Last night I attended a panel debate, based on the Labour Government aspiration of 5 hours of culture taught as part of school curriculum every week. This follows on from the successful campaign to introduce 5 hours of sport into the curriculum over the past few years. The rationale for the move is to encourage a broader education among UK students and to capitalise upon the immense range of cultural resources available in the UK (and particularly in London) with cultural heritage, art, music and dance (‘high art’) considered necessary for a socially progressive society.
There was a sense amongst those present last night that cultural education has suffered in the drive for improvement in literacy and numeracy as well as the weighting of scientific and mathematical education. Whilst nobody present would have overtly stated that such enhanced literacy, numeracy and scientific education is unnecessarily time-consuming (and perhaps even partly irrelevant), there was a distinct sense that the skew of education towards purely pragmatic subjects has deprived current students of a sense of the value of cultural products and creativity, and engagement with artistic ventures.
What concerned me about the discussion last night was the assumption that only educational institutions (admittedly in partnership with cultural bodies) were responsible for cultural education. As was identified in the debate, only 20% of children’s waking hours every week are spent actually in class at school. My question is – what happens in the other 80%?
If the ambition is to develop a more culturally aware, creative and engaged generation then what happens in school time is important but it is not the silver bullet for cultural education. By its very nature creative engagement and cultural appreciation is a collective and performance oriented activity. It is not merely a matter of filling an ’empty vessel’ with knowledge and formulae, but rather a process of understanding and creating an aesthetic which reflects the current and historical image of society. As such, it is woefully inadequate to assume that cultural education can be achieved entirely within the confines of an educational institution. Families need to support cultural engagment, and parents in particular, have a responsibility not only to introduce cultural content to their children, but to seek to understand it themselves, with their children, in order to truly expose children to the whole process of cultural understanding.
Art is not an object, but a journey. Schools can assist cultural education, but until the hearts and minds of parents and the broader community are captured by culture, I hold little hope for the development of a dominantly creative and culturally articulate generation of school leavers.