Toby Young Toby Young

The fine art of talking bunkum

Sir Nicholas Serota exaggerates how much the arts have been downgraded in schools and universities since 2010

At the last minute, a friend invited me to a ‘Distinguished Speakers Dinner’ at the Oxford and Cambridge Club earlier this week. The dinner was being hosted by Christ’s College and the speaker was Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries and one of the college’s alumni. His subject was ‘The arts in education: luxury or necessity?’, which is why my friend thought I might be interested. Indeed I was.

There’s an awful lot of bunkum talked about the arts in education and I’m afraid Sir Nicholas’s speech was no exception. Nothing wrong with the overall thrust of his argument — that arts subjects in schools and universities should enjoy parity of esteem with Stem subjects, as well as with academic humanities like history and geography — but he exaggerated the extent to which arts subjects have been downgraded since 2010.

I should say that Sir Nicholas is hardly exceptional in this regard. The view that the arts have been under attack for the past five years, particularly in schools and universities, is ubiquitous across the artistic establishment. It is part and parcel of the liberal intelligentsia’s de haut en bas attitude towards Conservative politicians, who are caricatured as ignorant philistines with no cultural ‘hinterland’. He quoted Michael Gove telling him, shortly after he’d become Education Secretary, that he didn’t think the arts should be included in the national curriculum at all. No doubt this was a misunderstanding on Sir Nicholas’s part, because when the new national curriculum came into force last year the arts were no less prominent than they were in the old one. I know this because I co-authored a book on the new primary national curriculum called What Every Parent Needs to Know and I was responsible for writing the chapters on all the arts subjects, about a third of the total.

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