Anyone who takes an active interest in culture will almost certainly have heard of El Sistema, the celebrated Venezuelan music project which has been using orchestral music-making to improve the lives of disadvantaged young people for nearly 40 years.

This month we learned that Sistema Scotland, Scotland’s own pint-sized version of the project, is to expand into Glasgow – just weeks after four new Sistema-inspired projects opened for business in Gateshead, Leeds, Nottingham and Telford. Could it be that Venezuela’s most famous cultural export is now as much a part of British music education as county youth orchestras and Eisteddfods?

Perhaps, but El Sistema is not without its critics. A number of commentators have expressed the view that its British spin-off projects – which typically involve working intensively with relatively small numbers of children – cost too much and benefit too few. But more worrying is the misleading notion, propagated by some parts of the media, that El Sistema has somehow ‘come to the rescue’ of British music education.

In fact, Sistema-style projects are far from new to these shores. Take for example the Tower Hamlets Strings Project. Just like El Sistema, this pioneering initiative brought disciplined ensemble music-making to underprivileged children in east London for the best part of 15 years – showing that not every socially oriented music project originates in Venezuela.

Indeed, the most serious gripe with Britain’s growing number of Sistema projects is not with the projects themselves but with the excessive hype surrounding them, which distracts from the urgent reality that local authority music services – the real engine room of British music education – will face savage cuts over the next few years. Most children in Britain learn instruments through their local music service, not through a Sistema project – and yet the government’s idea for making music education accessible to all is to put money into Sistema projects while cutting music services. As impressive as some of these projects are, they should not be mistaken for the core infrastructure through which we stand the best chance of providing musical opportunity for all.

A little bit of a subjective blog entry here – just heard that my old head of music service – Peter Dunkley in Northamptonshire – is retiring. Peter is most respected in the business, and Northants music service is one of the very best – the National Plan for Music recognised this by devoting an entire appendix to its excellent structure of youth ensembles.

But Peter will most probably get passed over for an MBE/OBE because the music education sector is not good at nominating the right people for these honours. I have nothing against Gareth Malone OBE, who has certainly done a lot of good work – but he has done it with the heft of TV behind him, an advantage that Peter Dunkley and others have never had. (Also, Malone was nominated for his award by the BBC! Self-promoting or what?)

Gareth Malone aside, if you look at the music education people who typically receive honours, you’ll see that they tend to be ‘figureheads’ – people who have led a successful initiative or who have campaigned for change. In other words, the honours seem to be going to people on the margins – those who are plugging gaps or drawing attention to perceived problems. The honours are not going to the people who actually keep music education going for the majority of children, day in day out.

There is a wider point here. Do these honours perhaps reflect a music education culture that is gravitating towards the margins? Are we are heading for an end point where a multitude of creative initiatives will flourish at the margins while the kids in the middle who just want a quality music education will gradually find their cause becoming less and less trendy?

I’m currently involved in putting together the programme for a new conference/trade event for music teachers (www.musiceducationexpo.co.uk). As well as trying to focus on practical, useful content that teachers can take back their schools/studios, I have been investigating the possibility of linking as many sessions as possible to some form of CPD accreditation.

My own background in music education is as an instrumental/peri teacher, so I know how informal CDP accreditation in this sector can be. Various bodies offer useful and interesting CPD for instrumental teachers that often lead to some kind of niche qualification, and it’s all good stuff for the CV. But it makes me wonder whether it would be better to have a more structured CPD framework for qualification providers to link into?

Also in the back of my mind is the new Qualified Music Educator award, suggested by the government’s National Plan for Music. This doesn’t exist yet, but the Arts Council is in charge of it and discussions about what it will look like have now begun. Whether the Arts Council has the resources to do it justice is uncertain, but I know that some bright and experienced people have been brought on board to help out.

QME may have been suggested to regulate teachers, but it is also an opportunity to improve on the CPD that is currently available. I can’t helping thinking that QME will need to exist in different versions (no information about what it might look like has so far been given). An early years specialist should not have to work through modules on instrumental teaching technique or inclusion at secondary level, for example. Another thought is that QME might be better off as an umbrella structure for existing qualifications. Might it be an idea, then, for there to be several pathways of QME – early years, SEN, primary, etc – with each drawing in the best of the available qualifications and supplying extra modules where needed?

Still the aftermath of the Regional Music Education Hub bidding process continues to throw up disturbing stories. Over a month on from the news that nearly all the bidders won their hubs – admittedly some were told to go back and do more work on their bids, but they will still become hubs – I continue to hear stories of colleagues who have suffered extreme stress and ill health as a result of a bureaucratic and hurried process that appears to have resulted in little overall change.

It all started so well. The idea of hubs ticked all the right boxes – music education being delivered through buzzing, local centres that would bring together classroom teachers, peris and professional musicians. But then reality kicked in, and a series of government additions to the original idea – including a 25% cut to the ringfenced music grant – turned an impressive vision into an urgent requirement for music services to tighten up and refine their offerings – at the same time as taking on board a sweeping budget cut.

