Joan Bakewell: It's a child's right to experience the joy of creativity

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The Independent Online

It's easy enough to mock. The Prime Minister's proposals to bring five hours of culture a week into schools can be easily parodied, especially by those who believe themselves more culturally refined than lesser mortals.

Visions of kids from sink estate being herded into Gotterdammerung; the nightmare that your theatre seat may be next to some chattering child who doesn't have theatre-going manners; reading reams of Wordsworth to Asbo kids... all these are grotesque put-downs from cultural snobs who assert, with no evidence whatsoever, that "there are just some people who will never be interested in culture". How patronising is that, and just how open are they themselves to the dangerous and challenging new arts that are flourishing in galleries and theatres today?

The Campaign for the Arts has been lobbying for years to have just such an input into the lives of the country's children. They have done so because an enjoyment of music, art, books, plays, films, can influence for the better all our adult lives. Children are naturally creative, but the pressures of formal education, with its targets and SATs, squeeze the imagination and limit a child's scope for spontaneity and self-expression. Every parent knows that toddlers enjoy making marks on paper, finger painting, construction, modelling with clay. They like banging a toy drum, shaking a tambourine. As they learn language, they like words that rhyme and lines that have rhythm. It is something we encourage.

Then what happens? What goes wrong? The serious world takes over and the business of life is seen to be more important. School becomes a place to acquire qualifications. We have each let our own creativities lapse, as the dogged business of learning stuff, passing exams, getting a decent job, takes over. This is a simplification, of course, because some of us will encounter an inspiring teacher who keeps our enthusiasm alive. Others will grow up in homes where art and music are appreciated. Many will attend schools with an enlightened outlook on the arts. Thus, early on in life, are those who will enjoy culture as adults separated off from the rest?

They will grow up with a taste for painting, music and literature, while others are left to make do with routine lessons, dismal surroundings and, not surprisingly, a keen resentment that others should be having a better time. Children's natural creativity, their spontaneity and pleasure don't deserve to be crushed out of them. The government now appreciates this, and is doing something momentous about it. It would be tragic if a sullen reluctance by teachers and schools to bring this about were to spoil a genuine attempt to make coming generations more fulfilled.

Some of this is happening already. At half-term, a visiting eight-year-old granddaughter asked to be taken to see a painting: Turner's Fighting Temeraire. It was a school project, apparently, and at a state primary school, too. Arriving at the National Gallery we were told instantaneously where to find the picture. Were others asking too? Indeed they were. Other eight-year-olds were already peering into the painting, and pointing out details to bemused adults. Perhaps Turner is already on the curriculum.

The follow-up was interesting. Back home I was required to fetch paints and paper, dig out some dried up old paintbrushes, spread newssheets to avoid splashes, and supply mugs of clean water. Copying great Turner watercolours may not be what the pundits recommend as the best way to learn to paint, but it goes one better. It harnesses an enthusiasm that, if nourished, can last a lifetime.

There used to be, in this country, a network known as Theatre-in-Education: small itinerant companies of professional actors who toured schools with workshops and performances that freed children from the tyranny of desks and classrooms and brought physicality into their lives. Since Mrs Thatcher's day, and the rigours of rate-capping, many of those companies have gone under. But they set a precedent.

Many of the country's theatres have educational outreach programmes. So do art galleries and museums. These institutions know well that such programmes are among the most successful at attracting sponsorship. Corporates like to be seen having an input into education. But sponsorship isn't enough to galvanise activity on a scale the Government intends. The skills already exist in the arts world, the tide of sponsorship is with them, now the political will is engaged. This is a great triumph for those who wish young people to grow into fulfilled human beings, with lives not obsessed by the pursuit of money, but rich in the small and daily pleasures that the arts bring to all our lives. Go for it, I say.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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