Just hanging on by its fingernails

Diane Spencer

Diane Spencer and Emma Burstall on a TES survey into the state of music in schools in 80 English and Welsh authorities. On Monday hundreds of school children and teachers will gather on London's South Bank to celebrate Music for Youth's silver jubilee. The nation's musical talent will perform for six days of music-making, dancing and singing.

For two days, advisers and teachers will be discussing the future of the service at a conference sponsored by The TES. As our survey shows, there is much food for thought.

Despite swingeing cuts, local management and the rise of grant maintained schools, music services are surviving in the majority of authorities, even flourishing in a few, but, more typically, as one northern director of music services said, "we are hanging on by our fingernails".

Although some shire counties in the survey, which had an overall response rate of 68 per cent, were optimistic of survival, others were more cautious. Peter Dunkley, head of Northampton's music service which is partly delegated, said of the changes: "Its early days, and so far it's quite buoyant, but there's a sense of being in a phony war." "We live in interesting times," commented another respondent.

Inner London, five years after the break-up of the Inner London Education Authority with its exemplary service, is now in an "incoherent" state. Even so, Hackney reports that demand has never been so great. The metropolitan authorities are also suffering from cuts, while Welsh counties are dreading the effects of being divided up into unitary authorities following the local government review.

Kent's music consultant Derek Blease said:"There has been a lot of turbulence; we now need a period of stability to take stock and build on our strengths. "

Charles Edmondson, Humberside's adviser, pointed out that "it's important to realise that we are talking about a very small percentage of pupils and teachers - we are living in hard times and cuts have to be made". He added that his centrally funded service was thriving, but he did not know what would happen when the authority - due to be replaced by new unitary authorities next year - was split into four.

Throughout the country heads of music services are fearful of the long term effects of delegation and cuts on youth orchestras and ensembles. Some authorities with advisors and centrally-controlled budgets still have the luxury of promoting particular instruments to ensure a balance: "We will become a nation of flutes and clarinets," was the general comment. "The only coherent policy is the charge," was another.

David Kenyon from Dorset was among those worried about grant maintained schools buying back into the service. Although 90 per cent had chosen to do so, some had cut back on the number of lessons. "We might have to send some musicians busking for six months."

Northamptonshire, among the majority of authorities with delegated budgets, was concerned about the "Mrs Bloggs syndrome": the pensioner musician who undercuts l.e.a rates and therefore undermines the service. Almost all were equally worried about the effect on poorer families of charging for tuition as it led to "who pays, plays". In Doncaster, for example, three schools in the most disadvantaged areas have dropped out of the partially delegated service. Budget cuts have been eroding provision for the past five years and Peter Bear, director of music services, fears there are more to come "via philistine policies", adding:"This country leads Europe in youth music - they always admire what we do. But the threat to youth orchestras across the country is serious."

The plus side of local management, for a few, has meant an increase in staff and uptake. Cambridgeshire has increased its staff by a third in the last four years and "the quality has improved dramatically". Suffolk noted that delegation had made the service more equitable and Shropshire that it had sharpened and focused the service and that youth orchestras were expanding. Birmingham has welcomed delegation as it makes the service less prone to cuts. Sheffield is reaching more children now it is charging.

The survey shows that music advisers or inspectors are becoming a rarity: just over 40 per cent of authorities no longer have one and many who do combine music with other responsibilities.

The main success story appears to be Hampshire where the recently formed charity, the Foundation for Young Musicians, has increased its staff and pupils over the past two years with schools buying back enthusiastically from their delegated budgets.

But Howard Dove, head of the service, (a speaker at the conference) said "Hampshire is not particularly typical".

Hard pressed authorities might take encouragement from the experience of Derbyshire which ceased to fund its service four years ago. Colin Humphreys, the general adviser with repsonsibility for music, said the county kept a data base of teachers to put schools and parents in contact with them, networks had sprung up, music centres formed as charitable trusts and a survey had shown that the number of children learning instruments had slightly increased. "The situation is no worse than it was when we had a free service and in some cases it's better."

The TES contacted 80 local education authorities by telephone earlier this month.

Main points of the survey

* More than 40 per cent of authorities no longer have a music adviser or inspector * One-third of the metropolitan authorities charge for instrument hire and three-quarters for tuition * One-third of the shire counties charge for tuition * 48 per cent of the metropolitan district councils said cuts were having a bad effect on youth orchestras * Almost half the shire counties reported an increase in staff * More than half the metropolitan authorities had a decrease in staff

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