A cultural revolution or political spin?

PUBLISHED: 14:47 29 February 2008 | UPDATED: 09:32 23 August 2010

pic:Simon Hildrew
Matthew Crane appeared on X-Factor

Gravesend 03-08-07 pic:Simon Hildrew Matthew Crane appeared on X-Factor

OPERA houses aren t the usual places you d see a bunch of school children hanging out but if Schools Minister Ed Balls has his way it could become a familiar sight. In theory, the government s announcement to give youngsters five extra hours of high cu

ED BALLS: Culture vulture

OPERA houses aren't the usual places you'd see a bunch of school children hanging out but if Schools Minister Ed Balls has his way it could become a familiar sight.

In theory, the government's announcement to give youngsters five extra hours of high culture a week, including trips to the ballet and musical tuition. Sounds good but how should it be put in to practice?

Who decides what culture is and will the children like it? Where will the money come from? Ultimately, how will teachers cope with the extra workload?

Kate Nelson finds out...

DANCE: Could ballet trips soon be on the school timetable?

"Young people just don't think opera is cool. They like RnB and hip hop because it has an edge. But they don't realise that all modern music and pop has classical beginnings, it's the original form of music," says 15-year-old X-Factor star, Matthew Crane, Britain's youngest operatic baritone.

It was during a school choir practice that Matthew's music teacher spotted his talent.

Since then, the Kent-born singer (pictured above) has appeared on X-Factor and regularly sings all over the country with the hope of making it a full time career.

He is impressed by the government's plans to introduce high culture to the school timetable.

"I like the idea of school trips to the opera," he said.

"I think children would really enjoy it, especially a comedy. Maybe they could do projects on it or write a review for homework.

"The first time I went I saw The Magic Flute at Covent Garden. I really loved it and wanted to go back. I want to see Madama Butterfly, I've heard it's the best."

His sentiment is one the government hopes will be felt by all youngsters.

When he announced the idea, Mr Balls (pictured right) said: "Many of us remember the first ever live music we heard or the first ever performance we saw. I want all young people to have the chance to both experience and take part in creative activities to help them learn and develop."

The 'Find Your Talent' scheme will be piloted in ten areas across the UK, with £25 million set aside for each one. It will be managed by The Arts Council's school's programme, Creative Partnerships, with the aim of giving young people "the chance to discover and develop their talents with the intention, ultimately, to offer children five hours of arts and culture a week, in and outside of the school day."

Possible activities include performing on stage, attending top quality performances, exhibitions and galleries as well as learning musical instruments, producing creative writing and gaining hands-on experience of the creative industries including film making, radio and TV.

It's unclear what's inspired this initiative but perhaps it's a case of redressing the balance.

For years, creative subjects have come second best to hard academic ones. Music and art remain the most disposable within the packed school timetable.

Owner of Viewfinder photographic art gallery, Greenwich, Tony Oates believes culture is an essential aspect of education.

"Arts subjects should be given the same emphasis as academic subjects," he said.

"Art and culture are the stuff of our whole being, without them we are completely without meaning.

"Kids who are railroaded into a curriculum have a danger of not developing as individuals."

Asked why some youngsters are reluctant to enter an art gallery, Mr Othen said: "There is reluctance from both young and old people to walk in to an art gallery. But if schools take children they can make it a place of fun, interest and diversity. Our current exhibition offers visitors the chance to draw and make markings of their own and children like interactive things like that."

Youngsters may feel out of their depth visiting an art gallery or theatre alone but going as part of a group they would undoubtedly feel more confident.

"Culture and art have traditionally been seen as elitist and so anything that squashes those ideas is a good thing," said Thelma Richardson, from Bromley Arts Council.

"Many galleries are free so there's no excuse not to visit them. Art is for everybody.

"Culture helps to broaden children's imaginations and encourages them to think beyond the confines of their usual ideas and that can only be a good thing." But as with any headline-grabbing proposal, the critics were quick to stick the knife in.

What may have surprised Mr Balls is that the harshest comments are from teachers who lambasted the plans as vague or even worse, as impossible.

Andy Southgate, assistant headteacher at a north Kent school,is concerned about the practicality of the idea.

"This plan to enforce five extra hours a week is going to be very difficult to fit in," he said.

"It's not right to impose it so rigidly, they need to work with schools and be flexible. I like the thinking behind the plan but we do a number of extra activities at the moment anyway. To do five hours on top of our current workload is unreasonable."

His views were echoed by John Walder, secretary of Kent National Union of Teachers (NUT), who remains unconvinced there is any substance to the proposals.

He said: "My personal opinion is the plans are hot air more than anything else. It's a case of the government trying to grab headlines on the cheap again. We need to know more about it. What exactly do they mean by culture and when's it going to happen? Who is going to fund it?

"Children are already occupied for most of the school day and it's a question of when these five hours will be fitted in. Are they going to pay teachers over and above what they do now?

"I also have a problem with the word culture and what they mean by it. Can you receive culture?"

Although the exact locations of the pilot schemes are yet to be decided, they almost certainly will be in deprived areas.

The fact is that many youngsters in these places won't ever be taken to an art gallery or to the theatre by their parents and the only cultural education they'll get will be at school.

There's no doubt that children and youngsters are receptive to art and culture.

'Colouring in' was and remains a staple activity for anyone aged three to ten. There are hundreds of youths wearing hoodies emblazoned with prints by street artist Banksy.

The culture of MySpace has inspired thousands to join a band.

Exposure to culture and art breeds tolerance and relieve boredom but the key is making it applicable to young people's lives.

Teachers may see the plans as another burden but could they embrace it as a learning experience and one that might actually make their job easier?

With hundreds of free galleries and shows the opportunities and lessons are endless.

A trip to see Stomp might illustrate more about percussion than a music lesson. A poetry slam could demonstrate meter and rhyme in a manner superior to an English class.

A trip to the Tate Modern may be a thousand times more inspiring than looking at an art text book.

As Alan Davey, Chief Executive of Arts Council England said: "Great art enriches lives and helps us understand the world around us, no matter what age we are, and creative skills are essential no matter what career we choose to pursue. Exposure to art is a gift for life."

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