The UK Government is in denial about the plight of music in schools

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Pressure is mounting on the Government to stop the erosion of school music departments and put the subject back where it belongs, at the heart of the curriculum. Karen Stretch reports


In his new book, Creativity: Why it Matters (Elliot & Thompson, £9.99), published on 28 June 2018, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, Darren Henley, argues the importance of creativity for everyone.

Darren Henley, Chief Executive, Arts Council England
Darren Henley, Chief Executive, Arts Council England, argues against the marginalisation of cultural education

‘It’s a necessity that these subjects [art, design, dance, drama and music] are taught as part of the curriculum’, he writes. ‘If we shift cultural education to the margins, making it an extra curricular activity, those from the poorest socio-economic background will be the most likely to miss out.’

Recent Government OFQUAL figures show there were just 35,895 entries for GCSE music in 2018. Last year, there were 38,750, in 2016, 41,850 and 43,667 in 2015. Despite this downward trend, London Government chiefs still deny that there is a problem. Secretary for Education, Damian Hinds, declined an interview, but sent a boilerplate statement claiming investment in music education remains strong.

‘We are investing nearly £500 million in music and arts education programmes between 2016 and 2020’, he said. ‘This includes £300m for a network of music education hubs whose responsibilities include ensuring that every child aged between 5-18 has the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument.’

The statement also claimed that the proportion of pupils entering GCSEs in Music had remained stable: ‘In 2017, it was 7%; the same as in 2010.’

‘Place music firmly back in the curriculum’

Director of Music at Brighton’s Varndean School, James Cocks, says the subject should be placed firmly back into the curriculum and included as part of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – a suite of subjects (currently including no creative subjects) on which the Government judges school performance.

‘At the TES Awards on Friday [22 June 2018] night, where we were a nominee for Creative School of the Year, the Education Secretary stressed the importance of ‘facilitating subjects’ and I feel very strongly that music is one of these in its own right’, he says.

‘This is not just because it develops transferable skills that employers are keen to see but because of the value of music in society and culture itself as well as the contribution it makes to the economy of this country.

‘We need to consider producing further evidence to show the positive benefit of music and arts exposure in schools such as that carried out by the Education Endowment Foundation which suggest that when young people are involved in arts it increases their overall attainment across all of their learning by two months.’

At Varndean, every child in Year 7 learns an instrument in a whole class setting, and music software has been moved to cloud-based programs, enabling easy, low-cost access for pupils.

Arts subjects tend to be where cuts are made

‘We strive particularly to ensure that [music] doesn’t become an elitist subject, only for those who can afford additional instrumental lessons, by devising an exciting and engaging curriculum’, adds Cocks. ‘The ethos of the school is built around creativity and arts – we’ve been innovative with our curriculum to maintain and build the number of students taking music well above the national average as well as offering a music technology pathway using BTEC.’

Many schools are, he says, finding it difficult to maintain such a healthy balance, with research suggesting that EBacc is having an effect on a number of subjects by reducing the number of open option slots for students to consider. ‘Financial pressures are also causing tightening of budgets and arts tend to be the places cuts are made’, adds Cocks. ‘The change of GCSEs with schools delivering far more content in core subjects has also been a pressure, no doubt, that has caused schools to consider cutting the amount of timetabled music teaching.’

Charlotte Chung, deputy head of policy and research at the Creative Industries Federation, agrees that the take up of EBacc has had a huge effect on music in schools.

‘This exacerbates an existing divide between STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] and arts subjects and encouraging the view that subjects such as art and design, design and technology, and music are optional extras rather than integral to both cognitive development and the economy’, she says.

‘The Federation believes that many schools are simply following the clear message sent out by Government that creative subjects are not a priority, and EBacc is being interpreted as a signal of what matters and what is best for young people.’

The CIF also recommends that the EBacc 90 per cent target set for 2025 should be dropped with the Ebacc being used as only part of the assessment measures, and that only schools teaching at least one creative subject in lesson time should be eligible for an ‘outstanding’ rating.

The clear message sent out by Government: creative subjects are not a priority

Sue Woodroofe, Principal, The Grammar School at Leeds: ‘Music teaches children how to be creative’

At The Grammar School at Leeds, an independent day school where an inclusive philosophy ensures music is integral to the curriculum, the Principal, Sue Woodroofe, is working to ensure musical opportunities available to students are also disseminated throughout the local area.

‘Among a large number of partnership projects in the local community, we also run a number of music workshops and are in discussions with the world-leading Leeds Piano Competition about a new outreach project for primary schools’, she explains. ‘Music teaches children how to be creative, in a variety of ways and it teaches us how to appreciate that creativity.’

With her own daughter playing three instruments, taking a degree in music and now working as a secondary music teacher, it is a subject close to Woodroofe’s heart, and she is clear what needs to be done to reverse the current decline of music teaching in schools.

“[There needs to be] recognition of the role that the arts play not just in a civilised society but also economically’, she says. ‘The arts are also very economically important – for example, the most recent data from the Arts Council England shows that every pound of public funding going to the Arts Council’s national portfolio organisations pays back £5 in tax contributions from the sector as a whole… an annual return of £2.35 billion to the Treasury.

‘Looking to the Government, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the number of children learning instruments or sitting grade exams in schools could be published and celebrated as much as league table positions are?’


Header photo: Pupils at Varndean School in Brighton, England © Varndean School Reused with permission.

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