TV review: School, and Holst and Vaughan Williams: Making music English

23 November 2018

BBC/Label1/Ryan McNamara

Julie Thomas, James Pope, and Stuart Emery, from School

Julie Thomas, James Pope, and Stuart Emery, from School

REQUIRED watching, really, for any serious engagement with the state of our nation, School (BBC2, Tuesdays) follows a year in the life of Marlwood Comprehensive School, just north of Bristol. It neither sensationalises nor sanitises, and I value the way that the individual school is placed in context: academy status; OFSTED inspection and judgement; and, above all, diminishing finances.

We see an institution with everything stacked against it. Classed as requiring “special measures”, it must score higher results in every aspect of its life, but receives no extra resources to help it to do so. Prospective parents are swayed by this judgement — so far, too few elect to send their children there; so the money spirals down again.

Students’ “challenging behaviour” (i.e., dumb insolence, abuse, and violence) is met with extraordinary patience and imaginative attempts to change attitudes; but staff reckon that they are reaping the harvest of budget cuts earlier in the system, and the termination of specialist support and intervention at primary level and from social services.

The school, it seems to me, is supposed, single-handedly, to reverse the breakdown of family and community structures; the celebration of immediate gratification; and the mockery attaching to steady, unrewarded application and basic respect. Teachers are now required to be absolutely effective and super­human; each year’s results must outdo last years’.

No wonder the level of staff sickness and resignation is so high — the surprise is the loyalty and commitment of so many in the face of blame and condemnation. They are not the only glimmer of hope: behaviour and discipline did improve, and the two most egregious miscreants changed their attitudes and joined in.

A rather different school was portrayed in Holst and Vaughan Williams: Making music English (BBC2, Saturday). The privileged girls of St Paul’s Girls’ School, in west London, had Gustav Holst as music master over many decades; not just a dedicated teacher, he composed for its ensembles pieces that are still played and loved throughout the world.

I was pleased to see that the social commitment shown by these composers’ work in education was balanced by acknowledgement of their central contribution to the music of the Church: Holst at Thaxted, with Conrad Noel; Vaughan Williams at St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, whose choir sang for us from The English Hymnal.

The programme traced their commitment to folk song, seeking indigenous melody and style as a new basis for a national music, no longer a pale offshoot of the overwhelming Germanic tradition. They made their plans as they walked the Malverns, up the road from Marlwood School. Does the national curriculum allow that school’s pupils any sense of the cultural tradition forged for their delight?

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