We learned some weeks ago that a state school in Yorkshire is to start charging students for the privilege of taking a GCSE in music. The fee Bingley Grammar School is asking, £5 per week during term time, could hardly be more symbolic or divisive. For the well-heeled middle classes, it’s a just a throwaway fiver – almost an insult to the quality of the tuition and the validity of the subject. To families struggling on a single income or surviving on ever decreasing benefits, it’s a game changer: education in direct competition with food, clothes and heating.
As such, it doesn’t take an economics professor to predict what the result will be: more privileged kids studying music as an academic subject, less underprivileged ones doing so. Such a move will do nothing to help solve the diversity imbalance that provably curtails audience reach and which politicians are commanding us to address. On the contrary: it will most likely exacerbate it.
But this sorry development concerns more than the classical music industry. In my limited experience, it’s not usual for schools to decide a subject is negligible enough to be outsourced – taught off the premises (as it will be in Bingley) and for extra fees that suggest it’s not included in the education package we are entitled to as citizens. The decision reeks of the marginalising attitude propagated by former education minister Nicky Morgan, who once appeared to suggest that you shouldn’t study an arts degree if you want to get a job at the end of it.
Are we living in a utopian dream world if we don’t necessarily believe that you study a theoretical subject in depth just to get a job? There are plenty of countries that don’t charge students thousands of pounds a year to take a degree course, which would suggest not. But anyone who has studied music at a university would surely concur that the various disciplines involved – from the scientific to the artistic to the collaborative, not to mention the sheer grit of funding, organising, promoting and performing concerts – can prove mightily helpful in the service of any career.
To argue that, however, is to concede to the non-musical argument of ‘usefulness’. It’s become extremely fashionable to point to the peripheral values of music education just as it has to cite the residual economic benefits of arts funding. Yes, we have to fight the cause on the battleground to which it has been taken. But it’s hard not to conclude that the marginalisation of music as a subject is tied up in the argument that it’s only worth as much as the non-musical benefits it offers. It’s precisely that sort of attitude that would make an otherwise rational head teacher decide that the study of music is not an academic study at all, and can be shunted off the premises like a yoga class.
But music is a rigorous academic subject, which is one reason it has been taught for centuries at the world’s best universities. Presumably, if you’re a music graduate who doesn’t believe in the inherent value of the study of music, you wouldn’t have ended up working in the classical music sector and therefore reading this magazine. Instead, you would have taken all those non-musical benefits that a music degree nurtures and used them to forge a lucrative career doing something in business and finance.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Nobody is naïve enough to suggest that all study of music should lead to a professional life dedicated to the subject, nor that the study of history will turn an entire class of GCSE students into miniature Lucy Worsleys. But unlike music, drama, art and literature, nobody is telling us that history is worth teaching only for its peripheral benefits – because it helps with research skills or data retention. Instead, we trust the inherent value of the subject. If we had the same attitude towards music, we could ensure that its study was seen as more than indulgence for those with a healthy disposable income wishing to lubricate a supplementary skillset – a peripheral activity worth a fiver a week.