Keep on singing that song

8th December 2000 at 00:00
Implementing David Blunkett's wish for schools and children to have

greater access to music is a 'tall order', says Christina Coker, but it is a job that's worth doing well.

THE TES's "Music in Schools" investigation (TES, November 17) offered glimpses of the reality and revealed significant pieces in what is clearly a complex jigsaw puzzle. So complex that one can't even take comfort in universality - across the country the picture differs.

We also got hints of some of the over-arching problems: recruitment and retention of teachers (in schools and in peripatetic services); deficiencies intraining and professional development; the overstretched curriculum; annual battles to preserve budgets; mis-matches between patterns of instrumental teaching and schoollocal authority financial arrangements. There is no quick-fix solution.

The investigation was to examine Education Secretary David Blunkett's vow that "all schools should have the resources to teach music and every child should have the opportunity to learn an instrument".

Playing devil's advocate, I could say, "no problem - he's already succeeding" or I could say, "forget it, it was always a non-starter". It depends on your interpretation and highlights the need for greater definition.

For example, was he talking about learning instruments (including recorders) widely used in the classroom or instruments requiring "specialist" tuition and a commitment over many years of large amounts of time and money per child?

If it is the latter, even for a modest proportion of the school-age population, the potential cost would be huge. Has this been calculated? Could it, or how should it, be financed? Are there enough teachers to deliver it? How would schools add this opportunity to what is an already crowded curriculum?

Such basic questions need to be answered without ignoring the need to ensure that all children get a bite of the cherry. It's a challenge, and one that needs to be tackled openly and honestly.

As hoped, Youth Music's Instrument Amnesty initiative with the BBC not only offered practical help, releasing unused instruments - more than 6,000, valued at more than pound;1 million - but also revived the debate on instrumental tuition.

However, learning an instrument is only one part of what can be a richmusical experience for children in schools.

The TES leader indicated three levels: the formal music curriculum; extra-curricular singing and playing in school; and instrumental tuition. The inter-relationships between these are all important, as are the relationships with the various external agencies which increasingly support activities, both in and outside school hours.

The classroom teacher remains central. If sufficiently equipped, they can provide very broad and stimulating musical opportunities can be very broad and incredibly.

Progress depends on money, as well as time, effort and, where necessary, a willingness to challenge the status quo.

Key players, such as the Department for Education and Employment, local authorities, schools, support agencies and training providers need to work together better. Parents also need to be drawn in. The current use and impact of public funds should be scrutinised. A commitment to sustain developments in the longer term and "take on" systemic issues, is needed.

Yes, it's a tall order, but this is a job worth doing well and with a good chance of success. Youth Music's advocacy on these issues is being welcomed widely. We also want to see a strong consolidated school provision that our resources truly complement.

The two-year campaign by The TES to promote music-making and teaching in schools is most welcome. And I hope that, having put music education under the spotlight, the paper will keep it in view.

There remains cause for continuing concern, but there are also reasons for optimism: the Government's clear statement of intent; ring-fenced resources; inspired teachers and beacons of good practice as a starting point for showing the way forward. Now is the time to build on the positive, aim for a more coherent approach, and let no one off the hook.

But we should start by setting out what might constitute a music education entitlement for all pupils. This would build on Mr Blunkett's promise, clarifying exactly what is to be resourced and what key benefits and achievements should accrue.

It is time to bring the debate on this question in the music education world to centre-stage and support it vigorously to a conclusion.

Christina Coker is chief executive of the National Foundation for Youth Music

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