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  • Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston - We must not let Music Education become extinct

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Music education in the UK has hit crisis point. An open letter published in the Guardian, signed by over 100 leading artists, expresses grave concerns about the exclusion of arts and creative subjects from the new English baccalaureate (Ebacc) for secondary school children, which they believe will seriously damage the future of many young people in this country, depriving them of opportunities for personal development in the fields of self-expression, sociability, imagination and creativity. The letter states that “there is compelling evidence that the study of creative subjects is in decline in state schools”. In the case of music, it is arguably in freefall. Sussex University surveyed secondary music teachers at 657 state and 48 private schools across England over 5 years (2012-17), with the number of schools offering music GCSE dropping by 6% over that period and 22% decrease in the number of schools teaching music as a compulsory subject for students aged 13-14. That is a rapid decline, and extremely short-sighted, given the manifold benefits of a music education.

The success experienced by Feversham School in Bradford demonstrates the importance and value of music in education. A school where 99% of children do not speak English as a first language, it was in special measures until the headteacher, Naveed Idrees, using the Kodály method of teaching through music, added 6 hours of music for each student per week. The results of this approach have been extraordinary: 74% of pupils have met the national reading writing and mathematics standards, against a national average of 53%. Idrees also passionately believes that music education doesn’t just enhance academic performance, but also has a critical role to play in assisting children in their emotional development. Speaking in The Guardian, he believes that “ at its most basic, the simple act of game-playing can help children learn social skills such as eye-contact and taking turns, while listening to music in a hour-long assembly helps develop their concentration in an age dominated by smartphones and tablet computers.”

There is also a huge body of evidence that music education improves mental health, working memory, language-based reasoning, communication and listening skills, the development of empathy, critical thinking and the ability to plan, organize and complete tasks, therefore influencing and developing children’s cognitive abilities in completely unrelated subjects. This chimes with the experience of staff at Birkenhead School, an independent day school, where music is a major focus and where it is believed that music education improves academic performance and results. Sue Keating, the head of music in the Prep department, believes passionately in the benefits of music for all, especially in its ability to boost the confidence of less assertive children. “Some children are naturally shy, and initially find performing in front of others daunting, but they soon discover that singing in a choir or playing in an orchestra with their peers, as a team, is rewarding and fun, and you witness them grow in confidence, something that feeds into the rest of their education.”

Even after the introduction of the EBacc, independent schools have continued to offer arts and music education, unlike in state schools, and thus the gulf between state and privately educated students will continue to grow, affecting social mobility, and causing major headaches for universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, who are already under pressure to improve their intake numbers from state schools. That gulf will also not assist classical music in defeating the perception that it is the preserve of an ‘elite’ of the rich and privately educated.

Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber has long argued that the government has profoundly failed to grasp that every penny spent on music education, not to turn people into musicians but to empower them, is paid back to an almost unlimited amount into our economy, with the creative industries making an annual contribution of £92 billion per year to the UK economy. To that end, he has donated £1.4 million to a foundation that gives free music lessons to children in London, but it is, he acknowledges, a drop in the ocean, and doesn’t help children in deprived areas such as Liverpool, where parents, especially those using food banks, cannot possibly afford the costs of peripatetic music lessons. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the country’s so-called ‘Music Hubs’, has been highly innovative in trying to keep the flame of music education burning when schools which can barely afford to buy books or paper are dropping music from the curriculum altogether, but cannot fill the void left by a school music education.

It will take far more than community music projects and philanthropy for the UK to support future growth in creative industries, and failing to educate our children in music and the arts will not only prejudice their chances of future employment, but also reduce the numbers of teachers capable of educating our children in those subjects. As Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute states, “the UK’s future success depends on excellence in breadth and deeper links between the arts and science. Creativity has an economic importance.” We as a society must ask the government what price our country’s future, and all children, regardless of background and school, should be given a broad education, allowing each child to find where their natural strengths lie, encouraging creativity, emotional and physical wellbeing, social mobility, and employment prospects. Innovation and vision also needs to be shown in teaching music as an ‘academic’ subject, embracing digital technology whilst also giving children a grasp of musical notation, developing their aural capacity and compositional skills and providing them with sufficient opportunities to perform. We must not let music education become extinct.

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