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Schools becoming cultural deserts

What kind of education you get – and the chance to participate in music, film, theatre and other forms of culture – is more than ever dependent on your parents’ status and income, how aggressive they are in getting you into a well-resourced school, if they can afford extra tuition and where you live.

Middle class and wealthy parents offset poor provision in many state schools by moving to other areas, sending their children to fee-paying schools or paying for  private tuition. But these options are difficult or impossible for those on lower incomes, those whose benefits are being slashed and those living outside urban centres.

Above all, children’s access to culture is most affected by inequality, as Action for Children’s Arts (ACA) reveals. Using information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the charity discovered that, while children under 12 years make up 15% of the population, “their share of the available public funding for the arts is rarely more than 1%”.

ACA found that the BBC’s budget for children’s programmes has fallen in comparison with five years ago and less than 1% of it is spent on original programmes made in the UK. It rightly argues for the central place of the arts in children’s learning, drawing on the 84-page Darren Henley review, commissioned by the government and published at the end of April.

But, while Henley extols the virtues of “cultural education” and calls for support and funding for various initiatives especially for talented students, he recommends increased backing from philanthropists and royal patronage. The review includes a ghastly proposal for “Downing Street cultural education medals” to be awarded to talented young people.

The reality is of course that cultural poverty is inseparable from economic poverty, as actor Michael Sheen has pointed out, supporting the launch of the Children’s Cultural Poverty Forum in Wales: “It is mind-blowing to me, but in Wales 32% of children live in poverty.” He fears that many British schoolchildren no longer have a way of discovering culture. “My old school does not have a drama department anymore,” he said.

Promoting the well-being of children and those in education does mean exactly what ACA says, when it calls for “making theatre, music and dance affordable for families and schools”.

A recent inquiry into the difficulties of growing up in today’s world conducted by the Children’s Society concluded that “the aggressive pursuit of personal success by adults is now the greatest threat to British children”. But its recommendations have been lost to the winds of intensified commercialism, economic crisis and public spending cuts. 

Last year, the Mothers’ Union pointed to the cynical exploitation of children by market forces:

Childhood has become a marketing opportunity worth £99 billion in the UK and £350 million is spent in the UK each year on persuading children to consume.  Manipulative techniques exploit children’s natural credulity and use them as a conduit to the household purse.

The brutally competitive nature of education with its emphasis on personal achievement – together with unequal access to culture – is a blight on those growing up today. And it’s going to get worse under education secretary Michael Gove’s proposal to reintroduce a two-tier system of education. He plans to abolish GCSE’s and re-introduce O-levels – which would re-introduce dividing pupils into more and less academically capable streams.

Access to education and culture should be a right and not a privilege. Neither a big state nor Cameron’s Big Society are the answer. Tackling cultural inequality at its very heart requires a transfer of ownership and power away from the 1% to the 99%.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
25 June 2012

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B.M.KENT says:

Thankyou Corinna
I would add as someone who has worked in education since 1980- that schools are the last bastion of civilized values- where that increasingly squeezed margin we call culture can be seeded and have been under attack and corrupted by the values of the market place and big business- which should have no place in our schools and universities.

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