I’m writing this while travelling back from a fascinating afternoon spent with students from the Harris Federation of Academies in South London. They are conducting a ‘commission on learning’ where they are grilling invited ‘experts’ (I snuck in by mistake, I think) on what they think constitutes effective learning. The Federation have sensibly committed themselves to implementing a new vision of how schooling should be, based upon the commission’s findings. I made the somewhat controversial statement that ‘nothing could be taught’ which triggered a few questions. What I meant was that we might teach students something, but that isn’t the same as saying they’ve learned it. So, uninvited teaching rarely sticks around. (There’s nothing new in this, incidentally – Plato said ‘Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind’). Lots of young heads nodded when I said that many schools had become industrial farms which force-feed knowledge, so that their exam results are acceptable. They got it.
So, it was ironic that I later opened the paper to see that the new Arts Council boss Liz Forgan made a speech last night asserting that the best way to inspire an enthusiasm for classical music among young children is to start them off with Wagner. Her apparent logic for this is that her eccentric grandfather apparently did just this with her. And she advocates not stopping with Wagner. “Give them Birtwistle, Buxtehude, Ligeti, Ockeghem and Beethoven as soon as possible.” Above all, she said, “don’t apologise”.
As an attempt to portray yourself as in touch with the man and woman in the street (which the Arts Council have been desperate to do in recent years) it was a pretty spectacular own goal. Classical music is a very small niche market, usually making up just 5% of total record sales. And the vast majority of those sales fall within the Classic FM populist repertoire, not Birtwhistle or Ockeghem. Does she really think that force-feeding babies music which is inaccessible to young ears is going to do anything but put them off classical music for life? And where are the parents and grandparents going to find these composer’s works in their record collections? I couldn’t help but wonder how the young people I worked with today would have viewed Forgan’s strategy (“Throwing children alive into a boiling vat of great music does them no harm at all”) as a valid education policy. They probably would have asked who determines what is considered ‘great’, and whether it isn’t classical music which is going to come off worst in the end.
At least she’s given shopping centres and train stations, who see playing classical music as a deterrent to young people hanging around their premises, some new playlist ideas.