In a far more interesting address to the Radio Festival than that delivered by Pete Townshead a year ago, Billy Bragg focused on music education in his John Peel Lecture last night, and expressed a concern that creativity is increasingly a pursuit of the wealthy.
Warning that the government’s current meddling with the GCSE-level examination system, and its ambition to launch an English baccalaureate, would result in the arts being downgraded in the classroom, Bragg told his audience, reports The Guardian: “At a time of cuts to the education budget, the pressure on schools to dump subjects like music and drama in favour of those that offer high marks in performances tables will only grow. [There's an] insistence that knowledge is more important than creativity. [But] as Albert Einstein said, imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited while imagination embraces the whole world”.
And a move away from teaching creative subjects in secondary schools wouldn’t only be unfair to those children who are creatively gifted, it would have wider social implications, Bragg reckons. He continued: “Evidence shows that pupils from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to go on to higher education. Young people do better in English and maths subjects if they study the arts. They are more easily employable, more likely to vote, to volunteer and to get a degree. You might add to that they will be more likely to get into the charts too”.
And children from higher-income families will increasingly dominate the creative industries, Bragg added, because private schools will continue to pump money into arts education. “A decent education in the arts will only be available to those able to pay for it”, he said. “Now, I realise that private education is something that no one really wants to talk about in the UK. Politicians would rather lay the blame for inequality at the door of the underfunded state system than discuss the excessive influence of the privately educated. But the fact is that, for the first time since the 1960s, our society is dominated by the 10% of the population who go to private school”.
“The prime minister went to Eton”, he continued, “the archbishop of Canterbury went to Eton; the mayor of London went to Eton: even the man they tell me is the new Billy Bragg – Frank Turner – went to Eton. Now you may be thinking here he goes – middle-aged Clash fan railing against the state of modern music. I don’t have anything against those who were sent to private schools by their parents – Peel himself went to Shrewsbury public school and Joe Strummer went to Westminster. And my only real criterion when it comes to music is whether or not a song moves me. This issue here is not one of social class, but of access”.
The radio industry itself could help ensure more access to creativity for all, Bragg said, by taking more risks in the music it plays, and operating more proactively at a local level, so that new talent with limited means would see options open to them other than Simon Cowell’s telly talent show franchises. Jake Bugg, he noted, benefited from early support from BBC Radio Nottingham. Bugg’s local commercial station had also been an early champion via its “unsigned” initiative, but that programme was axed when owner Global rebranded local station Trent FM as another outpost for national brand Capital FM.
He concluded: “I can’t believe that there aren’t plenty of articulate teenagers out there with an ear for a good tune and a chip on their shoulder who have something to say. Given the crucial role that radio played in bringing Jake Bugg to the attention of the music industry, and the good work that is being done to introduce new talent to the airwaves, why aren’t there more kids from his kind of background in the charts?”
Listen to the lecture in full here.