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Back to school

By ProgBlog, Oct 9 2016 08:29PM

Every so often I allow myself the odd hour or two when I fully relax, when I don’t want to listen to anything epic or watch anything that engages, when I watch a fairly mindless film just for fun. Suffering from a heavy cold at the beginning of September (which delayed this blog), I chose to watch the DVD of School of Rock (2003), starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack and Sarah Silverman, directed by Richard Linklater. Though formulaic and predictable the film requires absolutely no thinking and is still moderately enjoyable. One of the great surprises is the chalk board feature of the history of rock which Dewey Finn (the Jack Black character) is teaching to his 10 year old pupils. This scene, lasting only a few seconds, manages to neatly encapsulate the relationship between (rock) musical genres, listing some of the major exponents of each. It must have taken someone some considerable thought to produce and, quite impressively, includes ‘Prog Rock’ with examples Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis (the) Residents and King Crimson. The aspiring keyboard player is given Fragile to listen to as homework, with the instruction to pay close attention to Wakeman’s work on Roundabout. The film wasn’t aimed at the age group featured but it still must have been the first exposure to progressive rock for many of the viewing public.


Watching the DVD coincided with the start of a new school year. As a youth at school, I used to get annoyed at the airing of TV adverts for back-to-school paraphernalia the moment the summer holidays started. (I was similarly dismayed by the start of the season for pushing summer holiday destinations, which started over Christmas…) I don’t know if this was a reaction to commercialisation, a chaotic lifestyle or merely innate laziness, but the bombardment from supermarkets flogging school clothing and stationery stores plugging pencil cases was a major turn-off, as though the six week break was already over when it had barely begun. And anyway, I had far better things to do than think of preparing for a new term.

The start of this school year was heralded by the government indicating that they wanted to reintroduce selective education. There are so many reasons for not returning to the grammar school system and none for the reinstatement of the 11+ but this crazy policy announcement has galvanised a broad range of teaching professionals, education experts and parents, becoming united in opposition to the plans. It’s not even popular with all Conservative MPs, though it does appeal to the more reactionary types. Social mobility has become something of a political mantra and it’s this notion that is behind Theresa May’s idea of the expansion of the grammar schools system, incorrectly attributing the academic success of less affluent pupils to a grammar school education. It’s been pointed out that most children will lose out in a selective system but it’s evident that dogma is at work because there has been next to no thought behind the proposals, just the in-vogue trashing and rejection of objections raised by experts. Not only was there no mention of children with special needs or disabilities, they hadn’t considered the effect on teacher recruitment. I don’t really need to reiterate that the comprehensive system showed it is possible to provide a high quality, inclusive education for all children because the statistics speak for themselves: 86% of state-funded schools are currently rated as good or outstanding. This figure will be at risk if there’s a return to selection. The evidence shows that the educational advantage received by those selected for grammars is more than outweighed by the drag effect of the remaining secondary modern pupils, who perform disproportionately badly. Only 3% of grammar school pupils receive free school meals, and even these will gain only a marginal uplift in GCSE grades. I’m the product of the grammar school system, the child of teachers and someone who has a history of active trade unionism. I know that selection is unfair and that teachers, one of the most recognisable groups of public sector employees, while tasked with educating the nation’s children, are frequently placed in unpleasant positions by politicians.


The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.
The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.

Prog doesn’t really do songs about school, which tends to be straightforward rock subject matter (c.f. the film School of Rock.) I started to become interested in music in 1972 and one of the first songs I heard was Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (1972) which captured the anarchic mood at the end of a summer term with its anthemic guitar-heavy structure and the immortal lines: School’s out for summer, school’s out for ever, school’s been blown to pieces. I recognised this as something I’d not heard before, a form of musical theatre (Cooper brandished a rapier during his performances on Top of the Pops) but it was not something that necessarily convinced me it was worth pursuing, as it was relatively simplistic. That particular single vies with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) (1979) for most memorable school-themed song and it’s not really surprising that I consider this offering as outside of the Floyd progressive period. When The Wall was released and both the album and single became successful, I was torn between celebrating that success (as a band I’d followed for eight years) and disappointed with the quality of the material; the single in particular calls to mind a disco beat, something I’d been decrying for the preceding two to three years. Equally theatrical, it has been misinterpreted as anti-education when it's really an attack on a particular form of educational system within the UK, based on Waters’ own school experience, which he described as detestable: "I hated every second of it, apart from games. The regime at school was a very oppressive one ... the same kids who are susceptible to bullying by other kids are also susceptible to bullying by the teachers.” This comes across very clearly in the film of the album.


One partial exception to the rule appears on Three Friends (1972) by Gentle Giant, a concept album that follows three school friends through their subsequent, somewhat less than satisfying career choices back to their reunion as friends. Following the introductory Prologue school is referenced as the starting point of their friendship in Schooldays where, along with sound effects of a schoolyard which according to Ray Shulman are intended to invoke nostalgia, are suggestions of a care-free existence before the three protagonists begin to question how long they will remain friends. The concept is relatively simple but the album is a forgotten gem in the Giant canon.


Education is about releasing potential. The evidence suggests that high-quality support in a child’s early years improves educational outcomes, as an infant ’s brain is approximately 25% formed at birth, rising to 80% formed by the age of three and this is where gaps open up between children from different backgrounds. That’s why the argument about social mobility and selective education is spurious - children from poorer homes are already playing catch-up by the time they start nursery. If there’s going to be any form of government intervention in education it needs to concentrate on the early years, targeting maternal health, school readiness, the home environment and parenting skills. Just say ‘no’ to more grammar schools.







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