established Department of National Heritage. It is not the way to give Britain an innovative and inspired workforce for the start of the next century. It is not the way to encourage the most important treasure that we possess in this field; namely, talent. It is not the way to provide a broad and balanced education, which I understood, as did many people, was the intention of the 1988 Education Reform Act. I suggest that the Secretary of State has a word with his opposite number in education so that they can not only get their act together but get together an act which is of advantage to everyone in the community.

On a number of occasions I have had dealings with the Minister who is to reply when she was Minister for the Heritage at the Department of the Environment. I always found her extremely sympathetic, understanding about what the heritage meant and very helpful as I hope she will be today. I only hope that now that the noble Baroness has gone to the Department of Education she will have taken with her not only her brains—which obviously she has done—but also her feeling for heritage and art. I am sure that she will bring her considerable influence to bear in order to obtain improvements and a start on the art programme that we need for our youngsters in this country.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has launched us upon an interesting discussion. I could wish that my name were a little further down the list of speakers because I have really only one point to make. At least my speech will not take long.

If the arts are to be protected, it is the children of today who will be the protectors. There will not be anyone else to do so. That places upon the present generation—which cannot bear to think of the arts losing their place in a rapidly changing world—a big responsibility. I suppose that down the ages the single greatest inspiration behind our great works of Western art has been Christianity and the Bible. One cannot fully and properly appreciate a great work of art without some understanding of the inspiration which lies behind it. We have as never before immigrant populations with faiths different from our own, differing faiths and some with no faith. Therefore, it surely places upon the teaching profession a difficult task. On the one hand the teaching profession—I refuse to call those people educationists—has the task of not seeming to be thrusting Christianity down the throats of children of other faiths. But, on the other hand, it has the responsibility surely to inculcate into its pupils some desire to learn enough about Christianity and the Bible to give them the opportunity to understand and appreciate the great works of art of the Western world which they will encounter.

Therefore, I do not envy the teaching profession its task. I believe it walks a tightrope. However, I hope earnestly that it will succeed.

3.33 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, the Question implies that until now the arts have had a guaranteed position in the curriculum in schools. It is my understanding that that is not so. The Question also implies that now the arts have no guaranteed position in the schools curriculum. It is equally my understanding that that is not so.

Music and the visual arts have a guaranteed position. Drama is included in the literature curriculum and dance in the PE curriculum. On that last point, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, that dance is just one element of five attainment targets but four have to be taken.

I recognise that the people in the arts are concerned that two areas of the arts are singled out as being of more apparent importance than other arts areas. However, the national curriculum is an extremely complicated subject and it is absolutely true that there is no unanimous view in relation to arts and its place in the curriculum. Unfortunately, I am told that at the time of discussions concerning the national curriculum the then Secretary of State was not convinced by the arts lobby. Perhaps it is a case that the arts sector should thrash out its real priorities as a group before approaching government on such a major issue as the shape and future position of the arts in the national curriculum.

One heartening aspect of the new national curriculum is that for the very first time arts are now written in as a statutory requirement up to the age of 14. It will no longer be the so-called privileged children who will benefit from tuition in the arts—every child will benefit. That has to be a most worthwhile development. Because of that, the arts will be much more accessible to many more children, and the audiences of the future (made up of those same children) will feel much more at ease with the arts than do, or did, their parents or grandparents.

That is not to say that up to now arts have not had a wonderful level of support in the schools. Of course they have, but it was at the discretion of the teachers. Now that has changed. I see the national curriculum as endorsing the past activities of arts in schools, not replacing them. But the curriculum is not the sole element in encouraging the practice and appreciation of the arts by young people.

Since I am fortunate—and I stress that—to be employed in the arts administration sector I constantly see both the great efforts made by arts organisation in the arts education field and the results of those efforts in the terms of hundreds of arts events organised for and enjoyed by thousands of children. Arts activity takes place outside the confines of the classroom. School brass bands and school orchestras have always been an extra curricular activity as have school plays. School plays will never die —neither the children nor the doting parents (to say nothing of the proud teachers) will let that happen. I get the very strong impression that such activity is on the increase. It has, I assure your Lordships, a momentum all of its own! Later this year, under the UK presidency of the EC, the European Arts Festival will take place throughout the country. All 350,000 schools have been contacted and are being encouraged to participate. Rightly, the European Arts Festival will have a very important educational focus.

I have a good knowledge of the education programmes of the two major arts organisations based at the Barbican Centre—the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra—but I know that they are not unique. Many other major national organisations, local orchestras, local theatre companies and regional opera companies have all placed a very high priority on their outreach and education programmes. The Welsh National Opera, for example, went to Liverpool last autumn and produced a series of operas, sponsored by Peter Moores, specifically targeted at people who had never before been to the opera—people from disadvantaged backgrounds, including many children—and at seat prices which were the equivalent of three packets of cigarettes. Those large, thriving and concerned arts organisations are not totally altruistic. They know that they have to develop their future audiences. But they are playing a very strong role alongside the schools in encouraging young people to think of the arts as an essential part of the quality of life.

