Somewhere in the corner of the room there has been a lot of discussion about the Arts in the last few days. The Guardian carried an interview with Julie Walters (Sat 24 Jan) in which she said that she, and working class kids like her, probably wouldn’t get into drama school today. This came in the context of a spat about a supposed dominance of silver-spoon singers and actors initiated by the Labour shadow culture minister Chris Bryant. There is an argument to be has as to whether ‘working-class’ is an adequate label any longer, but we know what Julie Walters means.
I would like to start the next paragraph “The fact is…” but we are desperately short of facts. Very little serious research is done into ‘cultural’ education. As a surmise there are probably fewer working class students studying and training on Arts courses these days, for two reasons. Firstly because this education is no longer easily available to the poorest potential students. The Education Ministry over decades pursued a relentless policy of pushing up entrance requirements. As I’ve pointed out before, this was a civil service policy, because until Gove, the average life of a Minister was about two years, which would not have given them the time to take on board and modify existing policy. Back in the ’60s Art and Design course were a conduit into higher education for working-class students; it was fairly easy in those days to get a place on a course.
Secondly this education is no longer free. Presumably the prospect of being lumbered with a £40,000 debt by the time you start work will put off students proportionately the poorer their background.
So far as raising the entry bar goes, in the late ‘sixties we were able to show that having five O levels or two A levels or no qualifications at all had very little influence on outcomes. Most Art & Design students in those days obtained employment related to their study within three months of leaving college. (Ritchie Dight Frost and Dight : The Employment of Art College Leavers HMSO 1972) This put paid to the myth that thousands of long-haired art school leavers were swelling the dole queues, so the report was sneaked out in the Summer recess. in the hope that no-one would notice it. The Ministry, faced with an actual concrete fact, continued nonetheless to push up the entrance qualifications in some drive for uniformity. But every rise in the bar meant denying access to a cohort of working class students. There is no good reason for these requirements: they should be dropped.
The second obstacle, affordability, requires a radical solution. Of course there is a problem of cost to the State when it expands education. Leaving aside the increase in cost itself, the proposition that it should be left to the Colleges to set the fees was crazy. The colleges immediately pitched their fees at the top end of possible charge, to show that they were not inferior to anyone else. Students meanwhile became lumbered with debt. It all was done in bad faith too, because the (non-silver-spoon) MPs who voted for these charges had mostly themselves been the beneficiaries of a free education.
A graduate tax system, which I read is to be advocated by Peter Hain in his new book The Future of Socialism, implies that the community (The State) accepts responsibility for enabling its citizens to undertake education or training to they level they require, while beneficiaries repay the community by paying somewhat higher tax over their lifetime, rather than carrying a mesmerizing individual loan debt at the beginning of their career. I associate this (I’m afraid wrongly) with “Here come I, Little Jack/ With my wife and family on my back!” To which you can add “my student loan and my mortgage”
So far I have talked about access to the Arts via education.
; there needs also to be much discussion about accessibility of the Arts, and the conditions of work and remuneration of the Arts makers. Here are some notes for that discussion:
1 The Arts are not a frill. They are a major industry in which (because of past investment) this country excels. It is in the natonal interest to sustain it.
2 If you want a peak of excellence, you have to maintain a broad base
3 A healthy arts ecology depends on artists of all varieties (writers, actors, musicians, painters, potters, designers etc) receiving a fair percentage of the profits made from their work. The Government can ensure a fair market-place, but does not.
I have given up on Sayid Javid. He doesn’t seem to have done anything as Culture Minister (please explain otherwise if you are listening). In any case the election is coming and he won’t be in post much longer. What I think anyone who cares about this area should do just now is to write to the political parties and ask them for their Arts policies. If, in the memorable words of someone interviwed by the BBC in a Grays Working Men’s Club the other day, “UKIP are Tories in Drag”, maybe they have a good line on drama?