The word on everybody’s lips just now is Legacy. In this last week, a brand-new 10-point plan to secure the sporting legacy of London 2012 was announced, including a raft of initiatives designed to capitalise on the momentum gained during the Games to embed sports participation in the lives of all UK young people.
And what better time to lay out these plans, than when we’ve so recently witnessed the capacity of sport to unite people of all nationalities, cultures, faiths and ages?
But let’s not forget that it wasn’t just sport doing its bit to ‘inspire a generation’. Four years before the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Cultural Olympiad began, with Britain’s culture sector launching a myriad of projects intended to showcase the vibrancy of the British arts world, and – more crucially – to bring its communities together through art. Six weeks before the Olympics, the London 2012 festival – the biggest celebration of UK culture in a generation and the culmination of the Olympiad – began.
The Olympiad and the Festival included thousands of opportunities for young people to get involved in creative activities. Many were introduced to the arts for the first time, taking part in projects such as Stories of the World, which invited young people to partner with museums and galleries as curators and contributors, helping to shape the way stories were told through their collections. For others, like Azekel – a young musician who came to the Olympic Park bandstand with other performers from the Roundhouse, and made such an impression that he found himself invited to play a gig at the top of the 376ft Orbit tower – this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show off their talents with the world watching. For all, it was an opportunity to make a memory that would stay with them forever.
At a time when UK youth had more to feel despondent about than they had in decades, they were engaged and inspired by cultural projects that were, for the most part, being delivered without new facilities, or increased media attention, or – crucially – much of a cash injection.
So where is the 10-point Cultural Legacy plan to build on this work? Erm, nowhere to be seen – at least at present. So far, the government have outlined only a two-point plan to communicate their future aspirations for UK Culture, with the appointment of a ‘part-time’ Culture Secretary with little experience in the arts and a split portfolio that gives her even less time to spend on them, and a warning – via the Arts Council’s Simon Mellor – that further, deeper cuts to the sector are on their way. As plans go, this is pretty devastating.
It’s fairly clear, then, that this is a Government with little understanding of culture’s value to society. Curiously, it seems to have been rather quicker to grasp the benefits of sport – perhaps due its more obvious health benefits, or the greater emphasis commonly placed on it in British public schools.
Whatever the reason, one hot topic that ministers were clamouring to wax lyrical about during the Games was the need for greater priorisation of school sports, in particular Team Games. In the Today programme‘s debate on their importance to children’s development, David Cameron himself asserted that there were some qualities – such as collaboration; commitment; problem-solving; perseverance; fair play – that could only be developed on the playing field.
Deconstructing his remarks, some commentators countered with stories of the humilation, and sometimes bullying, that school sports represented for them during their teenage years. I sympathised, but as I listened I couldn’t help but think that the argument was missing something vital.
And that’s because those very same qualities are all ones I see every day – in spades – in young people who participate in creative activities.
Evidently, then, there is more than one way to ‘inspire a generation’. Despite what our politicians may think, even the woefully un-coordinated can learn the importance of thinking laterally to overcome obstacles, of dedication to a task and to a team, and the rewards of sheer hard work, from working on a theatre production, editing a school or college magazine, or playing in a band or orchestra. In fact, a recent Cambridge University study shows evidence that active participation in musical activities, in particular, significantly boosts empathy levels – arguably more so than grinding your rugby studs into an opponent’s shins on a weekly basis.
As I remember my high-school drama teacher once telling my class before an opening night, “This is different to the football pitch. When you go out there, no one’s supporting another team – they’re all rooting for you.”
Now, more than ever, UK youth need us all on their side. They face the toughest set of challenges to any generation since the war years, with one in five 16-24-year-olds unemployed and opportunities for under-25s narrowing by the day as the spiralling cost of a University education prices many young people – whose families are neither extremely wealthy, nor have a sufficiently low-income to make them eligible for help with fees – out of the market.
The stakes, then, are high. This is a world in which young people will need all their creative thinking, self-confidence, audacity and enterprise to carve a niche for themselves. Which makes participation in any activity that develops these faculties absolutely invaluable in giving them the tools to build their own futures.
We can be certain that this Government not going to do it for them. By (at best) overlooking or (at worst) penalising the arts, it is jeopardising all the work done by the sector to invest in and nurture these vital qualities, and to continue to develop one UK export that does still have currency – Great British Creativity.
I sincerely hope that Ministers’ commitment to ‘inspiring a generation’ is more than skin-deep, and borne out of a real inclination to invest in young people’s futures, rather than a cynical desire to capitalise on the post-Games swell of enthusiasm for sports.
Based on the current evidence, I’ll take some convincing.