Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Help! We Need to End This Age-Old Snobbery

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Help! We Need to End This Age-Old Snobbery

Article excerpt

A music teacher had two Beatles on roll, yet academic lessons left their talent undiscovered - and our anti-vocational bias persists

In the 1950s, Paul McCartney and George Harrison attended the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys (the building that now houses the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, where I am founding principal). It was an outstanding grammar school in the traditional sense: academic. Pupils regularly won scholarships to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Liverpool.

A few vocational disciplines were offered, pretty much as an afterthought. Amid the academic striving, pupils enjoyed these classes as a respite (and, for many, a skive). There was an art teacher as well as a music teacher, but neither subject had a high status. The school had pupils who were so talented they would go on to form half of the Beatles, yet the music teacher didn't realise it. Why? Because what you did in music lessons was listen to music and then comment. The last thing you would do was create music. So, as McCartney says now, the young Paul learned no music at school. And this is effectively what is envisaged for the new GCSEs.

It doesn't appear to have occurred to former education secretary Michael Gove and his curriculum-reforming acolytes that if no one creates music, books, plays, dance or design, there will be nothing to comment on in class. No academic curriculum can function without a practical, vocational one feeding it.

It's difficult to feel enthusiastic about commentary alone. As American playwright and director David Mamet puts it: "As in performance, as in combat, as in sex, the theoretical is all well and good if one is a commentator, but the thing itself can only be understood through experience."

What did we do when we studied English at university nearly 50 years ago? We read books written by grand masters and commented on them. But what experience of living could we draw upon? What did we know about publishing writing?

We read commentaries that took us away from the material. Then we compared commentaries. And then we wrote essays commenting on the commentaries. We knew nothing about "the thing itself". It was like writing about sex without ever having been to bed with anyone. How useful is that, really?

And nearly 30 years ago, when support was needed for the idea that eventually became the Brit School, people in the music business dismissed the notion of teaching popular music in a school environment. They believed the only way to learn pop music was to do it, and to do it in front of an audience that wasn't made up of friends and family. Unlike classical music, pop music could not be taught - it wasn't for clever people. …

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