Time for a Key Change

It should be our mission to make life easier, not harder for educational organisations - if only, to use the over-egged slogan, for the sake of the children.

Gove & the 'Big Society': Empowerment in education?
David Merlin-Jones
On 6 May 2011 12:09

And now for something completely different to this week’s headlines: I’d like to tell you a story. It seems fitting; given yesterday’s local elections and the impact they could have on council funding. Whilst the austerity measures of central government are endlessly hyped by media outlets, daily lives are in fact often affected more seriously by cutbacks in local government: no more so than in the sphere of education and the enrichment of children’s lives.

A few days ago, I attended a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The performers were neither famous, nor professional, and most were under the age of 18. It was the biennial recital of Harrow Young Musicians (HYM), a collection of bands and orchestras who practice each Saturday - and it was wonderful. Wonderful not just because of the performers’ musical aptitude, but because the children taking part were enjoying every minute, and clearly getting so much out of it.

At this point, I should declare an interest: I was involved in HYM about a decade ago, and I too performed at the Albert Hall. But when I was there, I was one of nearly a thousand musicians forming something close to fifteen bands. In 2011, numbers have nearly halved, and the band I belonged to no longer exists.

So why the decline? For a start, HYM charges attendance fees, which had been heavily subsidised by Harrow Council. However, the council has slashed HYM’s funding since 2007, a policy instigated under Tory leadership and maintained by the succeeding Labour majority. This has forced fees to rise, and hence set membership out of the reach of many. Despite this, some council lackeys still came on Monday night, in a chauffeured executive car, with a livery and number plate spelling ‘HAR ROW’. Perhaps not the best use of the saved funds - but this is about much more than mere hypocrisy.

HYM provides a service to society: it is genuinely enriching the lives of children and gives them a sense of fulfilment rarely seen within the confines of a classroom. I had never expected to see kids so passionate about 19th century Russian opera or getting into 70’s funk; but I witnessed all this and more at the concert. 

Moreover, Harrow is an ethnically diverse area, and this is reflected in the makeup of the orchestras. This is not a middle-class, white haven. Regardless of background, the children learn to appreciate many musical genres from their own culture and others, largely without direction. It’s hard not to like something you are playing, even if it’s Wagner.

The value of enriching children’s lives should be self-evident, but their selection of areas worst hit by funding cuts hints that this is not the case among local powers-that-be. Their myopia is grounded on the fallacy that the education provided during school hours is enough for anyone, and any extra learning is not something that can be enjoyed for its own sake, but a luxury reserved purely for the mechanics of university applications and CV building. To believe that our stale, exam-driven, hoop-jumping curricula are all that is needed to function and enjoy life is, quite simply, wrong. Rather than constraining children’s interests to what can be offered within this framework, a different approach is needed, which affords extra-curricular activities a more central role. . 

This isn’t just idle daydreaming. General cuts are now inevitable, courtesy of George Osborne, but there is no reason to refuse to make extra-curricular activities a priority for continued funding. In any case, the local government approach is out of sync with the tune of contemporary political thought. Michael Gove’s free schools are an attempt to unchain education from its existing constraints, so why not provide the same freedom for bodies like HYM? Indeed, with its corps of volunteer parents and conductors hard at work, the organisation already thrives on the ideas informing Gove’s initiative, and has been a proven success for over a decade. The numbers of children who have passed through HYM are testament to its wide appeal and justify prioritising its funding.

Political ideas come and go. Today’s ‘Big Society’ may be tomorrow’s ‘Third Way’. But many organisations like HYM have just been getting on with the job, trying to make the most of their petering funding. It should be our mission to make life easier, not harder for these groups - if only, to use the over-egged slogan, for the sake of the children. 

David Merlin-Jones is a Research Fellow at the independent think tank Civitas. He specialises in economics, energy and British industry and tweet at: @DMerlinJones

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