Life

Funding cuts in music education will destroy our cultural landscape

With music departments suffering from underfunding, charities are picking up the slack

Illustration of a student playing the saxophone

Illustration: Sam Peet

A lack of funding for music education in schools means learning an instrument could become a hobby only for the rich. If music lessons are funded only by parents with extra cash, where does that leave working-class kids? And what impact will this have on the musical landscape? A worrying lack of diversity would make popular culture very dull.

A study from Birmingham City University reckoned that A level music could drop completely from the curriculum due to spending cuts, with zero entries for the subject predicted by 2033. In Scotland, proposals by Midlothian Council to cut music spending by 60% created an uproar earlier this year, before a Musicians Union-backed campaign forced them to reconsider. 

Research by the Independent Society of Musicians in 2021 found that 61% of respondents’ music department budgets in the UK and Ireland were ‘insufficient’. Many teachers topped up budgets with fundraising concerts or paid for items out their own pockets. The report confirmed a widening gulf between state and independent schools; the mean yearly music budget in local authority schools was £1,865 compared to £2,152 for academies and free schools and £9,917 for independent schools.

Thankfully, several UK organisations are hard at work, ensuring the next generation of musicians and singers will not come exclusively from better-off backgrounds.

Live Music Now Scotland leads free workshops in schools on jazz, pop, traditional and classical music, while Sistema Scotland creates social change in some of Scotland’s most deprived communities through music. Both charities believe that kids with access to fantastic music also benefit from improved mood, increased self-confidence, more happiness and a sense of belonging.

In South London, World Heart Beat began in an abandoned building after artistic director Sahana Gero noticed a lack of children learning woodwind instruments in Wandsworth. “I founded the charity just after the 2009 financial crash,” she explains. “No one wanted to lend me money. But we grew it from the grassroots. A carpet shop donated carpet, a builder friend helped convert the warehouse into a music academy and we paid a peppercorn rent.” Six months ago World Heart Beat opened a second music academy in Nine Elms, Battersea.

World Heart Beat offers free music tuition and live performances. Pupils have gone on to study at conservatoires and universities and find jobs in the music industry. Big Issue Invest has supported World Heart Beat with two investments since 2019, helping them expand into the new Nine Elms development. The venue allows them to deliver top-class music education with the latest equipment and a new theatre. Renting out the theatre and equipment, plus running a cafe, allows them to generate additional income.

“World Heart Beat Music Academy (WHBMA) provides a hugely valuable service,” says Linda Wickstrom, Investment Manager for Big Issue Invest. “The charity highly values diversity and teaches music and instruments from across the world, to reflect the diverse communities it serves.”

Young musicians in rehearsals at World Heart Beat
Young musicians in rehearsals at World Heart Beat. Image: worldheartbeat.org

“There have always been funding cuts,” Gero says. “The last few years have got really ridiculous though. Primary and secondary schools are sometimes focused on getting good stats and forget that children also need time to breathe and yes, play instruments.”

Some WHBMA pupils face huge disadvantages in life, with multiple deprivations in their communities and complex problems in their family lives.

“Kids come to us who are at loggerheads with their carers, others lost parents during Covid,” says Gero. “We work with refugee children, we see kids coming in and trying to do their homework on broken phones. Kids that won’t show up for school will still show up for us.

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“These children pick up the cello, guitar, saxophone or Celtic fiddle, maybe they become part of a band. But they start to have a purpose, to believe in themselves as someone valuable. It improves their behaviour a billionfold! We get them to vibrate higher.

“Music needs to be part of the solution, not just an add-on,” she continues. “Culture is not taken seriously when in reality, creative industries make up 12.6% of London’s economy and bring in £13 billion per year in taxes. It’s absolutely part of the city’s lifeblood.

“Ancient societies in Egypt, Rome and China valued writers and musicians and that led to prosperity. We’ve lost sight of that. A holistic approach to music education means respecting innovation and creativity. When curriculums get too narrow, we lose that and with it, we lose the joy that it can bring.”

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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