Richard Morrison: Why music education in the UK is under threat – but there is still hope
Music education, at all levels and in all formats, has never seemed so threatened. I am writing this so as not to demoralize these young people who, in a few weeks, will be embarking on music lessons at school, university or conservatory. Thank goodness you are! There are fewer and fewer of you. A new report from Ofsted points out that over the past decade, âthe number of students in key stages 4 and 5 [of the music curriculum] have steadily diminished, the key offer of stage 3 has been reduced and the trainee primary teachers have been offered increasingly reduced amounts of musical training â. In other words, every age group of public school students, from intake to sixth grade, is likely to receive less (or worse) music education than that of school ten ago, 20 or 30 years old. And it wasn’t great then.
Grim reading, but if you widen the context it looks even worse. The government cuts funds for art classes in higher education, including music, and ministers regularly indicate their preference for young people to specialize in science or technology, rather than the “unnecessary humanities” “. The fact that the music industry contributes Â£ 5.8bn a year to the UK economy – or did before Covid – seems to elude them.
Covid itself has also wreaked havoc, both on the infrastructure of music education and on the morale of music professionals. During the lockdown, local schools and music centers had to suspend their orchestras, groups and choirs. Now that we are back in “normalcy” (which, so far, seems far from normal), the focus is on catching up with students in math, science and technology – with music being even more marginalized. .
Meanwhile, thousands of adult artists barely made a dime in the catastrophic 15 months of March last year, and the music industry’s recovery still looks fragile. At the best of times, music is a precarious profession. Right now, the line between dedication and madness seems woefully thin. Children who are very musical are, in my experience, generally very successful in many other academic areas. For parents, the urge to direct them to these alternative areas must be overwhelming.
Yet if I was 18 again – and even knowing what to do with the precarious state of the profession of a musician – I would dive back into music without hesitating for a moment. First, in our unstable world, what seems hopeless today can prosper tomorrow. History teaches us that disasters that almost destroy the music profession – the world wars, for example – are often followed by a spectacular bloom of creativity and opportunity. The prospect of losing something precious prompts people to support it with renewed enthusiasm. This could be the case with music.
Second, the hiatus caused by Covid has forced musicians to be resourceful in new ways, and some of these innovations are too good to be abandoned when mainstream concerts resume. Streaming is a clear example of this, not only because it broadens audiences, but also because it has persuaded classical artists to think about how they present themselves visually and verbally, as well as musically. Localism is another. Many musicians have reconnected, or connected for the first time, with their own communities. These developments all offer new career opportunities for young flexible musicians.
And third, more than ever classical music needs fresh young minds, tuned in to social media, unprejudiced about musical categorizations, and brimming with energy and idealism. The most interesting passage in this Ofsted report – which is otherwise a bit jargon-heavy – is where its authors suggest that some of those who advocate music education have been on the wrong track in recent years, because they have tried to defend the place of music in the curriculum on the basis of how it improves performance in other subjects or the social skills of students. The main goal of learning music, Ofsted says, is to become a better musician, and that’s a wonderful thing.
I am okay. But the battle for music education must be fought on many levels, and these other arguments are useful when dealing with the many politicians who only value things in economic or utilitarian terms. It doesn’t matter how we fight for music education, as long as we keep fighting. The bright teenagers who are currently reluctant to embark on such an uncertain lifestyle are probably the very ones who have the drive and the ideas to change the musical world. Let’s light up the tactile paper in their minds, take a step back and enjoy the fireworks they create.