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Interview: Pete West, retired Head of Camden Music Service

MUSIC:ED asks recently retired Head of Camden Music Service, Pete West, how music education has evolved in the borough since he joined the Service 30 years ago.

Pete West retired as Head of Camden Music Service in August 2019. MUSIC:ED asked him how music education has evolved in the borough since he joined the service 30 years ago.

MUSIC:ED: What did music education in Camden look like when you first started working in the area?

Pete West: Very patchy – there were some schools where music was strong but others where very little was happening.

To put the situation into context, Camden had previously been part of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), responsible for organising education across the 12 inner London boroughs. The ILEA music service had provided support to schools, co-ordinated instrumental tuition and organised cross-London events but all this had disappeared on the dissolution of ILEA.

So how did music evolve under your leadership?

My task was to begin to set up a local framework that would support every one of our schools and that would offer young people as many opportunities to take part in music-making as possible. The relatively small size of the borough meant that it was possible to establish a strong relationship with every single school and to start to build a real musical community in Camden.

What are you most proud of when you look back over your 30 years in the music service?

Every milestone was a proud achievement in the early stages (the first primary schools festival at the Shaw Theatre, the first secondary choral festival, the first time the Youth Orchestra exceeded the founding dozen players and progressed from playing Chopsticks to Beethoven’s 2nd symphony, the establishment of the Saturday Music Centre, setting up the instrumental service, founding the ensembles such as our award-winning Jazz Band, bringing the whole class instrumental programme to all primary schools…). I could go on!

But I suppose the achievement everyone talks about, and one that I was certainly proud of, was our first Royal Albert Hall schools music festival in 1998, which provided a performance opportunity for every school in the borough, reinforcing the community of schools Camden was seeking to establish.

The 2018 Camden Schools’ Music Festival at the Royal Albert Hall

Drastic funding cuts from Central Government hit music and the arts in schools almost five years ago. How has the reduced funding impacted the delivery of music and the arts in schools in real terms?

Five years ago, the Government changed the funding formula used to decide how much money each local area received for music education. In Camden, we were hit particularly hard as the borough had previously benefited from a formula designed to take account of financial deprivation and the amount of support given by the council.

The new formula saw us lose £250k each year but, rather than reduce the service, we decided to find the missing money elsewhere. Our schools were adamant that a comprehensive music service was vitally important and despite having budget pressures themselves, volunteered an annual financial contribution.

Meanwhile, the Camden Music Trust also rose to the challenge to raise the remaining shortfall. Although it’s been a real challenge every year to close the budget shortfall, I think the effect in Camden has been to highlight the value and importance of music education and to make us even more determined to ensure our young people have unlimited access to it.

A performance by CamJam Choir at Camden Music Service's Saturday Centre in Brecknock School
A performance by CamJam Choir at Camden Music Service’s Saturday Centre in Brecknock School

The Government is ‘missing a trick’ when it comes to understanding the impact of the arts for creating a well rounded student with life opportunities. Do you think schools can embed music deeper into the fibre of the curriculum to help improve overall performance of students?

Those working in schools see the evidence that participating in music activity strengthens pupils’ achievement in other areas of the curriculum as well as helping them develop into well balanced and happy individuals.

We know that making music can improve pupils’ concentration and tenacity as well as their organisational and memory skills. It develops team skills and enables young people to gain confidence in expressing themselves.

As someone who has been privileged to visit schools regularly, the result of a school genuinely putting music and the arts at the very heart of their curriculum is striking – the confidence, self-assurance and enthusiasm of pupils and staff hits you from the moment you step in!

What three things do you recommend that will positively impact delivery of music in schools?

First class music education doesn’t happen without brilliant, enthusiastic and committed teachers and in London, we depend on constantly recruiting new staff. Training courses for primary teachers now rarely include an introduction to teaching music and for those who know they would like to specialise, there isn’t a music-focussed primary training course available as there is for secondary teachers. My first two recommendations would be to reinstate a meaningful music component within general primary teacher training and to offer a dedicated music path for those whose ambition is to specialise in primary music teaching.

My third recommendation would be for the government to make music and arts education compulsory in academies. Academies have much more freedom over the curriculum they offer but the downside to this is that they can decide not to include music and the arts if they wish. Although not a problem in Camden (where not a single school has converted to academy status), in some parts of the country, the situation is dire.

