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Media Lab graduate Marcus Smith goes back to his old school to find out what’s happening to music education.

Photo: Praiwan Wasanruk

Music lessons were some of my fondest moments of school. But in a city renowned for live music and across the country, music learning is under threat. To find out what is going on, I caught up with my old music teacher at King’s Oak Academy in Kingswood.

“The most important thing about music is being able to work and play together in a team… also building self confidence,” says Tim, who has been teaching music for over 30 years at various schools in east Bristol.

“Anybody that gets a qualification in music or can play something, demonstrates stick-ability,” he explains. “Any job in the world… a cleaner or the world’s top chemist, you’ve got to stick, if you’ve got to solve a problem, there’s no point in giving up after three goes.”

“I don’t categorise my success on how many kids go to university or become a Number 1 recording artist. It’s about leaving school with an enjoyment of music”

Despite the widely agreed benefits of learning music, a survey by Sussex University found schools in UK are cutting back music education. The research uncovered an increasing number of schools reducing or completely removing music in the curriculum for year 7, 8 and 9 students and a decline in the number of schools offering GCSE music and equivalents. In addition, the uptake of music at A Level is down by 25% since 2014, and the number of schools even offering it has fallen by more than 15% in the past two years.

Shutting out creative subjects?

But why is music fading from schools? “A lot of parents and carers don’t know anything about the Ebacc, but the government is trying to put kids through a smaller series of subjects – and creative subjects do not appear,” Tim says.

The Ebacc, short for English Baccalaureate, is a new set of GCSE subjects: English, maths, sciences, history or geography, and a language. It was first introduced in 2010 with the intention of increasing the number of pupils going on to university, but the reforms have been criticised for excluding arts subjects such as music.

Schools are now measured by how many students take Ebacc subjects. This is currently about 40% of pupils in state schools, but the government has pledged this will rise to 75% by 2022 and 90% by 2025.

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“I don’t categorise my success on how many kids go to university or become a Number 1 recording artist…. It’s about leaving school with an enjoyment of music… whether it’s as a listener, a performer or – you never know – as a composer,” says Tim.

It appears the government wants our young people to be soulless, uncreative robots. Funnily enough, the new Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said in 2014, while Education Secretary, that pupils are “held back” due to an over emphasis on the arts in schools.

The musical divide

Outside the curriculum, the lack of opportunities and financial cost are considered the biggest barriers to young people taking music further.

“I learnt to play the trumpet at school because I wanted to miss other classes, nothing to do with wanting to be a musician,” Tim remembers. “It was free; if it had cost money, I would never have had a look in and I would not be here now.”

A recent Bristol Cable investigation highlighted the funding disparity between private and state schools in the city, and it’s the same story with music education. Nationally, only 12% of schools in deprived areas have an orchestra, compared with 85% of fee-paying schools.

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“The cost of lessons has stopped a lot of children from taking up music… a lot of parents and carers cannot afford to pay for lessons,” says Tim, but adds that some support is available – pupils eligible for free school meals, get 50% off.

“With a lot of the kids, what I tend to do is spark their interest, the ones that can afford it will have lessons, the others will need to have self motivation, because although they are supported in the classroom, they have to go away and work on it themselves.”

There are some positive steps in Bristol to reduce the divide. Bristol Plays Music is a music education hub in Southmead run by the Bristol Music Trust that aims to improve access to music education for young people and give them a platform for musical expression.

Video killed the radio star

A new report also suggests a disconnect between how young people use technology to access and create music, compared to how music is taught in schools. However, this latest and accessible technology could save music education from disappearing.

“What I’ve done is almost taken away the clarinet and saxophone players, and now we have lots of singers, guitar players, keyboard players…” Tim explains.

“In one way, I’ve killed off music as a specialist subject, but the positive is that lots of kids come to school and think ‘We’re gonna make music! We’re not gonna talk all day about Beethoven’s nine symphonies. Not to say that’s not important, but in the real world… it ain’t!”

The young – and young at heart – access any type of music from around the world on the internet and through streaming services such as Spotify. Music instrument learners are increasingly doing it themselves through online tutorials. It is also now very easy to produce music using conventional instruments on a smartphone.

“We have a room full of computers… now you tell me, and you’re talking to an old person now… is being sat down at a computer playing on GarageBand real music? No it’s not, that’s my opinion.” Tim argues. He adds it’s a technical skill but not a “broad and balanced music education” that should be part of a bigger process.

Some of my fondest memories at school were performing at music concerts organised by Tim. Live music in Bristol supports around 900 jobs in the city, but music and other creative subjects in schools are under threat. Let’s not let the shortsightedness of government reforms put the lights up on our musical futures.

Marcus also hosts a weekly radio show on BCfm called ‘Think Globally Act Locally’ – playing music from all around the world with local news, views and guests.

The contents of this article do not necessarily represent the opinions, views, policies or procedures of the Cabot Learning Federation.

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  • Steve Smith says:

    I taught Drama at what became Kings Oak Academy for many years and Tim was a brilliant colleague with whom I produced numerous musicals and concerts. (Marcus was a star student by the way). Yesterday I met 4 ex-students all of whom are making a living in music by combining playing live and working in music education. The entertainment and leisure industries are huge earners for this country and, as Tim says, the team-work and communication skills learned in the performing arts are applicable in numerous other professions.

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