“What an unusual combination”, say the majority on finding out what I teach. Though sometimes I ask, never do they justify their surprise – I suspect because it’s a bit rude to say “but music’s so easy, and maths is for clever people“.
Subject snobbery is a type of prejudice that particularly irks me, probably because I teach at opposite ends of the very well entrenched (and deepening, I’ve no doubt) subject hierarchy. Through experience, I have come to realise that the ill effects of our rotten communal outlook on subject-worth are by no means exclusively borne by subjects at the bottom of the ladder: I have certainly seen a lot of kids refusing to do any work in music lessons because ‘there’s no point in it’, but I have seen far more tantrums and tears in maths lessons because ‘I’m a failure’ with no life prospects (the term ‘life prospects’ being more or less interchangeable with ‘a grade C in GCSE maths’ in current educational thought).
Yet we rarely bother to challenge the perspectives of students, parents, colleagues or friends who openly subject-rank, perhaps because we don’t know how. Or perhaps because most of us, if we’re honest, buy into it a little. Some of my colleagues in the creative arts do make an effort, giving seemingly solid arguments for our subjects’ importance that warrant them a much higher place in the hierarchy: “creativity is the most valued asset in [insert name of high-economic worth industry]”, “the arts are worth £84 billion per year to our economy” or, my personal (least) favourite, “music is maths; music is literacy, music is a language, etc.”. But, much like the concept of ‘social mobility’ (don’t get me started), these arguments will never be effective because they only serve to strengthen the notion of hierarchy in the first place.
Implicit in any argument for arts education as an assistant to developing employability is an acceptance of the axiom that the primary function of our education system is economic. Surely it is not the economic worth of arts education which should be in dispute, but the worth of an exclusively economic outlook in the first place. I understand the potential value of an education system that supplies skilled workers in proportions that markets demand, but I also see rather a lot of value in showing young people more direct routes to happiness, such as upholding values of universal respect and equality, for example.
My view is that dividing school subjects, and thereby the teachers and students who work within those subjects, into groups which we suppose are of intrinsically varied value is fundamentally wrong. This is what needs tackling, not by arguing for the underdog subjects on individual bases, but firstly by reaching genuine consensus in and beyond the teaching profession that, in absolute terms, learning anything at secondary level is as worthwhile as learning anything else. Alas, so long as economists operate politicians who operate teachers, we’re simply not going to manage that.
So what can we do? It’s pretty simple, actually: just ignore EBacc and Progress 8 and Attainment 8 and whatever other million pound documents the DfE have released whilst I’ve been typing this. If schools united in disdain for such deliberately divisive initiatives and acted together against them, they would effectively cease to exist as data failed to conform sufficiently to build the much-hated-anyway league tables. The path would be clear for us to be able to say with honesty and confidence to our students and children: “you’re good at this, she’s good at that, and you’re both as good as each other”.
Oh, yeah, none of us has the balls. Carry on, then.