What challenges do you see for music within the state education system over the next five years?

I think the main challenge is to ensure every child has access to music-making, to instrumental tuition and to be able to continue their musical journey regardless of their parents’ financial or cultural background. Over the last few years, we have been trying to find the answer to why some children who do really well in the free whole class primary project decide not continue once the project ends. Initially, we assumed this was because of financial pressures but soon discovered that finance was not the main obstacle. Instead, we found that families who have no tradition or personal experience of music-making often fail to realise the advantages of their children continuing to make music.

I believe that involving parents and families at every stage is the key to ensuring universal access to music education. Indeed, I think this should be a priority across the UK and my hope is that in time, the profile of our leading musical organisations will more closely represent the whole community. Of course, this approach is dependent on adequate funding and in Camden, we have been fortunate so far in receiving financial support from the London Music Fund, Youth Music and John Lyons. I believe more family involvement in music education should be a priority across the UK but clearly there are significant financial implications in developing this approach.

Massed choirs and musicians at Camden Schools' Music Festival, the borough's flagship music event © Justin Thomas
Massed choirs and musicians at Camden Schools’ Music Festival, the borough’s flagship music event © Justin Thomas

What would you like to see change in the funding and delivery of music to ensure it remains a pursuit for everyone to enjoy?

In terms of money from Central Government, revising the funding formula to reflect more accurately the levels of financial deprivation would be welcome. The Camden Music Trust has worked tirelessly to bridge the funding gap and enable the service to continue offering subsidised music tuition and activities to families unable to fully meet the costs involved but it has been a challenge to maintain our level of subsidy to families who recognise they need it. What we don’t have are the financial resources to encourage those families who have yet to realise their children have musical potential and therefore need to participate.

In terms of delivery, the challenge is always to offer the widest possible range of styles and genres. Being realistic, a music teacher in school will come from a particular background, perhaps jazz, classical or popular music. A teacher’s job is to share their passion with pupils. However no single teacher can be equally passionate across a wide range of musical styles. For example, a teacher into rap or hip hop is unlikely to enthuse about opera or Elizabethan music too!

However, we all have a duty to introduce the widest range of styles and traditions to our pupils and the most effective way of doing this is for schools and music services to use external organisations and specialist facilitators. The challenge here is both to find and fund these specialists and here Camden Music Hub may be in a position to help in having partners engaged in a range of genres and perhaps even partners able to find funding.

What does a world without music in the education system look like?

Grim, soulless and dour! Completely unimaginable. And it has to be said that the independent schools would never consider cutting music as they know their paying customers expect this provision. A lack of music in the state system would mean a more polarised two-tiered system than we have at present.

Camden Wider Opps instrumentalists performing an original work composed by children from Camden primary schools

Every morning for the past few years, I’ve travelled to the nearest tube station on a bus that takes local children to a number of state primary and secondary schools. On this bus, adults are heavily outnumbered so it’s a lively atmosphere and one of the pleasing things for me (apart from the uplifting environment) has been the number of musical instruments (cellos, trombones, guitars, saxophones…) that accompany these young people to school. On the other hand, I suppose if there was no music at school it would be easier to get on the bus!

Give us three words that sum up music-making?

Sorry to sound like Tony Blair but Music, Music and Music because that’s what it’s all about!

About Pete West

Pete West
Pete West

Pete West joined the local authority music service in the early 1990s.

Under his direction, Camden Music Service has delivered an enriching music education to thousands of children and young people in the borough.

Over the years, Pete West – along with the rest of the music team – launched the biennial Camden Schools’ Music Festivals at the Royal Albert Hall, which brings over 2,000 primary and secondary school pupils to perform together; started the Saturday music centres, which now have 400 children attending over two sites; and developed unique music programmes such as the award-winning Jazz Connect, which focusses on encouraging women in jazz.

Due to pioneering music programmes delivered by inspiring teachers, many successful musicians in the industry today have Pete and the Music Service to thank for nurturing and encouraging them to explore their talent. 

In addition, Pete West created the collaborative Camden Music Hub and was pivotal in starting the Camden Music Trust to ensure the future of inclusive music education in the borough in the face of changes in Central Government funding.