The end of music in schools as we know it?

  • Posted on 18 September 2012 at 1:37pm
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There is nothing wrong in wanting to improve standards in schools, especially of ‘core’ skills such as reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and so on. It is the prerogative of any Secretary of State to do what he or she can to better equip young people for the highly competitive global market in which they are hoping to make their livings, and through them, UK PLC. If the E-Bac is a solution, and it works, then we should all applaud it. However, it may also spell the beginning of the end of music as an academic subject in all but a tiny handful of schools, intentionally or not.

I clearly missed the part where we had a national debate on what the ‘core’ subjects for the 21st century teenager should be: French, or Mandarin? Maths, or IT, anyone? The small committee of MPs who scrutinised the birth of the E-Bac last year acknowledged that they had had an enormous number of submissions asking for music to be included in an ‘essential’ list of subjects (for the record, when the Ancient Greeks invented our civilisation and the notion of formalised education, they included music – as both science and art – as one of the 7 critical subjects for all young people to learn). The committee nevertheless dismissed this clamour and it came as no surprise to me that they defaulted to the old-fashioned, hard-core subjects that did not include music or the Arts (or for that matter, Religious Studies, more topical and necessary, perhaps, than ever). Even from the point of view of the market-place it is odd that we, the world’s second largest exporter of music after the USA, did not consider music as important to our economy, no matter what other countries may prioritise for themselves.

In the 1960s, around 5,000 16-year-olds took the old O-Level music each year; by the late 90s, around 50,000 were taking its replacement, GCSE Music, a remarkable crescendo. The E-Bac is likely to return us to the 60s figure, or worse, since schools will not want to harm their overall league table positions by offering non-E-Bac subjects (E-Bac results will far outweigh all others, of course). Proponents of the new system will say that schools can offer music if they like (in the way that well-funded independent schools do), and that extra-curricula music should not be affected. It will be, though, because staff numbers in state schools are determined by the number of pupils taking subjects to exam level, While we have had larger numbers of pupils sitting GCSE and A-level Music and AS Music Technology in the past 15 years or so, staff numbers have accordingly risen in music departments – staff members who can run choirs, orchestras, bands, jazz groups, hip-hop competitions, put on musicals, whatever. Without the classrooms full of students, those staff – and the extra-curricula activities they lead – will vanish. The introduction of the E-Bac will accordingly align us with many of our European neighbours: in France, Germany, Italy or Spain, for example, music is not generally studied as a classroom subject after Year 6. Typically, children learn music – theory, history and playing instruments – in specialist after-school facilities. In Germany these are well-resourced, formalised music schools, whereas in France they tend to be a community resource open to all ages. If music teaching only takes place in the evenings and at weekends, its demographic naturally changes. The same argument supports sports taking place in schools as part of the timetable, not in spare time elsewhere. What they do not have in France or Germany, by and large, is our tradition of teaching music, learning instruments., playing in ensembles, singing in choirs, in normal schools. Quite apart from anything else, the motivational power of sport, drama, dance or music can – and usually does – help drive academic standards in a school across the board. That view is held at Eton, David Cameron’s ‘fantastic’ old school, so why can it not be the case for everyone else’s school?

I have yet to meet a headteacher of a thriving school (state or private) that did not subscribe to the ethos that different students excel at different things and at different speeds of development, the trick being to find what makes them fly and support them in so doing. Surely what the Olympics and Paralympics have so beautifully demonstrated is that allowing young people to diversify and specialise, not make them fit a rigid norm, is what allows them to flourish. How many of ‘Our Greatest Team’ would have benefited from being asked to put aside some of their hours’ training each week to make sure they get full marks in their Maths E-Bac? The ethos behind the introduction of the E-Bac seems to be a (deliberate?) repudiation of the previous policy of allowing schools and their pupils to specialise. In that environment, for all its undoubted flaws, specialist music schools of world-class quality were created and encouraged, and they in turn fed back their expertise into the community around them (some of the best, most inspiring singing sessions I ever witnessed as Ambassador for the National Singing Programme, Sing Up, in primary schools, were led by teachers and students from nearby secondary schools with music specialism). And, by the way, specialist music schools would regularly out-perform other secondary schools in a host of non-musical subjects too.

All the progress that has been made in widening musical access and appreciation in the past 15-20 years, and the huge boost of funding for musical resources in schools such as concert halls, practice rooms or recording studios, is in real danger of being lost if schools retreat into a 5-subject ghetto, desperate to win favour on a league table, clawing back funds from so-called ‘peripheral’ subjects like music, drama or art and funnelling them in to the priorities set by politicians, not educationalists. I hope I am wrong.

Howard Goodall CBE September 2012