Struggle to hit the right note

4th November 2005 at 00:00
More than a year after the Music Manifesto was launched, critics are voicing their concerns. Sophie Kirkham tunes in.

Next week, more than 3,000 children will take part in the annual schools prom at London's Royal Albert Hall, which showcases the best of music in schools. But back in the classroom the quality of teaching and the level of resources remains hit and miss.

Music lessons in primary schools can be taken either by a teacher unable to read music or a degree-educated specialist, depending on funds. Less than an hour a week was dedicated to the subject last year - the smallest amount of time since Labour came to power in 1997.

But last year's Music Manifesto, the result of a government initiative, fanfared a turnaround in attitude towards the subject, which has been see as a soft option, even though it is compulsory for five to 14-year-olds.

Yet 16 months after the launch of the manifesto, compiled by 60 musicians, composers, educators and policy-makers, there is still much to be done.

Critics are beginning to doubt whether enough money will ever be ring-fenced to make a difference to school music.

There are uplifting anecdotes of pilot schemes in which classes of children whip out their guitars at the end of maths lessons as part of a cross-curricular approach to music. But these examples are too costly for most schools to consider without extra funding.

Ofsted has found that learning an instrument remains the privilege of the white middle-classes in some areas. Tight budgets mean group lessons take place in small rooms equipped with only an old, out-of-tune piano. In the quarter of schools with unsatisfactory music accommodation much of the one-hour lesson is spent moving furniture and putting it back .

But the biggest challenge is teacher training. Primary recruits receive almost no guidance on how to lead a class in music. They are then left anxious about their own musical abilities, and schools can either buy in expert help or leave them to struggle through a book of songs on their own.

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie (see box) campaigns for better music teaching in schools. "I have spoken to primary teachers who said that on the entire teaching course they maybe had an hour on how to address music in the classroom," she said. "Well, forget it - that won't make a difference. They may as well have gone to the pub for that hour. They are left really frustrated."

Music is also suffering in secondary schools where David Bell, the chief inspector, says it is one of the worst-taught subjects with one in 12 lessons unsatisfactory.

One reason is that not enough music teachers are being recruited. Music graduates, keen to pass on their experience to children, are being driven into the private sector by the qualification process.

It has been suggested that musicians should be spared the teacher-training and instead become music leaders providing specialist knowledge in schools.

Another idea is to introduce a foundation year for would-be secondary music teachers before their PGCE. This would extend the current 10-week training which means much of the curriculum is simply not covered.

The Government has also pledged that every secondary music teacher who signs up from September 2006 will receive a "golden hello" of pound;2,500.

The recruitment situation could worsen, however, if universities follow the example of Reading and close their music departments.

"It is one of those subjects which has good and bad years for recruitment,"

said Professor John Howson, recruitment analyst from Education Data Surveys.

"There are now more graduates, which means things should be on the up, but if more music departments close the numbers will begin to drop."

Derek Kitt, Cornwall council's music adviser and former chair of the National Association of Music Educators, said: "The standard of teacher-training is shocking. I have spent my life trying to train non-specialist teachers with primary classes and it can work. Provided they get the right training at the right time they are hugely enthusiastic with the children.

"We have to work with teachers and train them to be music leaders and not worry too much about the formal teaching qualification."

Despite the problems with training, much primary teaching engages pupils well. But when they reach key stage 3, students are developing their own tastes and are turned off by traditional teaching methods, which concentrate largely on western classical compositions. Many ethnic-minority pupils are also put off music in schools because they find lessons irrelevant.

The modern music pupil is also more interested in the technological side of the subject, according to a Music Manifesto report, but recording studios - or even just a computer and basic software - come at a price.

The Music Manifesto recommends the return of whole-school singing, more ethnic-minority teachers, and more of a world-music approach to teaching, as well as more collaborations with community music projects.

It also says "bedroom musicians" should be nurtured and taught the importance of copyright as more students consider publishing their compositions.

Musical Futures is a scheme being piloted in Hertfordshire, Nottingham and Leeds that looks at various ways to teach the key stage 3 pupils and keep them interested. Songs based on The Simpsons, an acoustic cafe in which young musicians swap ideas, and urban music nights are some of the projects.

But funding needed to expand the pilot schemes is uncertain. The Government has said it will provide an extra pound;177 million over the next three years, but this is mainly for the education authority-based organisations that run choirs, orchestras and bands in their role of supporting the school music curriculum.

The Wider Opportunities programme, a government music initiative, has been given pound;33m between 2005 and 2008. The aim is to fulfil the Government's promise that every primary pupil will have the option of learning an instrument for a year, free of charge.

Julian Lloyd-Webber, the cellist and brother of composer Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber, said: "The Music Manifesto was launched almost 18 months ago, full of good intentions, but now we need to see some results.

"This is an urgent problem. A lot of children are growing up with no knowledge of some of mankind's finest achievements."

The general opinion seems to be that music education can be extremely well-done, but that there is little consistency between schools and local authorities. Discretionary funding means that music can lose out to the core subjects on which schools are judged.

"Music in schools is full of potential and very, very rich," said Sara Hennessy, chair of the Association of Music Educators.

"But we need more coherence. The Music Manifesto has raised awareness, which is good. Over the next year or so, we will see if it is going to bear any fruit."

The Schools Prom, run by Music for Youth and co-sponsored by The TES, takes place next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Royal Albert Hall, London Friday magazine 6-7

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