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Why the crisis in music education is a crisis for all

Music teaching's an easy target and first for the chop when budgets are squeezed. We investigate a misguided approach that will have catastrophic consequences for our culture

“I cannot be part of a decision that will do so much damage.” These were the words of John Mustard, head of Moray Council’s music tuition service, after he resigned last week to protest at the 85 per cent rise approved by the local authority in lesson fees for school pupils. Families will now have to fork out nearly £700 a year for lessons.

This is a story echoing across the UK. More than 40 per cent of low-income families told the Musicians’ Union that music lessons are well beyond their budgets. The same research found that children with families earning £48,000 or more are twice as likely to learn an instrument as those whose parents earn £28,000 or less.

Last year councils warned that school music tuition in England and Wales was at risk without government funding to cover pay increases for music teachers. Scotland is being hit by cuts too, and the problem extends well beyond Moray. Two weeks ago, Midlothian Council – which covers the area from south Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders – announced plans to end all music tuition entirely. It was only through the efforts of angry parents and campaigners, who organised a musical flash mob outside the council buildings in protest, that the local authority scrapped the plans. Questions lingered about what part of education would suffer if music had been spared this once.

No one’s pretending these are easy decisions. Funding from central government for local services in England has been slashed by 36 per cent for 2019-20, according to the Local Government Association. From 2010 to 2020 English councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the government provided for services like social care and homelessness support, leading to a squeeze on other departments.

And Scottish authorities have also felt the pinch after council tax freezes kept rates at 2010 levels for years. Some councils have unleashed cuts on education spending of 20 per cent over six years – John Mustard’s former employer Moray Council had previously warned politicians it was teetering “on the edge of a financial precipice”. Many had warned arts education would be first in line when the axe began to fall.

This undermines efforts to nurture future talent

But parents are stretched too and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds often have so many “additional stressors” that private music lessons can never be a top priority, says educational psychologist Hannah Abrahams. “It’s the role of government and schools to nurture and encourage children’s exploration of music,” she says.

Research by Australian music sector body The Music Trust showed that music tuition from a young age improved children’s literacy and problem-solving skills, with most young players staying in education longer than their peers. But a recent parliamentary report said that music education in England is “in crisis”, pushed to breaking point by both a lack of funding and the English Baccalaureate, the government’s flagship education policy that excludes creative subjects from the compulsory classes.

And yet, some schools are proving to the government just how worthwhile music education is. Feversham Primary Academy in Bradford turned its exam results and its reputation around by injecting music into the curriculum at every opportunity. Rhythm and movement form the Kodály approach, a method of teaching based on the idea that children learn better and quicker through musical games, even if that means making a song out of a maths equation. Pupils receive up to six hours of music tuition a week.

As recently as 2011, Feversham lagged behind the national average in English and maths results, families avoided sending their children there and staff morale was at an all-time low. Now, the school is in the national top 10 per cent for progress in literacy, and last year 74 per cent of pupils in the school – almost all of whom speak English as a second language – made the required grades for reading and writing, beating the 53 per cent national average. Since music was introduced as the fabric of learning, rather than an optional bonus, attendance of both pupils and staff has skyrocketed. And they’re having fun.

However, Feversham is the happy exception – the national trend is worrying. Just months ago UK Music chief executive Michael Dugher warned of the impact a fall in GCSE music uptake could have on the UK’s cultural output in years to come. Pupils taking the subject dropped by eight per cent in 2016-17; it continued its descent by another 7.4 per cent into 2018. “Alarm bells should be ringing,” he said. “This undermines efforts to nurture future talent.” Dugher emphasised the “vital importance” of keeping the door to the arts open to children from all backgrounds.

Developments are being keenly watched by the UK Association of Music Education – otherwise known as Music Mark – which lobbies for government-funded, high-quality music lessons to be available to all children. CEO Bridget Whyte said work on a regional and national level, celebrating the efforts already being made to support children learning music, is crucial. But, she said, getting to the heart of communities and changing attitudes is just as important if we are to rescue music education from cuts.

Whyte adds: “At a time when the national messages about education seem to focus on the importance of numeracy and literacy, we need to do more to challenge the understanding that music isn’t an important subject to be learning.”

Some situations are so desperate that schools and disadvantaged families are turning to charity. Paul McManus is chief executive at Music For All (MFA), an organisation that gives grants for instruments and lessons to people who can’t afford them. “Five years ago, budgets were still intact and we never had a single school apply to us for a grant,” he says, the charity now receiving up to 500 community applications a year. “Now, nearly half our community grant applications are coming from schools. We weren’t set up to stick it to government policy, but I can’t sit by and watch a school stop teaching music if we can do something to stop it.”

McManus has been watching national reports of budget cuts and fee hikes in music education. Having access to quality music tuition is a “postcode lottery”, the MFA boss says, sometimes dependent on the enthusiasm a headteacher does or does not have. He is also concerned for a generation otherwise under pressure from austerity and high levels of poverty. “We are constantly reading about how stressed younger generations are now, the so-called ‘snowflake generation’. If anything, that makes music even more important now. To bring some joy into some very stressful young lives around the country.”

School has to be the first port of call, the most essential part of a child’s musical education

McManus, angered by cuts but sympathetic to council figureheads forced to make difficult decisions, hopes the public never forgets the power music has to bring communities together. “It’s a great socialiser, it’s a great relaxer. Music is one of those things that brings people together for common purpose. It doesn’t care about your race, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation,” he says. “Music is just music.”

And, despite school arts funding being devastated by austerity, kids are still making music in one way or another (two thirds of them, according to a study by Youth Music and Ipsos Mori). That’s the counterpoint as far as McManus is concerned – we could be entirely overlooking thousands of kids who have found innovative ways to explore music without structured lessons. “It might be via YouTube lessons or in their bedrooms using software,” he says.

An open letter to Midlothian council from signatories at: Reid School of Music, The University of Edinburgh, Music, School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, Division of Occupational Therapy and Arts Therapies, Queen Margaret University and School of Arts, Creative Industries, Napier University and University of Aberdeen

“Music in schools is critically important and we will always fight for it. There is a generation of kids making music in their own ways. But school has to be the first port of call, the most essential part of a child’s musical education.

“A lot of the time, that’s where the kickstart happens to get a kid interested in music in the first place. Long may music remain in the curriculum but long may it be supported by a government that sees the importance of the creative industries.” Creative sectors like music, fashion, art and publishing add £100bn to the UK economy each year.

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle married in Windsor last year Sheku Kanneh-Mason, then 19, was lauded globally after his spellbinding performance at the ceremony. Now studying at the Royal Academy of Music, he first picked up a bow at a comprehensive school in Nottingham. “A child having a music lesson should be the normal thing,” he said previously. “It’s a terrible shame to see children not have the opportunity.”

The state-funded cello sensation is also an ambassador for London Music Masters, a charity providing tuition and financial opportunity to disadvantaged young musicians who want to break into the classical music world.

Rob Adediran, the charity’s executive director, said he sees the benefits of music education in children every day. We all owe it to ourselves to “engage one’s inner musician”, he said, but there’s a wider social impact too. Children who grow up playing music display more “resilience, confidence and creativity”, and schools have a responsibility to “take the lead” in the fight for music education on behalf of their pupils.

But, Adediran says, with education policy focusing on ‘non-creative’ subjects, schools are struggling to resist the pressure to leave music by the wayside. To stop it, the public must feel passionate enough to put pressure on the government, demanding free music tuition is made a priority. That’s why he and an army of his peers are determined to lead the effort to keep the value of the arts in the public consciousness. “Unapologetically”.