Culture Wars

In today’s society, to call someone a ‘Philistine’ is to decry that person’s lack of education and culture. It has an interesting etymology. Apparently, the Victorian literary critic, poet and Her Majesty’s School Inspector, Matthew Arnold, was fond of using it, bringing it into regular use.

This seems rather appropriate now. A debate is raging around Ofsted’s focus on ‘cultural capital’ in their new inspection framework. Today’s HMIs are now following in the footsteps of Matthew Arnold, checking whether schools are teaching ‘the best that has been thought and said.’ I can picture Arnold now, trudging around the country, talking to parents and teachers, eulogising about the poetry he loved, the theatre he adored, the music he cried to.  

Arnold may well have turned in his grave had he heard the opinions of several Multi-Academy Trust CEOs last week. They were critical of Ofsted’s focus on cultural capital, saying that it ‘favoured middle-class kids’.

Arnold believed in a society where what he called ‘sweetness and light’ was to the fore. He was hostile to what he perceived were harsh, uncouth, economically based attitudes towards education and was often ridiculed in the press for his beliefs, beliefs that appeared out-of-step with the times. He lamented an industrialised society that inexorably saw education as a vehicle for production and service to the growing empire. The aristocracy apart, people were to have little time for culture – their fate was thrown down the mines, into the factories, across the battlefield.

Today’s society is not Victorian Britain, but there are some attitudinal crossovers in our view of ‘the working-class’ – that they should not have the same benefits as middle-class children. For them, the music tuition is superfluous, the museum visits wasteful and the international trips profligate. They need to gain the basics of a narrowed curriculum in order to get reasonable GCSEs which open the doors to social mobility.

But do they?

I once heard my son’s school tell us that my son’s GSCEs were his ‘golden ticket to the future!’ I think what he was really saying was something like, ‘Your son’s GCSEs are vital to our Progress 8 score!’, and I didn’t blame him one bit for saying it – his job depended on it.

I suppose I’m a bit of a Matthew Arnold and see the bigger picture. If we don’t expose our children to a rich cultural world, I’m not sure that it’s a society I want to be part of. I see education as far bigger that a narrow curriculum that leads to a set of, let’s face it, pretty non-descript GCSE certificates. I’m an employer myself, and I rarely glance at what people got in their GCSEs.

As important is an education of the mind, turning it to the remarkable things that the world has given us. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than a conversation with a parent on the playground last term. Her boy, in Year 5, was to begin the Junior Orchestra rehearsals the following evening – all as the result of his progress on the violin. He was excelling within our ‘In Harmony’ initiative with the Liverpool Philharmonic.

I asked his Mum if all the necessary lifts and timings were all OK, ready for him to start.

‘Oh, yes, but he’ll have to wait a few weeks. He’s got his Henry V rehearsals until then.’

I’ve also read criticisms which have centred on an inferred paternalism. What right have Ofsted, or indeed any organisation, to decide on what classes as cultural capital? This criticism has usually been expressed in the question,

‘So who chooses the best that has been thought and said?’

I think this is obfuscation. It is typical of the liberal relativism of the age. It invariably leads to a boring and tired discussion as to whether Stomszy should equally be defined as part of ‘the best that has been thought and said.’ (Answer. No.)

Surely, this is the point. It is the job of educators to make these decisions. Headteachers reach the position of running a school precisely because they should be able to decide what is the best for their children. Presumably they are well-read, well-travelled and think deeply about these things? That’s what they’re paid to do. Make decisions.

I think the best headteachers appreciate the importance of having both. Pupils can be exposed to the best that has been thought and said, but can also be able to master a set of basic skills which enable them to pass GCSE exams. These headteachers get the balance right, though it is becoming harder to sustain it all, it really is.

And yet children are not all the same, and some will struggle with mathematics, or reading comprehension, or computing. They should not be deprived of cultural learning as a result.

So I agree with Ofsted on this one. Cultural capital is something we want for all pupils, indeed adults, irrespective of socio-economic backgrounds. Who knows, it might just do something to reverse the divisiveness that blights much of our public life, shining in a little bit of Arnold’s ‘sweetness and light.’

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