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Stave off a disaster

As the Schools Prom looms Howard Dove bangs the drum for a franchised national music service that delivers the goods.

Some things always happen on time and are brilliantly successful. There is a comfortable reassurance in this. Contentment, even complacency, reigns supreme. A state of bliss.

Next week, the annual Schools Prom concerts take place in London's Royal Albert Hall. They always do each November, meticulously presented, carefully timed and well supported. Packed audiences, comprising many of the great and the good, will once again applaud wildly at the outstanding achievements of the hundreds of young musicians taking part. A glorious celebration of school music-making, with more than a dash of carnival thrown in.

In the silence that follows, there may be time to reflect on the structures underpinning these events. It is then that contentment turns to concern, worry, and, in some parts of the country, despair.

The Schools Prom and other events like it rely heavily on the work of music services up and down the country. The majority of these services are still supported by their local education authority. Some have already folded, others exist as independent trusts, but many of these survive only with substantial local authority support. This is now under threat.

So what's new? We've heard it all before. The new factors are the reorganisation of local government in some areas, and, much more important, the downward pressure by central government on all local authority spending.

This seems set to continue well into the future as governments, perhaps of any persuasion, wrestle with borrowing to finance public-sector work. In dealing with such lofty macro issues, micro matters like the local music service seem of little importance. It is already clear that if there is "new money" for education, it will rightly go to schools and colleges and not to propping up non-statutory central services like music. Yet while, save for a few extremists on either side of the political divide, the provision of a local music service does not seem to be a party issue, it surely is a political one.

Fundamental questions must now be addressed. Can the LEA be expected to continue to fund or subsidise a music service? At heart, most will want to do one or the other. Can they now afford it? Clearly some cannot. For internal political reasons, many will never be willing or able to confess to this, preferring to let the service wither and quietly die.

Given that there are almost as many ways of organising a music service as there are music services, does this now make any sense educationally or financially? Should there be music services anyway? Do schools really need them? If they do, just how should they operate and obtain funding? How can there be equality of access for children in all schools across the whole country? This has never been achieved at any time in the past. How can a music service help support, not just the work of such high-profile activities as orchestras, bands and choirs, but music for all children within the framework of the national curriculum? Should the music service be given greater independence than hitherto, allowing it make new strategic alliances outside the world of education? Should it operate throughout the whole year developing, providing and supporting a raft of musical activities across the entire community for people of all ages? Above all, how much will it cost and who will be asked to pay?

The answers lead straight to a radical solution. A solution that achieves equality of access for all. A solution that produces the same levels of excellence and quality across the whole country. Above all, one that can be afforded.

A national music service functioning as a non-profit-making franchise operation could achieve the breakthrough. Each participating local authority would contribute to a new central holding company. That company would set and monitor standards of work, pay and conditions of service. It would determine central and local management structures. It would be free to develop real partnerships between the music industry, both manufacturing and retail, and other interested parties. Any trading surplus that accrued would be ploughed back to each participating LEA, thereby providing them with a locally-managed service of the highest quality at little or no cost. With strong central leadership and dynamic regional management, the benefits to all would be quickly perceived.

Many may be uncomfortable with the concept of franchising. Yet, in essence, this is the way in which much of our education system operates. The Government defines the curriculum, sets the standards, inspects them, determines pay and conditions of service, and allows the whole operation to be managed locally within each school.

The music service of the future must work at full, that is real, cost without local authority subsidy. It must provide specialist class music teaching, instrumental teaching, help with the direction of school and community ensembles, offer workshops and concerts as well as daily and weekly courses. Quality and price are crucial. A new pay structure must be found. New business must be developed in ways that extend work across the whole year. Staff will need to be employed on variable contracts giving them the opportunity to work as much, or as little as they would wish and the business will allow.

Within the wider community, both individuals and community groups must pay the going rate for services. Within schools, however, the school, not parents, must be the client. It is entirely right that governors decide whether to absorb the full cost, pass on part of the cost, or pass on the full cost and set their own remissions policy. This helps to avoid a 19th-century public-school model with instrumental music as the inevitable "extra". It also ensures that service management and administrative costs are kept to a minimum.

County, city and district orchestras, bands and choirs should be hived off into a separate organisation. They should no longer be part of the core business of the music service. It is to these high-profile activities that local politicians may well choose to offer their financial support. They are also more likely to attract commercial sponsorship, develop strong parental support groups and raise money through ticket sales.

Others may well have another model. Let us hear about it. Time may not be on our side. Many of those responsible for organising the funding of this work are desperately seeking new ideas.

This weekend in Oxfordshire an embryonic organisation called the Federation of Music Services meets in conference to put together the finishing touches before its official launch next April. It intends to support music services, agree and raise standards among its membership, and clarify a vision of the future. Already many UK services have joined. Many of the heads of service attending are already seeking answers to the questions. The weekend promises to be a lively and exciting occasion.

As all local authority spending is held up to even closer scrutiny, and subjected to even greater pressure, let us hope that this federation is launched on time, and in time.

There is a sense of timelessness that still pervades some music services. They must now become more open-minded about change and new ways of working if music in all schools and the community is to continue, let alone flourish. Then, and only then, contentment, but never complacency, can be within our grasp.

Howard Dove was formerly head of Hampshire's music service

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