Do you know what to study?

Below is a great letter from Paul Archibald in response to an article written by Nicky Morgan The Education Secretary here in the UK.

I love it because it shows how everyone’s life is different, the wonders that are available to anyone if you only do what feels good and right for you.

For me this is everything no matter where your life interests or studies take you.

“The Education Secretary says that too many teenagers are making GCSE and A-level course choices at school that ultimately hold them back for the rest of their life”

Dear Nicky Morgan
Education Secretary

For those of us involved in the arts your statements concerning the value of choosing a career in arts and humanities have come as a shock. To say to young people that these subjects, if studied to degree level, will hold them back and restrict their future career path is misguided and extremely misleading. I think you are wise to highlight the importance and value of physical sciences, engineering and technology degrees but surely not at the expense of age-old disciplines such as Classics, Languages, History, Literature, Music, Theatre, Dance, Philosophy and, of course, your own area of specialism, Law.

Please allow me to offer a personal perspective on why I would wish you to reconsider your view. I am sure my story can be echoed by countless other poor souls who, as a result of a lifetime of study, thought and consideration within the area of arts and humanities, have been ‘held back’ or ‘disadvantaged’ by their choice of career.

As a brass player, I’m a stereotype I’m afraid. Northern lad born in Yorkshire, my dad descended from generations of miners in the North East of England, my mum born illegitimately and eventually, as a result of an advert in a local paper in Nottingham, adopted by a family living in the city. My parents met each other through the Salvation Army and hence, when I came along, my musical influence was firmly routed in the sound of brass, and in particular, the sound of brass bands.

It was wonderful. My brother and I spent 7 days a week playing our beaten up brass instruments – yes, it was straight out of the classic film, Brassed Off – soaking up the world of music, music, music. No orchestras, no dinner jackets or evening dress – that came later. Just hymn tunes, assorted arrangements and selections, marches, seasonal christmas carols and more hymn tunes with the band

Meanwhile, at school, I did well enough to pass my 11 plus and was sent to Eccles Grammar School near Manchester. A few years later, a move back to the north east by my parents, meant that I spend the last three years of my school life in a comprehensive school on a council estate in Darlington, County Durham. I went from being quite a bright lad at primary and grammar school to a fuzzy-headed dunce at the comprehensive who only collected a few O levels and a hopeless collection of CSEs. Throughout this I practiced, practiced, practiced….

I was 17 years old and, one Sunday afternoon, I played a solo with my band and a member of the audience told me I should go and study with him at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I’d never heard of it or him but later discovered he was principal trumpet of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a famous teacher. My parents duly packed me off and after three years of study I succesfully auditioned for a position in the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

How on earth did this transformation take place? In a few years I went from playing football in alleyways in the mining town of Ashington, gradually doing ok at a good school in Manchester then flunking big time in a council estate comprehensive but, somehow at the age of 21 becoming a member of one of the most prestigious and elite classical organisations in the musical world?

It couldn’t be my interest in music because, according to you, music holds me back. Music makes me disadvantaged. Music is most definitely not a good career choice. You tell me the more practical disciplines should be studied to “keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers”. But, as a kid from the north with parents who gave their life to serving in the Salvation Army for a pittance, my chosen career takes me to every continent in the world and allows me to meet great musicians such as Paul McCartney, Sir Simon Rattle, Bob Geldoff and composer John Williams. Add a few royals such as Prince Edward and Prince Charles and, of course, some politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath and you can see that a life in the arts can be quite colourful. I also meet the severely autistic in Hampshire, the aged and infirm at a dilapidated care centre in Trinidad, kids at an orphanage in Sri Lanka, the disadvantaged in Burma, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. A few weeks ago I mix and perform with musicians who know about hardship as their country is tormented by conflict in Ukraine.

But this has to be a mistake. This rich and varied life that has been my privilege – a life full of interest, diversity, challenge and contradiction just isn’t rated by you. You tell me that “too many young people are making choices age 15 which will hold them back for the rest of their lives”. Nicky Morgan – I have some news for you. My career options have been many. Music has opened doors that I could never have imagined. It has allowed me to meet some very special people. It continues to throw at me something different everyday. It demands new skills as I try to keep up with an ever-changing world as the priorites change at the whim of politicans and leaders. Music demands intellectual rigour, self-discipline, communication, sincerity, emotional and spiritual awareness and self-sacrifice. Most of us in arts and humanities don’t end up rich or famous. We do our best to develop and deepen an understanding of the world that we believe arts and humanities can bring.

You have a difficult job as education minister. You have to make difficult decisions and it’s inevitable that not everyone will agree with the decisions you make. Please encourage young people to pursue physical sciences, engineering and technology and to think seriously about their careers. At the same time, try to accept that we travel through life via different routes. We can all make a difference in our own small way whether it’s through rocket science or nuclear physics or as a dance teacher or poet. But please don’t devalue or compare what, for many of us, is a vocational life that provides constant surprises.

Kate Landells, Headteacher at Hill House School in Lymington, a residential provision for students aged 11-19 with autistic spectrum disorders, severe learning difficulties and associated challenging behaviour says it simply and succinctly on her Just Giving Page for the 2014 Great South Run when she explains the reason she is participating in the event is because she believes music changes lives. Music has changed my life too. All I ask of you is that you appreciate the arts, support them and be an advocate for them. Encourage children to value them and be enriched by them. In that way you just might make a difference too, which is why you became a politician to start with, isn’t it….?


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