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'Dear Nicky Morgan, it's time to stop viewing arts and music as second-class subjects'

James Rhodes, classical pianist who is heading up the Don't Stop the Music campaign, writes:

This year I went back to primary school. Not to polish up on my reading, writing and arithmetic, but to find out just what the state of music education is for our children. I was not expecting what I found. Sure, I didn’t imagine every school would have its own orchestra, but I was shocked to discover that some schools have no proper music lessons whatsoever.

Today Nicky Morgan will give her first major speech as education secretary. It’s her opportunity as the newly appointed secretary of state to set out what the government plans to do to ensure that every child gets a good education. And I, for one, am keen to hear what she has to say.

Ever since the 1990s, politicians of all parties have put education right at the top of their agenda. I couldn't agree more. But we seem to have ended up with a target and league-table obsessed system and a too-narrow focus. The government says the national curriculum is broad and balanced – but is it? From what I’ve seen, creativity’s being squeezed out.

Three years ago in the National Plan for Music Education, the government declared: “Children from all backgrounds and every part of England should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument”. But thousands of children in primary schools across the country are still missing out on a proper music education.

It’s essential that we ensure there is sufficient funding for music in schools, and that teachers are adequately trained in music education and feel confident to teach it effectively. But it’s also key that subjects beyond maths and English are seen to be important and valued parts of the curriculum.

There are lots of schools doing an excellent job of music education, but not all of them are always recognised for it. And headteachers across the board are under pressure to ensure that targets around literacy and numeracy are met. So it's not surprising that in some schools, a creative subject such as music can slip well down the priority list.

Only last week, Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s director for schools, said that while there was an obvious need to focus on English and maths, this should not be at the expense of other subjects. And he wants to investigate whether they've got the balance right between those core subjects and others such as music and art. But this can only work if it also has support from the very top, from government, and right down to the classrooms.

For years, we’ve had various governments tell us that it’s vital our children get the best start in life, especially if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds. To me, this means supporting children to develop creatively and academically.

I’d love to talk to Nicky Morgan about what happened when I worked with a school in Basildon that had no budget for music. I was able to help them with the resources and support to teach Year 5 pupils to play instruments – instruments that I managed to pull together through a local "instrument amnesty". In just a term, the results were clear to see. Not only did children enjoy learning to play, it boosted their confidence, and, for some, even improved results in other key subjects. 

When it comes to the benefits of a good music education, you don’t just have to take my word for it – there are many academic studies that have demonstrated the positive knock-on effects for subjects like literacy and numeracy, and a host of other outcomes. We need to ensure that all our children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are given every chance to succeed. Music should be a right for every child, and not a privilege.


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