'Help us to keep music alive in schools in these challenging times'

Music can have a life-changing impact on children – so we need schools to come together and share the ways in which, despite the funding cuts, they are providing a rounded musical education, writes Parents and Teachers for Excellence director Mark Lehain

Mark Lehain

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I can still picture clearly the exact moment that ultimately led to my music addiction.

It was a Year 8 music lesson and Mr Hayes played us the a capella start to Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes. I’d never heard anything like it. A shiver literally went down my spine. I mentioned this to one of my big brother’s mates later that day. “Just wait ‘til you hear some Simon and Garfunkel,” he said. “I’ll do you a mix tape of their best songs.”

Holy cow. That was it. I asked for a guitar for Christmas and was lucky enough to get a little acoustic one. There was no looking back. It opened up a world of music that had previously passed me by and inducted me into the fraternity of teenage rock wannabes.

I hunted down my parents’ vinyl collection in the loft. It wasn’t massive, but it was the perfect gateway drug for a sonic addiction that lasts to this day.

Music has seen me through the good times and the bad. It’s reached me when no one else could get through. It gave a nervy teenager something to bond with others over, and also led to my falling in love with musical theatre.

For this and many other reasons, I’m always sad when I read about the various ways that arts provision is under pressure in some of our schools. The findings of the Education Policy Institute-BBC research that came out earlier this week suggest that many schools feel that funding and accountability measures mean that they need to reduce access to art, music, drama and the like, to make ends meet and create more time for “academic” subjects.

I don’t doubt that where this has happened heads and governors have done so after exploring alternatives. That said, there are still lots of places where the arts are not just standing still but thriving. Schools that are teaching every student a musical instrument and immersing them in a rich canon of classic, traditional and contemporary pieces. Where exhibitions and theatrical productions are inclusive and high-quality and at the heart of a school calendar.

Music education for all

Given how important the arts are, at Parents and Teachers for Excellence we want to learn from these schools what it is that has enabled them to grow and sustain these things, and then share lessons as widely as possible so others can adopt or adapt as they see fit. The answers to the challenges we face lie within our profession – and this is where we need your help.

One of our major projects this year will be “Music for all in every school”. At PTE we already know of many great schools that have developed thriving music scenes, often at no cost or low cost to students and their families.

For instance, there’s King Solomon Academy in central London, where every child learns an instrument and plays in the school orchestra, and Dixons Music Primary in Bradford, where pupils get vocal, instrumental, and ensemble tuition in a variety of groups, from specialist music teachers. And I can’t overlook my baby, Bedford Free School, where they teach every kid violin or guitar for free, and also around 10 per cent of our students get free brass lessons from the wonderful local Salvation Army corps. We had to be a bit wheeler-dealer to pull this off, but we felt it was such an important part of education that it was worth it.

However, we are really keen to go beyond the people and places we already have contact with and learn about as many ways as possible of systematically giving every child in school a high-quality musical education. It might be through whole-class instrumental lessons, enrichment opportunities, drop down days, trips – whatever it is, if you believe that your school is doing a great job in promoting and delivering musical education, we’d like to hear from you.

Get in touch and tell us about it – we want to discover, share and promote the ways that people are enthusing children about music across the country, so that we can all learn more ways to do it elsewhere. Mr Hayes changed my life with one snippet of a song, and I was lucky enough that my mum and dad could get me a guitar to take things from there; let us know what you do now to have the same impact on the children in your school, and help keep the arts alive in these more challenging times.

Mark Lehain is the director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence, is on the advisory council for the New Schools Network and was the founder of Bedford Free School. He tweets @lehain

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