Coping with a cut at the same time as having to prove themselves would have been bad enough for music services, but things were made worse by a ludicrously hurried timetable that meant the average music service had to work day and night to prepare its bid – while also figuring out how significant sums of money could be saved. In addition, preparing the bids demanded certain specialist skills, so a number of music services spent big bucks on bringing in external help. And the result? Nearly everyone won their bids anyway, following a bidding process that now seems to have been more about checking up on existing music services than creating a new music education landscape.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Arts Council, tasked with assessing the bids, is perhaps partially to blame for the meaninglessness of the process and for failing to respond to the bids in a way that recognised their huge variation in quality. It’s no secret that the overstretched Arts Council is staffed by a smallish pool of people, many of whom are underpaid and some of whom are inexperienced. The Arts Council may mean well but, frankly, it does not give the impression of being qualified to judge those who actually deliver music education across large parts of the country on a daily basis.

Now, as the dust settles and the status quo resumes, it is time to question whether a process that has resulted in a bit of tightening up and a lot of cutting – but which has cost many who work in music education dearly – has been an appropriate use of public finances.

A tip-off that an announcement about the National Plan for Music is to happen on 7 November at Music for Youth’s Schools Prom at the Royal Albert Hall is good news for the music education sector. But a worrying caveat is that a second source told me the announcement is unlikely to contain any information about funding.

If my first source is correct, the announcement will be made by education secretary Michael Gove himself, who is already scheduled to speak at the Schools Prom that night. Leaving aside the fact that the announcement is now extremely late, things could go one of two ways. Mr Gove could tell us exactly how much will be spent on ‘hubs’ over the next year, and exactly how they will work. Or, if my second source is correct, he could announce that music will be delivered through ‘hubs’ and that funding and practical details will be forthcoming. This would be pointless and would add nothing to what we already know.

On Monday I had the pleasure of judging Classic FM’s Music Teacher of the Year awards. It will be the last year that the teachers’ GCSE uptake figures will not be affected by the EBacc; it will also be the last year before hubs kick in.

What was noticeable was that London teachers were already showing signs of good partnership work, which I would have expected given the growing currency of the idea of partnerships and the abundance of potential partner organisations in the capital. But the teachers whom we judged to be outstanding but who were not based in London did not show so much partnership work. They were interacting with other schools and the community in excellent, ‘traditional’ ways, but in some areas there just aren’t the arts organisations to partner with.

If Michael Gove fails to put any flesh on the bones of the National Plan on 7 November, the music education community should consider taking more radical action than the mild muttering we have engaged in up to now (leaving aside the excellent lobbying work of an active minority). The biggest worry with hubs and the National Plan is the potential unevenness of provision. The announcement needs to address this, or at least show that it is aware of it. Otherwise we could be heading for meltdown.

On 15 August – yesterday, as I write this – Music Teacher and the Incorporated Society of Musicians launched a campaign to get the English Baccalaureate reviewed to include a sixth pillar of creative subjects which would include music. We ran the following news story on our website, www.musicteachermagazine.co.uk:

The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) and Music Teacher magazine are calling for the government to review the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) with the aim of including music in a sixth pillar of creative and cultural academic subjects.

Everyone can help campaign to get music included in the EBacc by writing a letter to their MP telling her or him of their concerns. The ISM has created a template for what people might like to say, which can be downloaded from http://www.ism.org/news/article/ebacc_revision.

The EBacc ranks schools on the proportion of pupils who get an A* to C grade in five pillars of subject options: maths, English, a language, a science and a humanities subject. But the respected (and higher level) International Baccalaureate (IB) has six pillars of subjects for pupils to pick from, including a creative and cultural option.

Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the ISM, said: ‘We want to see music included in the English Baccalaureate as part of a sixth pillar of creative and cultural subject choices. Not only is music challenging and enriching as a subject in schools, but to forget music at GCSE level is to forget the creative, social, academic, economic, emotional and intellectual benefits of an excellent music education; this is to say nothing of its own unique musical value.’

Christopher Walters, editor of Music Teacher magazine, said: ‘Essentially a performance measure, the EBacc will inevitably have negative consequences for any subjects that are excluded from it. Music Teacher is therefore delighted to be part of a campaign not only to include music but to introduce an entire sixth pillar of creative subjects, which we believe would greatly improve the impact of the EBacc in our schools.’

The influential Education Select Committee, a cross-party committee of MPs, published a report last week calling on the government to revise its current arrangements and ‘think again’. The committee also called the decision to omit music ‘odd’ and could not see a ‘rationale’ behind this decision.

Deborah Annetts welcomed the report and said: ‘The Select Committee report was clear: the government must revise its decisions around what constitutes an English Baccalaureate. At the same time, they must be open and transparent in accepting that the current proposal does not constitute a ‘Baccalaureate’ but rather a league table or performance ranking.

‘The government has said it is prepared to listen and that is why we are asking musicians to write to their MP to ask them to support the review of the EBacc with the aim of including music in an additional subject option.’

In the first 24 hours, the campaign has been reported by the Independent, the Guardian and the BBC news website, each one carrying the following comment from the Department for Education:

‘The EBacc is there to make sure that every single child gets a chance to study the core academic subjects which top universities demand. But the EBacc is not the be all and end all.

