Is UK music education on a sticky wicket?

Look at the decline of cricket in state schools, says Helen Wallace, if you want to see what could happen to music if it’s starved of funds and edged off the curriculum.


Last week my son’s bass teacher handed me a leaflet for the National Schools Symphony Orchestra and Young NSSO. I have no doubt it’s a fine organisation, providing intensive orchestral holiday courses which purport to offer a ‘bridge’ for those aspiring to join the National Youth Orchestra. There’s just one loudly buzzing fly in the ointment: the courses are held from 13-20 July. That’s term time for all state schools in England and Wales. So this is aimed only at the 7% of children attending private schools. Nothing very ‘national’ about that (though single day courses are offered at other times of year). There couldn’t be a clearer way of saying ‘We don’t want you lot.’

I’ve no doubt there are other such courses on during that week –– known, I am told, as ‘posh week’ on the beaches of north Cornwall. One springs immediately to mind – cricket. And in view of the current threat to local authority funding for music, the decline in access to cricket training for state-school children (i.e 93% of children) provides us with a chilling spectre.

The number of England Test Cricketers who attended state schools is at its lowest since 1948, and the trajectory is downwards (80% in 1993 to 33% in 2013) Why? Firstly, playing fields were sold off; the new PE curriculum insisted only that bowling/fielding skills were learned, so teachers with less expertise opted for the easier, quicker rounders; the fewer teachers in the state system with cricketing experience, the less it was played, relevant equipment was not maintained or replaced, and fewer children went on to take it up in local clubs. While much has been done by cricketing charities, like Chance to Shine, to encourage simpler forms of the game to give children a taster, government policy has ensured that entry into top level cricket is now more or less the preserve of the rich – or those with very committed parents.

The state music infrastructure may currently be larger and more integrated (and loved)  than cricket’s, as well as – for now at least – being enshrined in the national curriculum. However, it is all-too easy to see how a similar process could erode a system that was once a world-beating model (our very own El Sistema, in fact), with its regional Heads of Music, local music centres, county youth orchestras and choirs, holiday courses and network of peripatetic teachers.

First you undermine the legitimacy of music as a school subject by removing any obligation to provide it (see campaign If schools are not to be judged on their musical provision or achievement, they will naturally put resources and specialist teachers elsewhere. The role of Head of Music will cease to exist in the secondary sector. Then you remove the local authority funding which subsidised a hub of teachers, instruments, ensembles and regular activities. Local music centres will fade away, to be replaced in middle-class areas with very expensive alternatives, and, in other areas, with nothing at all. Bursaries may be offered to the extremely hard-up; music-loving parents will sacrifice much to make it happen, but those without the inside-track or the means won’t.

As clarinettist and composer Mark Simpson wrote in The Guardian, he was just the child in just the area where free access was the key to a vocation which he would otherwise never have discovered. The UK music profession – and, even more vitally, its audience – is still full of those who received state-subsidised music training in the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s. How will it look in 2030?

Leafing through the Proms Guide, we are confronted by alluring adverts for private schools, tempting parents with their music scholarships. Most of these scholarships barely cover the cost of lessons, let alone make those schools ‘accessible’, however musical your child. What they do communicate is that high quality music-making is valued by the school.  Those schools recognise that parents care deeply about a child’s experience of music, just as they do in the state sector. Can it be that to excel in music, or in cricket, is now only to be an aspiration of the ruling classes? I don’t think so.  But in the case of the Anglican and Catholic choral training, the independent sector and choir schools are already keeping this alive while the number of parish choirs dwindles, providing a route into Oxbridge choral scholarships – the door closing on an ever more exclusive world. 

No doubt David Cameron was thrilled when England retained the 2011 Ashes. But did he stop to ponder the generation of young people for whom the game is turning into an upper-class enigma?  Remove the state’s core commitment to music, and instrumental and singing lessons could become – like learning to ski or play polo – the preserve of professional insiders and the wealthy.

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