I hope your Lordships will not mind if I spend some little time talking about some of the detailed education work that is being carried out by both the RSC and the LSO. The RSC's education department was formed in 1983 since when it has been active in schools, universities and other educational institutions not only throughout the UK and continental Europe but also in the USA and Japan. Part of its activities involves calling on a range of RSC staff to work with teachers in schools to find appropriate ways of exploring Shakespeare's language in action. The company's projects at all levels centre on the experience of seeing a play in performance either in the RSC's own theatres in Stratford and London or on tour. These projects include introductory sessions on the text, the particular emphases of the production and appropriate follow up discussions. Actors, designers, directors, musicians and production staff work with education officers wherever possible so that school children can see the complexity of the theatre and begin to understand the meaning and richness of Shakespeare's language.

I find it interesting that the RSC has proved that young people across a wide ability range can respond to Shakespeare through a variety of routes. I believe that the activity going on outside the national curriculum is fundamental to the appreciation of arts.

The education department of the RSC worked with groups from schools and colleges in 39 locations last year ranging from Alcester in Warwickshire to York and geographically as far apart as Edinburgh and Tenby in Pembrokeshire. The company also undertook numerous workshops including a venue in Belfast. This work will continue and will increase despite the national curriculum.

The London Symphony Orchestra, the other resident company in the Barbican Centre, also has an education department and its activities are geared very much towards schoolchildren. Projects are taking place in schools, both primary and secondary, for children with moderate and severe learning difficulties, assisting the children in finding ways to achieve through their abilities rather than being frustrated by their disabilities. The projects have all begun with an initial two or three day period in the school succeeded by follow-up visits at a later date to maintain relationships with the children and to continue the music-making.

Projects recently in primary schools have been based on Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals" and Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet Suite", with musicians working with children on creating their own descriptive music, while also exploring the composer's music. In secondary schools the projects have involved music and non-music students in the creation of their own compositions, while exploring music in the LSO's current repertoire.

The point to emphasise is that the RSC and LSO activities are done because they believe that they have a responsibility to spend some of the monies which they receive not only from the Arts Council but also from private sponsors.

In an afternoon such as this there is no time to outline the whole gamut of the activities of two—only two—of the many arts organisations which are working hand in glove with the schools. Suffice it to say that no matter how the national curriculum develops those organisations are totally committed to continue their joint development of the arts. Every client of the Arts Council has an active educational policy and many schools throughout the country have benefited from close contact with the professionals from the arts organisations.

I welcome today's debate because it brings to your Lordships' attention the great amount of work that is being done to make the arts more accessible. Needless to say, whenever the arts are mentioned funding is never far behind. In this case it is good to be able to report that funding for the arts has never been stronger; by government through the Arts Council of Great Britain, by local authorities and by corporate and private sponsors. Government funding for the arts has increased significantly over the past few years; from £174.9 million in 1990–91 to £194.2 million in 1991–92 and to £221.2 million in 1992–93. They represent increases of 11 per cent. and 14 per cent. respectively during the past two years. Since 1979 the value of the ACGB grant has increased by 44.2 per cent. in real terms.

The arts are thriving in Britain and the arts sector should, and in most cases does, pay a great tribute to the sources of funding. Sometimes I feel that the arts in Britain are appreciated much more abroad than we appreciate them here. Only on Thursday evening I was speaking to a leading Japanese industrialist who funded the overseas tour of the LSO last month to Japan and to the USA and will fund the September tour to continental Europe at a cost of £700,000. If he did not believe that we have a good artistic base he would not have done that.

But of course we must not be sanguine about the development of the arts. Inevitably the national curriculum has caused concern—a concern that I recognised at the beginning of my words this afternoon. I think it is important that those involved in the arts and those involved in the education sector have faith that the Government will continue to support the arts and that the future of the arts within the national curriculum is assured.

I hope it is inconceivable that the Government would increase their commitment to the arts on the one hand and reduce their commitment on the other by lack of interest in the development of arts in the schools. To that end, I should be most grateful if the Minister in her reply would deal with two matters. Out of courtesy I have already communicated these points to the Minister and I look forward to her reply.

First, would it be possible for the Minister to give an assurance that the whole question of arts in the national curriculum will be looked at again within the next two to three years; an appraisal made of what has been achieved; and, more importantly, an assessment made of what still needs to be done? I think that such an assurance would remove a great deal of the genuinely felt anxiety in the arts sector. My question really has been prompted by the widely-held view that music seems to be primus inter pares and that other art forms, drama and dance in particular, are being regarded as "second class citizens".

Secondly, will the Minister put pressure on her colleagues in government to recognise the importance of dance? Dance is an amazingly vibrant, dynamically and successfully growing art form. It seems slightly bizarre to lump it with PE. I know that dance is a very good form of exercise but it is more than that—much more than that. I ask the Minister to put her undoubted skills of persuasion and logic to work in dance's favour and espouse the cause of a national dance centre. Thousands of schoolchildren would undoubtedly benefit.

If dance were my passion I should feel slightly irritated that music had been elevated to a position of much greater importance than dance. As music, in fact, is my passion I suppose I should not complain, but it truly is a nonsense to give the impression—and that is probably all it is—that such a vibrant art form as dance has so little support in the corridors of power.

Despite the fact that I fundamentally disagree with the wording of the Question, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has managed to raise this issue in this House. I applaud her action and look forward greatly to the comments of other speakers this afternoon.