In April 1872 a new British government policy came into force whereby grants to day schools would be reduced by one shilling per scholar unless inspectors were satisfied that vocal music was part of the ordinary course of instruction. The criteria wasn’t onerous – it could simply consist of teaching a few songs by ear or note – and nearly all schools escaped the fine, but viewed through the lens of the current music education issues it’s a fascinating historical titbit. For, despite £870m of public money spent on music education between 1999 and 2011, despite 2012’s massive shake-up of the Music Service infrastructure, despite music remaining in the 2014 curriculum for ages five to 14, and despite schools concerts and projects no longer being an optional extra for symphony orchestras but an integral part of their offerings, music in state schools still varies widely in quantity and quantity across the country.
In recent months this issue has occupied my thoughts even more than usual thanks to the BBC’s Ten Pieces scheme, which will once again this year occupy a whole weekend of BBC Proms programming. This has been a truly incredible offering to the nation, equipping generalist classroom teachers to present classical music to their pupils while also meeting their national curriculum requirements. But for me personally it’s also been the source of immense frustration, because my own children’s primary school is not involved, the reason being that there isn’t a teacher interested enough to take it on.
Our school is hardly a musical deadzone; songs are sung in morning assembly, there’s an enthusiastic choir singing pop tracks, and the Year Fours get whole-class guitar lessons. It’s just that none of it is classical, despite the recent national curriculum tweaks stipulating children learn about musical history and the great classical composers, and consequently our school illustrates what I see as the two big problems in primary music education. First, that it’s teacher enthusiasm and skills rather than the national curriculum or availability of resources that determine the quality and quantity of school music. Second, that classical music suffers particularly, and I believe this latter point matters far more than is often conceded even by the classical world, because primary school is exactly the time at which children have not yet got hold of the idea that classical music isn’t for them.
In my own home life it’s a constant excitement to watch my children react to the incredible blank canvas for imagination and emotion that classical music offers, and I want all children to have a piece of that.
So, when I pitched this opinion piece I had an idea: classroom teachers are clearly the key to the solution, yet most of them don’t listen to classical themselves and don’t get enough exposure to it on their PGCE courses to convince them of its worth. So why not redirect some of the orchestras’ schools work into teacher training colleges, enthusing and training them specifically in classical? But then I got talking to teacher educators. Nice idea, they said, but teacher training is becoming increasingly schools-based. Furthermore, even when musically keen trainees arrive in schools they are rarely encouraged, so they lose confidence and essentially become de-skilled.
Compounding all this is a mistaken belief that music delivery is about singing and learning an instrument, whereas the curriculum is much more creative than that. Where to break this disastrous circle is the question on everyone’s lips. One interesting idea is to do away entirely with the principle of training class teachers to teach the whole curriculum and instead focus on maths and English, coupled with a specialism such as the sciences, humanities or the arts. Schools would then employ a range of specialisms. In the meantime there was one positive consensus: that even within the current context it is still possible for a primary school to offer a wonderful, broad music education. It just needs strong leadership from a head teacher.
How to convince those head teachers? Going back to that 1872 edict, a waving stick does tend to focus the mind, and right now there isn’t one, as demonstrated by what Ofsted sent me when I asked about how they inspect schools’ cultural provision. ‘Our inspection handbook makes clear that good and outstanding schools should offer a range of subjects to help develop pupils’ knowledge and skills,’ it said. ‘This includes, but is not limited to, subjects that enhance their linguistic, mathematical, scientific, physical and artistic learning.’ In other words, a school could entirely ignore the music curriculum and still get through with flying colours.
In most ways it’s a good thing that we have moved on from the Victorians, but on this particular point I suspect they had the right idea.