Chris Walters

Teachers under pressure

8:00, 21st December 2017

Chris Walters, education official at the Musicians’ Union, highlights the challenges faced by music teachers as detailed in the union’s latest annual education report

There’s a lot of talk in music education. That’s why the MU’s latest annual education report is an attempt to step back from the rhetoric and simply ask: what kind of music education should exist for children and young people in the UK, and how close are we to realising it?

Of vital importance in this is the teaching workforce, without whom there would be no formal music education. Of the MU’s 30,000 members, our estimate is that at least two-thirds are engaged in teaching work. And through regular contact with our members who teach, we are able to gauge the true state of the music teaching profession.

Unfortunately, we have found that music teachers have less job security and lower pay and status than ever. The causes for this are rooted in budget cuts, with local authorities, schools, hubs and music services all under pressure. Meanwhile, aspirations for instrumental learning have never been higher, with the government’s much-discussed National Plan for Music Education stating that all children should have access to this. So how to do more with less?

The answer, for many hubs and music services, has been to migrate instrumental teachers from employed contracts onto cheaper self-employed or zero-hours agreements. This inevitably leads to job dissatisfaction, insecurity and a high turnover of teachers, which in turn impacts on continuity of young people’s learning and the ability of hubs and music services to provide a broad programme of activities.

In our education report, therefore, we argue for contracts to be drawn up in accordance with working patterns, rather than to save money. If you are a teacher working all week with regular hours for a single organisation, you should be employed with proper terms and benefits. In other words, if it looks like employment, it should be employment.

Hubs working with reduced resources may find this position challenging, but we would urge them not to make teachers the victims of the current mismatch between aspiration and funding. Ultimately, confused government policy is to blame for the degradation of music teachers’ status, and it is up to the music education sector as a whole to be more effective in championing teachers.

A challenge here is that the UK music education sector sometimes struggles to provide clear, centralised leadership on key issues such as workforce welfare. There is no shortage of organisations, each of which is typically doing good work in its own area. But the overall picture is frequently a confused patchwork of special interests and sometimes contradictory ideas. Could there be a connection between this situation and the fact that the government is not sufficiently being held to account? The MU would argue that there is, and our education report calls for more meaningful and effective collaboration across the music education sector.

The report also highlights the issue of initial training and CPD, both of which are essential for good teaching and, of course, good learning. In the MU’s view, asking self-employed or hourly-paid teachers to fund their own CPD – something which our members frequently report – leads to an unreasonable situation where teachers not only have to pay for CPD but may also have to take unpaid time off work in order to attend it. Therefore, we would like to see hubs and music services make a commitment to providing paid CPD for teachers.

The MU acknowledges that many hubs try to treat their teachers fairly, but others are engaging teachers in ways that we cannot endorse. Meanwhile, the unregulated private sector is often worse, with self-styled teaching agencies paying rates barely above the minimum wage. For these reasons, the MU has been required to get proactive in supporting teachers who cannot find suitable organisations to work for. Our work with music teaching co-operatives is a primary example of this, in particular our free guidance pack on how to set up and run a co-operative. We give more information on this in the report.

To return to my opening question of how close we are to realising a good music education for all children and young people, it is clear, at least to the MU, that a crucial part of the system – the workforce – has been sadly neglected. We are a sector replete with rich debate around the purposes and meaning of music education. But without anyone to teach it, we might as well pack up and go home.

Read the report in full at www.tinyurl.com/mt-november-mu

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