'Music education needs to be fought for – let's not allow it to slip away'

The combination of sustained cuts to school budgets and a burgeoning teacher recruitment crisis threatens to be calamitous for music education, argues one former director of music

Philip Viveash

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For the last 18 years, I’ve taught in both state and independent schools, on and off. Last Friday was my final school concert as l leave teaching to start a new career.

My time as director of music at the school has been set against a backdrop of a significant and sustained decline in music education nationally.

Music, along with all arts subjects, has been excluded from the government’s EBacc measurement of GCSEs and from the Russell Group of Universities’ list of facilitating subjects. Nationally, GCSE and A-level music entries have more than halved in the last 10 years.

A fast-growing number of schools are entirely removing music from the curriculum altogether, faced with the double whammy of sustained cuts to school budgets and a burgeoning teacher recruitment crisis. The combination of these events threatens to be calamitous.

What I have tried to do is to show what a state-school music department could be: a beacon of hope in troubled times.

Without blowing my own trumpet too much, some highlights of the last three years include: recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle; joint evensongs with Oxbridge College Choirs; a thriving symphony orchestra; the introduction of a Kodàly based curriculum at key stage 3; a 50 per cent increase of numbers at GCSE; a battle of the bands; and, of course, premieres of new cantatas. These are rare joys in the modern educational landscape.

Like drama and sport, music is an iceberg subject; the relatively small numbers involved with the academic study of the subject (though wonderfully we're now up to over 30 each year at GCSE) exist in combination with large numbers involved in music outside of the classroom, whether that’s in instrumental, singing or theory lessons, or singing or playing in the school ensembles.

A third of the school –some 350 pupils- take part in music outside of the classroom each week. The academic, co-curricular and instrumental lessons don’t exist in isolation from each other; they are like different parts of a coral reef; reliant upon each other to maintain the eco system. Classroom music and grades die without instrumental lessons and co-curricular music.

Like drama and sport, music needs special considerations and an environment different from the other subjects to thrive; try to squeeze it into the same box as science or history and it will surely die. Music needs time, it needs support, it needs flexibility, it needs money. It needs to be valued and it needs to be protected and fought for.

In the words of the great Hungarian composer and educational philosopher Zoltan Kodály: “Music is for everyone.” It is a part of all of our lives: whether it comes through streaming apps, radio, adverts or films/TV shows, we can’t escape it.

Often, the most important moments in our existence are shot through with memories of music. Our earliest memories often include music: our mothers comforting us with song, songs we first learnt at school, the themes of our favourite television show etc. Even the smaller more day-to-day occasions often include music, such as dinner with family and friends, birthdays and celebrations. Music has the power to evoke time, places and people; music can instantly transport us to a time and place.

Music matters

But why is music so powerful?

Music connects us to our deepest and most profound emotions. It gives a voice to what we truly feel, regardless of whether we can find the words to express it or not. It touches us deeply and profoundly. That’s why it matters to all of us so much.

Great music, like all great art, is the combination of two things. Firstly, the power to affect us very deeply on an emotional level and secondly, great aesthetic intelligence. Without intelligence, we risk creating sentimental disposable pap, the equivalent of junk food – instantly enjoyable and forgettable but without substance or the power to truly nourish us. Without emotional authenticity, we create the intellectual ivory tower, the emotional artic – inaccessible to all but the few and lacking in humanity.

To create great music, this marriage of emotion and mind requires a lively intelligence, creativity, discipline and dedication. To perform it meaningfully requires the technical skill and dexterity combined with the power to touch the heart.

This is why we study and teach music – not because it will improve academic performance, enable young people to make friends, look good on UCAS applications, provide wonderful opportunities to perform and places to visit, enable them to perform and make music all their lives, or teach discipline and dedication (although, of course, it will do all of those things). We want our students to be enriched and encouraged by music. We want them to have more resilience, more dedication, more discipline, more love, more compassion, more gentleness...in short, a richer and happier life.

And this is what we surely want for our children’s futures – that they will be happy, that they will be financially independent, that they will be safe, that they love and will be loved and cherished in return. Music helps us to help them to achieve those things.

In state education in the UK, we have moved perilously close to an educational world in which some subjects are deemed as the most valuable "core" subjects and the others ranked in a hierarchy of decreasing value with the arts at the bottom, while pupils are measured by little more than test scores plotted on a graph.

Education should be about kindling a thirst for knowledge – children discovering who they are, what brings them joy and what does not, how to work, how to learn and how to think.

Music is an essential part of that discovery. Let’s not allow music education to slip away.

Philip Viveash is former director of music at a south London school

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