Noble ambitions starved of funds

30th June 1995 at 01:00
Professor Keith Swanwick previews a conference which will look to the future of music in schools. Nowhere is the widening gap between education rhetoric and reality more evident than in the arts and in particular the fate of music education. The rhetorical surface shines with newly polished national curriculum, with a belated reaffirmation of the professionalism of teachers, with assurances that class sizes are not really a problem and guarantees that school fundingis now being better managed by head-teachers.

Gone are the days of wasteful local education authority spending, of subversive teacher education, of the wicked old educational Establishment. In its place we have - supposedly - efficiency and effectiveness. The slimmed-down national curriculum for music remains explicit about the central statutory requirement. Understanding and enjoyment are to be developed through the integrated activities of performing, composing, listening and appraising. All pupils are to be taught to sing and play music, to perform with others and to compose using a range of techniques and in a variety of settings.

These noble ambitions, however, are being compromised by lack of resources, a progressive dilution of teacher education and by the local management of schools leading to the decline of local authority music services.

Acutely aware of these issues, over 700 people gathered in the Queen Elizabeth Hall last summer to take part in the first conference promoted by Music for Youth and the Music Education Council. The widespread concern can be gauged by the large turnout. A galaxy of star speakers addressed the problems. Sir Michael Checkland wanted to know why the national curriculum has no specific requirement for specialist vocal or instrumental teaching, how we can ensure that talent is nurtured irrespective of the financial circumstances of the family and whether headteachers should have to make either-or-decisions between music and science.

Ann Taylor, then Labour party education spokesman, asked that the stimulating developments in music teaching should not be squeezed out by over-prescription, constant change and the pressures of local management of schools, while Baroness Warnock urged parents and governors to resist the proposal that individual schools should be entirely responsible for instrumental teaching. The former heritage secretary, David Mellor, warned of the danger of sudden reductions or breaks in funding which can so easily destroy continuity.

On July 3 and 4 this year, 1995, a second MFYMEC conference is to be held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with speakers including education minister Eric Forth MP, Opposition spokesman Peter Kilfoyle MP, and Professor Ted Wragg. Once again they will open up important issues - assessment in music, evaluating quality in the curriculum, instrumental teaching and effective teacher education. And yet the inexorable tide rolls out leaving a wreckage of empty music adviser posts, half-privatised instrumental teaching services and - worst of all - music teachers in schools left isolated.

The professional network of LEAs and of university teacher education has quickly eroded in the face of policies that turn schools into businesses and teacher education into apprenticeships of variable effectiveness. Opportunities for music teachers to meet each other and trade professional expertise are closing up as teacher education becomes progressively "school- based". Isolated music teachers are unlikely to be stimulated to develop their insights and practice. The chance for professional development becomes minimal, squeezed out as school budgets get allocated elsewhere.

I recently came across a music teacher whose annual departmental budget was Pounds 400. He did not think this unusual or particularly remarkable. Another teacher has written to the MFYMEC conference organising committee drawing attention to the special problems of music teaching without specialist support. She described her job as head of music in a department of two, in an LEA-maintained, heavily over-subscribed and very "successful", multi-racial 11-16 comprehensive school of about 1100 pupils, drawn from both the inner city and the suburbs, in an authority that not only axed its instrumental service at a stroke some years ago, but is also perennially more heavily hammered and underfunded.

She tells us: "to give all our pupils the chance to learn to play an instrument, we expanded the steel band within the curriculum and, inevitably, the extra curricular areas. Everyone does a steel band module in their first year with us (Year 7) after which anyone can join an extra-curricular training group. Many do. It is their only chance. Not necessarily on the instrument they would have chosen initially, but nevertheless one that is available, is free and with which, if they persevere, the world can be their oyster. The success of this has been explosive and runaway. Last year the majority of our GCSE students offered it as their performance instrument, and 23 pieces of their coursework were arrangements or compositions for steel band. Most got starred Aor A grades.

"There is also a wider profile of work with professional musicians, including the East of England Orchestra and NatWest Jazz. This adds up to a complex and busy lifestyle: a teacher is not only at the chalk face for most of the working week but has also to administer instrumental teaching and generate the musical events that bolster up sagging school profiles. The notion of 'directed time' is as alien for music teachers as for those involved in sports and games. Exploitation of goodwill well beyond the demands of contract hours still seems commonplace.

The personal toll is very heavy, however - all the tuition on the instruments plus the arranging, admin, and band training has to be in-house. We do also have the more usual 'paid for by parents' instrumental tuition, and a lot of other extra-curricular groups. A recent OFSTED report praised the breadth and variety of these in a music section which began: 'Music is a dynamic force with the school' and continued in like vein. This has taken 13 years to build up."

"This year, all this looks set to be destroyed. Further central government hammering means we lose four more teachers. We can no longer sustain workshop sized groups in our first year, to be able to keep steel band as a curriculum study. You cannot have a class of 32 beginners working successfully on enough instruments for 18. The room is too small for further instruments to be added, even were there the funding for them. With the demise of starter groups, the rest will wither. We shall be reduced to instrumental tuition only for those whose parents can - and will - buy it through the private service."

The rest of this teacher's very practical school music curriculum is now in trouble as class sizes rise. There is no space for extra groups or resources for extra instruments. She says that a sense of isolation and despair is very real. "Even Pharaoh didn't expect Moses to make bricks without straw, water or mud, which is just about what we are now being asked to do."

The Music Education Council takes very seriously the erosion of opportunities to teach well. Educational circumstances have changed radically over the last three or four years. Our business is to make the most of the national curriculum and see that a wide range of musical activities is open to all our children. None of this is possible without working conditions that bring out the best in teachers and students.

Details of the conference from Music For Youth, 4, Blade Mews, Deodar Road, London SW15 2NN (Tel: 0181 870 9624). Professor Keith Swanwick is chair of the Music Education Council.

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