Arts education, sometimes it’s down to good fortune.
Tom Sherrington @teacherhead and author of the excellent book ‘The Learning Rainforest’ visited Saffron Walden County High School in July 2018 in order to contribute to a debate about educational research. Following an inspiring dayhe tweeted this:
The comment provoked a response from Vic Goddard, the Headteacher of Passmores Academy in Harlow which featured in the 2011 Channel 4 fly on the wall documentary ‘Educating Essex’. Vic asked me “You don’t know another wealthy donor that you can point in our direction to give us a few million do you?” It is a good question and a fair point. State schools rarely have world class facilities or benefit from the generosity of wealthy philanthropists and now may be the time to change this. Why do the very schools and communities who need and deserve a boost in their facilities so rarely get them? Why is Saffron Hall such an anomaly in the state sector?
If you have not visited Saffron Hall yet, you should do so. It is one of the most impressive arts venues in England. It was built five years ago and cost a jaw-dropping £10 million. The money was donated by an anonymous philanthropist who had a radical vision: his own children benefitted from high quality comprehensive education at the school and he explicitly wanted to leave County High with a facility that would be the envy of every fee-paying school in the area. Saffron Hall realises this vision, perfectly. It is an aesthetically delightful design, has a near-perfect acoustic and its stage is regularly graced by the likes of Maxim Vengerov, Nicola Benedetti, Courtney Pine and The London Symphony Orchestra, all of whom featured in the 2018 programming. More importantly for me, as Headteacher at the school, the facility champions Arts Education. Visiting musicians offer masterclasses and workshops to our students and engage with children in collaborative dance, jazz, singing, drama or classical music ventures. The inspirational performance space lifts our shows and concerts to a professional level. The hall is hired by local independent schools for their annual concerts.
My last statement is laced with some irony. 52% of independent schools have their own bespoke concert halls, hardly any state schools do. The fees charged by the top fee-paying schools would be enough to educate nine children in the state sector in the least well-funded authorities. The experience of the arts in comprehensive schools is under severe threat and this is directly related to the sharp decrease in state school funding which has fallen by 8% in real terms since 2010 according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Many schools have no option but to cut their arts provision because the courses have become unaffordable. Music education, in particular, has suffered. The cultural capital of our young people is under threat as a consequence of this under-investment in schools and arts facilities. In 2018, David Carter, the then National Schools Commissioner for England, commented: “The reduction in the number of children studying the arts will have a knock on to the cultural capital of this country.” What has been exacerbated, through underfunding, is the already existing inequality in the way that cultural capital is distributed. Some, via their privileged education, have the advantage of being able to access a rich diet of high culture whilst others are now being denied that access. Saffron Hall is an anomaly because it provides exposure to and experience of high culture for all children within a comprehensive school setting.
So, returning to Vic’s question, can we persuade more enlightened philanthropists to think twice before adding adornments to the facilities of their independent almae matres and to invest in high-quality arts facilities for their local state schools instead? If we can, Passmores might get the glorious concert hall it deserves!