Fab Four studies? Let it be

Image of Robert Shrimsley

I heard the news today, oh boy. It seems that The Beatles are likely to drop off the curriculum for primary schools. The scale of this shock can only be compared to the one I experienced upon discovering that The Beatles were ever on it in the first place.

The girl came home from school two weeks ago enthusing about “Yellow Submarine” and wondering what Ringo had been doing for the last 20 years. Parents at other schools report similar experiences. One said her son had been asked to write the next verse of “Eleanor Rigby”, which seemed a bit of a challenge since we last saw her dying in church and buried along with her name. How exactly does that next verse run? “Eleanor Rigby rose from the dead like a zombie who’s searching for flesh. Doesn’t smell fresh.”

Apparently, The Beatles are taught as an optional history subject in the “topics” approach, which sees the chosen subject infusing all academic disciplines from English to geography. This half-term that topic has been John Lennon and The Beatles; last term it was the Tudors, which seems odd because they never even had a number one, let alone a sellout tour of America.

Technically, The Beatles have not been mentioned in the national curriculum for a few years, but schools retained the latitude to teach the subject. Now, however, Michael Gove’s new and more prescriptive curriculum offers little hope for Fab Four studies – it not fitting easily into the Agincourt, Waterloo module. So, alas, the girl will be one of the last children to emerge at 11 with a basic grounding in the Sgt. Pepper album cover. You have to fear for future generations.

For a happy few hours on discovering this term’s topic I luxuriated in getting all Gove-ish about Beatles studies, noting that while the spawn could tell me about the evolution of The Quarrymen, they still couldn’t find Liverpool on a map. I harrumphed that we never had this subject in my day (I had to make do with advanced Rubettes with a sub-course in glam rock). I still haven’t entirely stopped harrumphing, wondering about an education system with little place for the second world war but a timetable that offers double “Strawberry Fields“ followed by a period of Blue Meanies.

But lately I’ve started to see at least some merit in a brief foray into Beatles studies. Gove is right to see a surfeit of fluff in some primary school courses, even if there’s also a tad too much “Yesterday” about his solution. But the teacher who set the “Eleanor Rigby” challenge actually seems rather imaginative. It is not an easy task, requiring an appreciation of lyrics, scansion and loneliness that one might not always see in a 10-year-old. The Beatles also offer a gateway into the 1960s, a decade which significantly shaped modern Britain. At home, the topic led to discussions on drugs, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and how exactly staying in bed would shorten the Vietnam war – the latter prompting unwelcome questions as to what I had been protesting about last weekend when I didn’t get up until 9am. (That’s right dear, I’m not lazy – I’m worried about Syria.)

One wouldn’t want a year of rock studies but the real issue is that – like so much else – The Beatles are not taught with sufficient rigour or conviction. Another parent recalled spotting in his son’s exercise book that John Lennon had been misspelled several times but not corrected.

Yet one could teach a lot through the prism of The Beatles and not just modules on George Harrison and the sitar in 1960s culture. Liverpool, the city that formed them, is a case study in international trade, slavery and the economic evolution of Britain. Sadly it isn’t taught like this. The arguments against Gove often come down to condemnation of rote learning, but that is actually a criticism of poor teaching rather than poor subject choices. Children can be enthused by almost any subject if it is taught well.

Good teachers will make a worthwhile topic of The Beatles and this is the key point. Be it magical mystery or tragical history, it’s not just the topic that counts; it’s the quality of the teaching. If we don’t grasp that we’re nowhere, man.

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