Sounds of silence

24th December 2010 at 00:00
Thousands of primary school children delight in the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. But after just a year of funding, tuition largely becomes the preserve of those whose parents can afford to pay.

I really like the sound of the violin. I'd like to go on playing when I'm older," says Sajjad*. Patrick* agrees, although he confides that really, "I'd like to be an opera singer".

Sajjad and Patrick are members of a group of Year 4 violinists at Lancasterian Primary School in Haringey, north London. Despite their enthusiasm, for most of these children their musical careers will be over almost as soon as they have begun.

Local authority funding pays for music lessons for all Year 4 children at Lancasterian. But from Year 5, parents are asked to contribute towards the cost of the lessons. The result is a dramatic drop-off. Of the 30 Year 4 pupils who began the violin two years ago, just five are still learning by the time they get to Year 6.

It is a picture replicated in thousands of schools around the country. But it comes despite almost a decade of political pledges and millions of pounds of funding. Education secretary Michael Gove is one of those who recognises the value of music education, ordering a review of the way it works in England.

"It's a sad fact that too many children in state schools are denied the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument," he says. "It is simply unfair that the joy of musical discovery should be the preserve of those whose parents can afford it." So what has gone wrong?

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO) provides a snapshot of the shortcomings in music education. The NYO, made up of 13 to 19 year olds, is the premier music ensemble for young people. It enjoys an international reputation, undertaking overseas tours and giving high- profile concerts, including an annual slot at the BBC Proms.

But less than half - 43 per cent - of the 526 applicants for places in the NYO this year came from state schools. Of the 163 pupils who were selected, less than a third - 29 per cent - came from the maintained sector. Of the rest, 30 per cent came from specialist music schools and 36 per cent from fee-paying schools.

NYO communications director James Murphy says many of the orchestra's members have had their talents developed by local authority music services. But he admits that those who show a real aptitude are often channelled towards fee-paying schools. Of the NYO members who went to independent schools, the vast majority did so on a music scholarship or bursary. Among them is the leader of the orchestra last year, whose early career was nurtured by Leeds' music service; he now attends Eton on a music scholarship.

At Lancasterian, the odds are stacked against Sajjad and Patrick ever joining the ranks of the NYO. This is despite significant expenditure on improving music education. The Wider Opportunities (WO) scheme was launched in 2007 to increase the number of children learning to play an instrument, with pound;23 million given directly to schools and another pound;3 million to local authorities. Two years later, an additional annual pound;10 million fund was set aside to buy musical instruments.

WO's aspiration was that half of those who were funded to learn an instrument in Year 4 would carry on. But a report commissioned by the Federation of Music Services (FMS), published earlier this year, found that the actual rate was between 10 and 30 per cent.

Almost four in ten - 37 per cent - of survey respondents reported just 10 per cent continued, while five per cent reported no one carrying on after Year 4.

Haringey uses WO money to enable all Year 4s to learn an instrument in weekly classes, supplemented by 30 minutes of individual tuition. In Year 5, the music service funds a weekly instrumental class for up to 12 continuers from each Year 4 class and "invites" parents to contribute pound;15 a term, although no child is refused lessons because their parents cannot - or will not - pay.

In Year 6, the termly charge ranges from pound;70 for a shared lesson with another pupil to pound;140 for 30 minutes of individual tuition, although fees are waived for children receiving free school meals. The local authority's head of music and performing arts, Peter Desmond, concedes that there is "a marked drop-off" when parents are asked to fund the lessons themselves. "Once the funding for KS2 ends, we are hung out to dry because we have got no more money," he says.

Nor is the situation helped by the fact that the money does not have to be spent on instrument tuition, he says. "It's all too easy for a school to spend pound;2,000 on some whizzy drumming act to come in and entertain the children for a couple of days rather than weekly classes for a whole year."

At Lancasterian, violin class leader Deborah Young says it can be "heartbreaking" when students give up after Year 4. "The ones that carry on aren't always the ones you want to," she says. Although reasons for giving up vary, she says that having to ask for a parental contribution "certainly doesn't help".

Mike Kent, head of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London, is determined to ensure his pupils have access to music tuition. Mr Kent, a TES columnist, says he has built up a "massive" stock of instruments. "I especially wanted an orchestra and loads of music," he says. "That's where I manoeuvre any spare cash."

As a result, he is able to provide free instrumental lessons for all pupils, including individual tuition for the "really, really good" musicians in his school - currently more than 20. But he acknowledges that not all primary heads share his enthusiasm and many will be tempted into spending WO money on entertainment rather than tuition. "What's needed is continuity and sustainability," he says.

It is also easy to see why some schools, facing myriad pressures and funding constraints, regard musical instrument tuition as an optional extra rather than a core part of provision.

But Sarah Kekus, chair of the National Association of Music Educators (NAME) and director of the schools programme at The Sage in Gateshead, believes that music can help to engage children who are otherwise hard for teachers to reach. "I have seen the stars in children's eyes when they have heard an orchestra for the first time," she says.

At Lancasterian, Nick Weiss, a peripatetic woodwind teacher, enthuses about the impact of instrumental lessons on children. "For many, it's something they could be good at," he says. "It's about feeling special."

He recalls boys who are "academically challenged" and "grumpy" - he mimes playing the clarinet with shoulders hunched, scowling - beaming when they pick up an instrument. "It's the highlight of their week," he says.

