State School Music Crisis

How many of you saw the letter in The Times newspaper on Friday 20 September 2019 that started “Thousands of jobs are at risk in the music education sector” and signed by over one-hundred musicians including Sir Simon Rattle.

It’s sad to say, but if you have a child who’s a budding musician – and you have the disposable income – you should forget music in our state schools and either get them a team of private music teachers; get them in to an independent school; or send them to a junior department at one of the UK’s leading conservatoires [like the Junior Royal Northern or the Junior Royal College etc].

Research suggests that state schools have seen a 21% decrease in music provision over the last five years and access to music in independent schools has risen by 7%. Music education in the UK is now firmly a two-tier system and something has to change because a whole generation of children are missing out. This is not the fault of music teachers in state schools; it’s down to government education policy.

The current wider opportunities system is flawed in many ways as pupils in primary and junior schools are given instruments to play for a year, then have the instrument taken off them at the end of the year which is terrible for the child who likes playing it [bear in mind that some parents can’t afford to buy them a replacement instrument to use after the instrument’s handed back].

The teaching is often not given by a professional of that instrument, so children perceive these lessons as a waste of time. One in five primary school teachers reported there was no regular music lesson for their class, and only 12% of schools in deprived areas have an orchestra, compared with 85% of independent schools. This inequality is deeply unfair to children in the state sector.

Some fantastic musicians came through the state school music and county music service system. The best years of peri teaching we’re in the system that was offered to schools where children learned with a professional teacher of that instrument, the school had an orchestra, there were great local music centres and county ensembles to move on to for those pupils who wanted to progress to whatever level they wished to achieve.

Music lessons can provide a wonderful chance for children to connect and explore. The current government view on music teaching seems to fail seeing the wider learning it provides. We’re losing the opportunity to search and develop musical talent and the educational benefits of learning music are being missed.

Musical skill and creativity is being overlooked even at a time when there is positive evidence around the benefits of music on brain function and emotional growth. Music helps literacy, cognitive, communication, social, physical development, work ethic, confidence, creativity, patience, team building and discipline which impacts positively on other subjects too.

In secondary schools, the pressures of achievement seem to rule out anything that may affect the schools OFSTED results. Although music’s still statutory up to KS3, heads seem to be empowered to drive up standards as they see fit, which means music suffers as STEM subjects are given more time and funding.

You can’t blame heads though. I know a head who to some extent, resisted the pressure of government education policy. I was told that schools are currently measured on something called ‘Progress 8’ and ‘Attainment 8’ which reports the progress of children in Maths and English… then science… then ebacc subjects… and then the subjects that are in the open basket (PE, Arts, RE). Heads are under pressure to show improvements in Maths, English, Science, etc, so ultimately that’s obviously where the funding is flowing.

The new proposed OFSTED framework for inspecting schools from September 2019 is looking for a more enriched and balanced education across all sectors, primary and secondary; and seems less interested in outcomes / exam results. Let’s hope they are more interested in how schools are developing children because music should be crucial within this.

OFSTED seem to look at a school’s data online and form a judgement based on a schools summative testing of SATs, GCSE / O levels and A levels before they visit a school. I think we should go back to HMI’s and keep the OFSTED money in schools.

I don’t want to sound cynical, but now that it’s also been ‘discovered’ by academic researchers that university graduates in ‘The Arts’ and ‘Humanities’ are – in general – more likely to earn financially less during their careers.

Are ‘Arts & Humanities’ courses going to suffer because of that? It seems to be all money-driven, and although finances shouldn’t be the only consideration in the grand scheme of things, is it a case that the government will have less tax coming in from people working in ‘The Arts’ and ‘Humanities’ so they’re not as interested in the subject?

Whatever the reason, it’s a social and cultural disgrace and no matter who is in government, this current situation needs to change. We will end up in a cultural desert with adults as music takers and not music makers if we’re not careful. It’s been going on for ages now and exactly the same challenges were noted by Darren Henley in his [2011] Henley Review. The problems are so serious now that they’re going to challenge the very existence of music education in state schools before we know it.

Music in State Schools is quite simply going down the toilet! Music was the fastest disappearing A-level subject in the UK. Between September 2016 and September 2018, the number of schools and colleges offering music has dropped by around 38% according to research from the Association of School and College Leaders.

The Department of Education’s own statistics show a fall of 17% in music GCSE since 2014 / 2015 yet Nick Gibb – the Minister for School Standards – when he appeared at The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee in December 2018 portrayed music GCSE to be broadly stable?! Research by the University of Sussex in 2018 found there were over 15% fewer places offering A-level music compared to 2016.

Music education in state schools in the UK is at a new crisis point and it needs a new national plan because music’s about much more than just learning an instrument. The Department for Education’s aim is for 90 per cent of students to be taking English Baccalaureate subjects – a combination of subjects inc English, maths, sciences, history or geography and a language – for GCSE by 2025 and music in state schools IS slowly dying.

Before long, the only children on the stage at a state school concert will be the lucky ones… i.e. the children whose parents / guardians can afford to pay for private music lessons.

All this matters because music-making is a great health boost, gives social benefits, allows you to meet new friends, improves emotional intelligence…. and if you’re only bothered about the financials, it’s an economic powerhouse as the UK music industry created revenues of around £2.5 BILLION in 2017 alone (which looks like this £2,500,000,000 – that’s a LOT of money).

So what we need is more money to fund specialist teachers, sustained investment and not just some headline grabbing one-off cash injections.

Written Summer 2019

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