Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Jon Payne’s Letter to Education Secretary after remarks about arts & humanities

Wednesday 12th November 2014

The Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP Secretary of State for Education House of Commons

London

SW1A 0AA

Dear Mrs Morgan,

“it takes a pretty confident 16-year-old to have their whole life mapped out ahead of them – then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful for all kinds of jobs. Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths. ”

It is difficult to adequately convey, in writing, the complete exasperation and annoyance your words provoked in me yesterday. Firstly, let me deal with the ways in which your assertion is entirely incorrect:

  • You demonstrate complete ignorance of the way in which human beings learn, develop, and take their place in society. There is no such thing as ‘intelligence’, rather, a series of interconnected multiple ‘intelligences’ which all feed into and from each other: musical, visual/spatial, linguistic, mathematical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential etc.1 This is why cross-curricular studies, particularly at primary school level, are so successful in promoting academic attainment. Thus, all subjects have something to offer and, it might be argued, arts and humanities tap into what it is that makes us human rather more than the STEM subjects you are so keen to prioritise.
  • For many years, those who set education policy have been struggling to imbed the non-academic ‘social’ skills – self- discipline, awareness of others, teamwork etc – into a generation of young people whose family backgrounds are often chaotic. In other words, to ensure that schools are places where people care about each other and work well together, and where there is a culture of good behaviour and aspiration to learn. There is ample research to support the notion that music, arts, drama and sport promote a sense of ‘belonging’2 Perhaps if successive governments had recognised the importance of these disciplines, there would be no need for separate ‘citizenship’ lessons and the like.
  • There is an enormous body of research supporting the conclusion that music – the ultimate inter-discipline activity – stimulates all the forms of intelligence, with the result that children’s academic achievement, concentration, and sense of self-worth are all improved. This is to say nothing of the sense of time, history, geography, and place that studying music provides.

By this stage, I am sure you are as bored of having bits of research quoted at you as I am of policy makers who want to promote an educational agenda of cultural nihilism. Suffice it to say that, had I wanted to, I could probably have provided you with about five years’ of bedtime reading on the subject.

So let’s move on to more practical considerations. I have made a perfectly good living from my chosen profession, music. I showed no aptitude for science, mathematics, or engineering at school. It was clear that music was my ‘thing’. I thank God that I was at school in the 1980s, and not now. Then, music was valued alongside, and equally, with all the other subjects, such that my talent for music was recognised and supported. As a result of your statement yesterday, I suspect nowadays I would be told not to bother, that it’s a complete waste of time, and that I could earn more by learning to build bridges or solve the Riemann hypothesis.

And it is your comment about an apparent 10% income gap between ‘STEM’ students and those studying arts and humanities which cuts to the heart of the matter. Firstly, I would like to know from where you derive that statistic. Unlike me, you do not appear to have quoted sources for your assertions.

Secondly, I doubt that it is true. Many of my musical colleagues have gone into careers where they command fees of up to £300 a day, which equates to a very good living. Others go into teaching – and if their salaries aren’t high enough, well, that’s your problem really isn’t it, because you’re the people who set them.

Thirdly, even if true, since when did we start measuring the value of a good education in ‘future earning’ terms? There are many more important considerations: job satisfaction; the growth of a thriving national cultural life; the capacity to educate future generations in arts and culture; creativity (just as important to a country as its gross domestic product)…. etc.

I have to say that, in my twenty-five years of experience working both as a professional musician and a music educator, I can confidently state that everything you said yesterday is wrong.

The church choir with whom I currently work provides an excellent music education, singing-wise, to young people, and has been doing so for over 150 years. Indeed, with the state of schools music as it is (parlous), church and cathedral choirs around the UK are about the last places a child with musical potential could expect to find a decent musical education. Of those with whom we have worked, I am trying to think of anyone who would agree with your views. Certainly not the young organist who went on to be Sub-Organist at St Paul’s Cathedral. Definitely not the child who arrived unable to read and write and whose standard of literacy is now far beyond the reading age of his peers. Neither the young man who, this week, succeeded in being awarded a choral scholarship to one of our major cathedrals. Or the former singer who is now an international soloist and sang at last year’s BBC Proms. Not opening and unlocking doors? Really?

Successive governments have tried out their social engineering experiments on children and they have not worked. They are not working. Fewer than one in ten primary school music co-ordinators have any experience of music whatsoever – and they’re meant to be teaching it! The standard of singing in many of our schools has never been lower. When something which promotes happiness, wellbeing, and teamwork is so devalued in today’s education system, it shows how morally bankrupt things have become.

Earning a living is important. But equally so is the need to feel that, as an individual, you are ‘part of’ something; that you have a valuable function and role in life; that you are part of a human race working together.

Your role is not to produce the next generation of compliant ‘worker bees’. Schools are there to educate. Nothing more, nothing less. Whilst understanding you have a deficit to pay off, viewing the next generation of young people simply as the tools by which to do that is an outrage. Your speech makes it quite clear you see children in those terms – as instruments of finance, not as emotional, creative human beings.

When I was at school, I was fortunate enough to have a headteacher of the ‘old school’ – who recognised that by promoting a wide-range of arts/humanities subjects and extra-curricular activities, he would produce more ‘rounded’ pupils. There was little homework, because we were all busy playing in bands, running around sports fields, or acting in plays. At that time, the school was in the top ten in the country in the ‘league tables’. When he retired, he was replaced by a man so desperate to improve academic achievement that he worked the kids impossibly hard: they didn’t have time for extra-curricular activities. The result? The school is now far lower in the league tables and distinctly average. There’s a lesson there, I feel, for the sort of Education Secretary who thinks income and the ‘bottom line’ are the only viable measures of educational achievement.

And in conclusion, when you speak about the risk of closing down young people’s options and limiting their aspirations, I can think of nothing which does that more successfully than an Education Secretary who tells young people (before they have had any chance to make their own minds up about it) that they shouldn’t bother with arts and humanities subjects. Our schools should promote, equally and equitably, all subjects. Arts and humanities have been pushed to the edge of the curriculum for long enough, and it’s time politicians stopped using children as a proving ground for experimental ideas, and focused on helping the next generation to succeed in life, as rounded, well-developed people. Whether they are the next Nobel, or the next Mozart.

As a life-long Conservative voter, I was so disappointed by your comments yesterday that I have decided not to vote for your party at the next election. And I will be sharing this letter widely with my friends and colleagues via social media, because I believe that such an attack on the very subjects and disciplines that have brought great pleasure, successful careers and (yes) good earning potential to me and many others in the arts world cannot go unchallenged.

Yours sincerely

Jon Payne

Regional Music Adviser, Royal School of Church Music Director of Music, St Thomas’ Church, Stourbridge Director, Armonico Consort Academy Choirs

Jon Payne

2 comments on “Jon Payne’s Letter to Education Secretary after remarks about arts & humanities

  1. Richard Beckett
    11/17/2014

    Thank you so much, Jon for articulating so eloquently what so many of us involved in music education are feeling at the moment; utterly under attack from a philistine, ‘price of everything/value of nothing’ bunch of spivs and conmen and women masquerading as a government.

  2. First Night Design
    11/17/2014

    I do hope you will visit Mr Payne’s website to tell him what you have said here. Masquerading is exactly the right word! Thank you for your visit.

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This entry was posted on 11/14/2014 by in Articles, Musicals, Music Hall & Music, Theatre and tagged , .
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