The children also learn to work in groups - discovering that "it's not just about blowing the loudest", he says.

Although a few weeks ago most of the Lancasterian Year 4s had never seen a clarinet or violin or conceived of the idea that they could learn to play one, by the end of term they will give their first concert, and some will be playing solos by the time the summer performance takes place, says Mr Weiss.

But even if these musicians continue into Years 5 and 6, there is a good chance they will fall by the wayside when they reach secondary school. The FMS report draws attention to the lack of what it calls "progression pathways" between primary and secondary schools in music tuition.

At Musical Bridges, a Paul Hamlyn Foundation-funded project set up to address this issue, programme convenor Adrian Chappell agrees. "There is a lot of evidence that children get lost in transition unless they are very actively supported by parents," he says.

He believes the problem is that no one "owns" responsibility for encouraging and enabling continued study at secondary. He says secondary schools should invest outreach time in their primary feeder schools in order to get a rounder picture of what is going on in music education.

"The approach should be that every transferring child is a developing musician or has the potential to be," he says. "There is great frustration in primaries that some children, enabled to a very high level (in instrumental skills), are not picked up at secondary.

"Traditionally, the vast majority of music services have been supporting primaries and running Saturday morning schools for those who've reached a high standard of proficiency. Privately, many will admit that more effort should have been put into continuity and progression."

FMS chief executive Virginia Haworth-Galt agrees that transfer from key stage 2 to 3 is crucial. "There is a lot of concern about it," she says. "There is all this investment in KS2 and after that momentum is lost."

She says this issue formed a key part of the organisation's recommendations to the Henley review of music education, set up by Michael Gove (see panel right).

At the NYO, Mr Murphy makes no apology for the provenance of its members. The orchestra, he says, "is about aspiration and excellence, not access". But he emphasises that it has a role beyond the talented musicians who manage to join its ranks: to enthuse and raise attainment among those who may not have had the talent or opportunities to play with the NYO.

"What's critical, as well as access and grass roots music-making, is fuelling interest, providing role models," he says. "Our musicians come from many backgrounds and it's clear that behind them are dedicated teachers and a cosmos of regional ensembles and organisations."

A model of what can be achieved is provided by El Sistema, a national, state-funded project that has made Venezuela the toast of music educationalists all over the world. El Sistema runs a series of youth orchestras, the pinnacle of which is the renowned Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It draws its members from the most deprived communities.

The orchestra's hugely successful first visit to Britain in 2007 inspired the creation of two British programmes - Big Noise in Scotland, and In Harmony in England. Both follow El Sistema's example of working in areas of deprivation and seeking to transform young people's lives through music.

Mr Murphy believes the Venezuelan template has lessons for music education in Britain. "What we love about El Sistema is its celebration of community," he says. "We have taken so much fuel from it - we are both about the power of music."

But inspiration could count for nothing with local authorities facing budget reductions of 28 per cent over the next four years. Music services look particularly vulnerable. Already, North Yorkshire County Council is proposing to axe its pound;480,000 annual subsidy to music services by 2013, while Central Bedfordshire Council plans to pull the plug from 2012.

But quite apart from funding pressures, Ms Kekus believes music is the victim of Britain's class system, where orchestras and classical music are perceived as the preserve of a privileged few. "We have to take it off a pedestal," she says. "It's not for the elite; it's something everyone can do."

The failure to translate WO funding into a sustained widening of musical opportunities has disappointed many in the field. But Ms Kekus believes something even more fundamental needs to change if instrumental talent is to be afforded the importance in Britain that it enjoys in many other countries.

"It's vital there is no stigma attached to carrying an instrument into school," she says. "I hope that music remains in the national curriculum and has status and is valued for its own sake, but also valued because it's vitally important for the soul of the nation - for everyone's soul."

Music educators are now anxiously awaiting publication of the Henley review to see if its recommendations can compensate for the expected reduction in funding. Whether they will come in time for Sajjad and Patrick at Lancasterian is another matter. * Names have been changed.


2000: Education secretary David Blunkett pledges that "over time, all pupils in primary schools who wish to learn a music instrument will have the opportunity".

2002: Whole-class musical instrument tuition by specialist teachers piloted in primaries.

2004: Music Manifesto is launched by the Government. Its five key aims include a pledge to "identify and nurture our most talented young musicians".

2006: The Standards Fund Music Grant is established to increase participation and raise standards of music achievement by funding specialist instrumental andor vocal tuition at key stage 2.

2007: The pilot schemes of 2002 are rolled out nationally under Wider Opportunities, funded by the Standards Fund: pound;3 million provided to local authorities in 2006 is supplemented by pound;23 million devolved to schools. Government launches the national singing programme, Sing Up, funded at pound;40 million over four years.

2009: An additional pound;10 million a year is provided to buy musical instruments.

2010: Education secretary Michael Gove says "all young people should have the chance to learn an instrument, read music and receive top-quality music education" and orders a review of musical education.


It will focus on:

  • how to make sure music funding benefits more young people;
  • improving the music opportunities they receive both in and out of school;
  • improving the training and professional development offered to music teachers;
  • how to attract more music professionals into schools;
  • how best to offer quality live music experiences to all young people.
    • The review is expected to report in the new year, with implementation of the recommendations to take effect from 2012.

      Original print headline: Sounds of silence

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