The new culture secretary, Sajid Javid, and his shadow counterpart, Harriet Harman, have both made powerful speeches addressing young people and approaches to class difference in the arts, speaking within three weeks of the Arts Council announcing its spending plans for 2015-18.
Javid, making his first major speech since his appointment in April, told an audience of arts administrators in Bristol that arts organisations were effectively excluding working class youngsters by only offering low paid or unpaid career-start jobs, which they cannot afford to take up.
The son of a Pakistani-born Bristol bus driver, Javid became a multimillionaire banker before entering politics in 2010. He said that it was difficult for working class youngsters to work in the cultural sector, because entry levels were ‘inevitably’ with low or no pay. ‘For a sector that receives so much public subsidy, that’s unacceptable,’ he said.
The public school-educated Harman ‒ speaking at Camden’s Roundhouse, which is dedicated to working with underprivileged young people ‒ said that the arts were in danger of becoming ‘more remote’ from young people in disadvantaged communities and in the regions. Launching a Labour consultation document on young people and the arts, she claimed that participation in arts activities by primary school children was down by a third under the coalition government.
Theatre and drama was also down from 49% to 33%, and dance from 45% to 29%, she said. The numbers taking arts GCSEs have fallen and teacher training places in arts education have been cut by 35%, while the number of specialist arts teachers has also fallen.
Ofsted should ensure high standards in creative learning by not giving a school an outstanding rating if it doesn’t provide an outstanding cultural education, said Harman.
They both also addressed the wider issues of inclusion in their speeches, delivered within four days of each other.
‘There are still far too many people in our country who are effectively excluded from what should be our shared cultural life,’ Javid said, adding that in his first days in office he was shown a graph plotting visits to museums and galleries against socio-economic grouping ‒ with numbers declining down the scale.
‘A lot of people who are paying to support culture through their taxes and lottery tickets seem to think that consuming it is simply not for them, that the work they subsidise is for other, richer people.’
Black and minority ethnic groups were significantly less engaged with the arts than white people, according to National Statistics, and while 14% of the of the UK’s population is non-white, BME applicants were awarded just 5.5% of ACE’s Grants for the Arts last year.
Ms Harman demanded that arts bodies receiving public funding needed to show ‘committed, focused intervention’ to ensure audiences were less middle class, and warned that the arts were in danger of becoming ‘the prerogative of a metropolitan elite’.
She said that public funding must be earned: ‘There is a democratic imperative for the arts to show why the hard-pressed tax payer ‒ struggling with the cost of living crisis ‒ should fund the arts. Public funding is only sustainable to the extent that the public who are paying for it support it.’