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Why are educationists so afraid of cultural excellence?

We should lead children to appreciate the finest in literature, music and all the arts

One of the (many) things wrong with our education system is that we have, as a nation, come to fear quality and excellence.

We no longer seem to want to share with our children and young people the very finest cultural achievements.

Instead we regard opera, classical music, Shakespeare, Dickens and paintings which rely on symbolism and/or mythology and much more as “too difficult”. Or we say they’re obscure and, worse, irrelevant. The prevalent view is that these things, especially opera (partly because it’s expensive) are just for “toffs” so we don’t need to worry or insult our children with them.  

At the weekend British conductor Sir Antonio Pappano, said that the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where he has been musical director for 10 years, now carries such a social stigma that Members of Parliament who buy tickets take steps to avoid being seen entering or leaving the building. Like adopting an estuary accent when you were brought up to speak RP, that’s an absurd example of inverted snobbery. No wonder the curriculum is so dumbed down if that’s the example set by people in the public eye.

Why can’t we celebrate that which is great with children rather than apologetically putting them off? Any teacher could familiarise children with, say, The Marriage of Figaro by playing recordings (all those fabulous tunes) sharing film and working on the story. You can appreciate opera without necessarily buying an expensive ticket. And for those who want to take children to see opera at first hand, almost every opera house has an enthusiastic education department and many of them stage events for children. School-based projects are quite usual and I know of several opera companies involving children in community operas this summer. The Royal Opera House which has a £25,787,886 Arts Council grant this year rising to £26,430.076 in 2014/15 has, rightly, an education department second to none and offers many opportunities to children and young people.  But they won’t be able to avail themselves of any of this without commitment from teachers and parents.

The same applies to some books. Why not enthusiastically lead children to some of the finest writing in English – which may take a bit of work to appreciate fully? Education is about opening doors. I love Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson but many children will read these quite happily without a great deal of pushing. The educator’s job is to lead them towards reading experiences – Dickens or Austen, for example, which they might not otherwise discover for themselves. A lot of work has been done by theatre companies (led by the RSC and Shakespeare’s Globe) in recent years to open up Shakespeare to more young people but, in much of the country, many students are still missing out.

We owe it to young people to instil knowledge and love of the best. Other countries, which don’t poison their thinking with snobbery, seem to manage it. Pappano said in the same interview that when he conducted in Rome last year he was congratulated and invited to dinner by Mario Monti, the then prime minister of Italy. He has never dined with a member of the British cabinet because our politicians are afraid of accusations of elitism – and with an example like that it’s hardly surprising that the wrong messages filter down to children.

If you persist in fobbing children off with easy, “accessible” material – whether its easy pop music or simple reading material - then you trap them within the confines of their own existing cultural limitations rather than leading them to new discoveries – and that is profoundly anti-educational. It’s why I insisted on teaching Great Expectation to GCSE groups when other teachers were opting for Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, an easy-read young adult American novel which I reckoned 15 and 16 year olds could manage independently. And afterwards my group was very pleased that we’d done the Dickens.

We should be constantly raising the bar, not lowering it. And opera is a very good example.