Schools improvise to keep their music alive;Music for the Millennium

24th April 1998 at 01:00
The musical life of British children is at risk, a major TES survey reveals. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Music teaching in British primary schools is increasingly reliant on teachers who cannot tell a crotchet from a quaver and the goodwill of parents allowing pupils to be taken out of other lessons.

So said teachers responding to The TES music survey of 692 primaries in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Despite its inclusion in the national curriculum for the past decade, timetable constraints have resulted in music's being squeezed out of normal lesson time and taught during the lunch period or in after-school clubs.

In most areas, access to instrumental tuition is restricted to the better-off. Although some schools subsidise tuition for the less well-off, more than a third make no such reductions.

A Kent head referred to the "blatant inequality of opportunity to children, some of whom may be talented but just not rich enough. Music should be free to all those who wish to pursue it."

A primary school in Cambridgeshire admitted that only one in 20 youngsters had access to instruments. The head said: "With our children the opportunity to learn an instrument apart from recorders is not supported by parents. The school would also have to pay and the budget doesn't cover this."

At least one school said introducing fees had helped to identify those genuinely interested in learning an instrument and that charges had acted as an incentive and increased their commitment.

However, virtually all the pupils at one primary in Doncaster were learning an instrument. The school provides free tuition in instruments including the ocarina, recorder, keyboard and clarinet.

Many music lessons across the country are taught by non-specialist teachers unable to read music or to play an instrument themselves. A minority of schools boasted three or four "musicians" among staff, who were able to assist with assemblies and productions, while others said there was no expertise available at all.

In a few schools a pianist is employed for several hours a week, but heads predict job cuts because of budget reductions. A Leicester head said of the skills shortage: "The situation is desperate and expertise in this field is becoming more rare."

Some schools said they had to rely on audio tapes, radio or television recordings to accompany pupils' singing.

The traditions of concerts, Nativity plays and participation in school choirs continue to flourish, however. Most schools are able to put on performances at least annually, at which the aim is to encourage as many children as possible to take part.

Most schools which responded stressed the cultural, social and inter-personal gaps that were being bridged in Britain's schools because of the school orchestra or choir.

Another Kent head said: "It is used in stretching our able children, in PSE lessons, as a link with the rest of the community, in developing confidence in performing, and it is a great way of promoting the school, its ethos and standards."

The survey also found that schools felt under pressure to concentrate on literacy and numeracy, at the expense of the arts, even though they believed pupils' overall learning would be "narrowed" by such a policy.

One London head said: "I anticipate that there will be pressure to arrange instrumental lessons outside the times allocated for literacy and numeracy. This will not be possible, so fewer children may learn to play an instrument."

Some said they had increased the time spent on music following criticism from Office for Standards in Education inspectors, only to cut back again because of new Government initiatives.

Larry Westland, executive director and founder of Music for Youth, said there was evidence of a shortage of string musicians in Britain's youth orchestras and a decline in entries to the organisation's annual festivals and concerts.

He said: "These findings paint a dismal picture. Music has traditionally been one of the jewels in the crown of our education system.

"What is happening now, as Britain's heads and teachers bear witness, is yet another stage in the philistinism that one finds increasingly in political circles."

Opinion, page 15

People, page 18

Friday, page 15-16

Primary magazine, page 27

Additional research by Ruth Levis

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