Rhinegold Margaret Lawrence: music is a universal language

Margaret Lawrence

Going to the ball: stopping music from becoming a Cinderella subject

8:00, 9th May 2017

Margaret Lawrence is head of music at Glebelands School, a co-educational comprehensive in Cranleigh, Surrey. She believes creative subjects have been marginalised by recent reforms, and says we must stop music becoming a Cinderella subject

It has been incredibly saddening to watch my subject disappear from the school curriculum. Each new GCSE specification is distancing all school subjects from genuine competence towards a new philosophy based solely on the ability to memorise facts for a number of exams.

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) reforms have meant that creative subjects have become secondary – or even lower – on most schools’ list of priorities. Head teachers are under increasing pressure to bow down to league table rankings, while music is taking a back seat and becoming ‘nice to have’, rather than an essential subject. This only serves to diminish the broad education that comprehensive schools are designed to provide and so fails to serve my most disadvantaged students – those who aren’t sent to private music lessons like their wealthier counterparts. In my school, GCSE music is taught off-timetable, after school, which means that only those students with the most encouraging parents are able to participate. For most, Progress 8 has destroyed any chance they may have had to study music beyond the age of 14.

Why is music important?
If any subject helps absolutely everyone, it’s music. The world needs people who are well-rounded and equipped with a wider skillset than that which is offered by an education focused solely on five core subjects. We need creativity and flair, and the ability to think of new ideas – people who can work independently and as part of teams, who are confident and passionate.

These skills are all gained through the study of music and the creative arts in general – and they’ve been proven to enhance students’ learning across the curriculum. Musicians are able to think logically. Music is its own language – and supports the English and foreign languages, geography, history, religious education, the sciences, technology, PE, drama and PSHE.

Above all, music is inclusive – it attracts students from all backgrounds, personalities and abilities, from the head of the netball team to students who are self-harming. It protects the vulnerable as well as enabling the gifted and talented to reach even higher.

Opportunity cost
Every child deserves the opportunity to gain the skills offered by music education, and the concept of ‘every child matters’ once really meant something in the profession. But I can’t help feeling that schools are becoming more like businesses judged solely on efficiency in converting money into results. Giving every child access to education that will best serve them doesn’t seem to be the priority from the top any more.

This business-like treatment doesn’t just do a disservice to individuals or our schools. It leaves our whole society that little bit poorer, our creative culture much less vibrant. If only the privileged elite are able to access creative pursuits, where does it leave the music industry? Some of our most cherished modern musical heritage comes from people who were given the opportunity to achieve against the odds. Let’s not stop that from happening; let’s make sure that the pleasure of a lifelong hobby and passion for music is open to everyone.

What can we do?
If you too believe that every child deserves the absolute best chance to succeed, and if you agree that this includes the chance to try their hand at music (or any other creative subject) in a meaningful way, it’s important you support your fellow teachers.

The recent Music & Drama Education Expo saw teachers come together – but do we now need to unite like never before?
The recent Music & Drama Education Expo saw teachers come together – but do we now need to unite like never before?

I am still working in my role because every day is different. It’s often fun, and I take pride and pleasure in what I do, working alongside the young people whose families and society charges us with helping to learn. We cannot allow the educational crisis to crush our passion or wreck what it could and should be about. We must stay, we must organise and fight – for ourselves, for the colleagues who have been driven out, for the students we strive to help, and for a better education system.

At a time when Estonia has pledged to provide every child with a musical instrument, music here in the UK is in danger of becoming an elitist subject that only wealthy and privileged families can afford. I know that, as things come full circle, music will be back on the curriculum within the next 10 years. In this interim, it’s the time for us to catch our breath and review where music teaching is at, and how it can be further improved. When we return, I believe that music teachers will be even stronger and looking to a future model where our extra hours are recognised and recompensed, where bureaucracy does not dominate learning time, and where lessons are meaningful and manageable.

I still feel optimistic, despite all of this. We teachers are a force to be reckoned with! The music teachers I know are all incredibly strong and resilient – budget decisions and endless reforms may be threatening everything we work for, but we do not give up on the job we love. We must continue fighting for all the young musicians we have had the pleasure to work with, and those we’ve yet to meet.

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