‘The White Paper made clear that this is “only one measure of performance and should not be the limit of schools’ ambitions for their pupils”.

‘We’ve protected £82.5m funding for music services this year and are reforming the system so money is targeted where it is needed most in the future.’

While it is tremendously exciting to receive this high level of coverage, the government’s response is similar to what they have said before. If we are to change their minds, then, we must keep up the pressure.

This campaign has the potential to achieve its goals. It is a collaborative effort, which anyone is music education is welcome to get behind. And more than a self-interested campaign for music, it is a call to protect the wider creative and cultural education of our young people, whatever their educational needs.

Watch this blog and the MT and ISM websites for more campaign news – there’ll be plenty. Meanwhile, I would urge you to take a first step and download and complete the template letter to your MP. Many MPs appear to be unaware of the effects that the government’s policies may have on music education, so making sure that as many of them are informed as possible would be a good place to start.

Thank you!

At a time when so much in British music education seems to be under threat, I would like to briefly turn the spotlight away from the plight of music teachers in this country and on to a place where music education has its own share of problems: Kenya.

Music education in Kenya has been close to my heart ever since I spent 18 months as a volunteer music teacher at Starehe Boys’ Centre, a secondary school in Nairobi, on a placement sponsored by the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust. My brief was to deliver piano and woodwind tuition and to run extra-curricular activities including instrumental ensembles and a music theatre production. Classroom music, the choir and a much-admired marching band were already being taken care of by the school’s permanent music staff.

It’s fair to say that Starehe Boys’ Centre is no ordinary Kenyan secondary school. Set up in 1959 as a home for a handful of destitute boys, the school has grown over the years and now provides secondary education for over 900 young men with exam results that regularly top the league tables. Seventy per cent of the school’s students are given sponsored places and competition for these is fierce: every year there are over 20,000 applications for just 200 places, with selection dependent on both financial need and academic ability.

The school has been something of a cause célèbre in the British media. It was the subject of the Daily Telegraph’s Christmas Appeal in 2009, and has benefited from an unrivalled level of support from the international community. So while its achievements have undoubtedly been remarkable, the school enjoys the kind of resources that are seldom seen in other Kenyan schools. But in other ways, the school is fairly typical of an education system in which creativity is driven to the margins at the expense of the relentless pursuit of academic achievement.

Of course, there is good reason for this. Sadly, it is as true as ever that one of the priorities of Kenyan life, at least for many people, is simply to get by. With no welfare state or public health system to speak of, those who do get the chance to attend secondary school are usually under enormous pressure from relatives back home to secure themselves a well-paid position in order to make their expensive educations pay. For this reason, few Kenyan high school graduates announce that they are to pursue careers as artists. And yet Kenyan culture is bursting with suppressed creativity. You need look no further than the highly decorated public transport vehicles (matatus), painted every colour under the sun and given names such as ‘Drive it like you stole it’, to realise how much creative energy lies dormant in the society.

Music in the Kenyan system in fact fares better than the other arts. Visual art, for example, has virtually no presence at all. One of the reasons for music’s relative good fortune is that Kenya is four-fifths a Christian nation, with a healthy appetite for sacred but energetic choral music. Most schools run a choir from this starting point, allowing imaginative teachers to branch out and explore secular and traditional Kenyan songs alongside sacred repertoire.

But apart from choirs, music in Kenyan schools is not particularly encouraged. It is the only arts subject on the curriculum at Starehe Boys’ Centre – taught in a spacious, donor-built music centre to boot – but, for some reason, uptake is restricted to 15 students annually. This means that, at the beginning of each school year, the 50 or so new arrivals who are interested in taking music are forced to participate in a round of ear tests and other musical challenges in order to whittle them down to a class of just 15.

To an outsider like me, the ear-testing process was more than a little comic. Professional piano tuners are thin on the ground in Kenya, and, quite honestly, most music teachers I know would have struggled to sing any note played on the bashed-up old Broadwood that graced the music centre’s main teaching room – let alone a group of boys who had probably never seen or heard a piano before in their lives. It seemed a strange way to launch these children’s musical careers, but the teachers were required to get the numbers down to 15, and so had no choice but to reject dozens of enthusiastic students.

Once selected, the lucky 15 were launched into a curriculum that appeared not to have changed much since the British left it behind in the 1960s. It seemed mainly to involve learning the rules and regulations of western music through good old-fashioned chalk and talk, with a few mentions of traditional Kenyan music thrown in for good measure. Actual music was rarely a part of the classroom experience.

I soon saw, however, that the teachers were not to blame for this state of affairs. For one thing, a culture of over-serious, academic study pervaded the school, influencing teachers of all subjects. Secondly, the teachers had not really been exposed to the kind of training that might have encouraged them to consider other, more engaging approaches. And thirdly, it wasn’t as if they were deliberately shutting out practical music: after all, they had been open enough to invite a volunteer teacher into the department to provide instrumental tuition.

So, entrusted with a key to a small dark room in which lived the school’s only properly functioning piano, I began teaching piano lessons, and woodwind lessons too, once I managed to get some woodwind instruments donated. I had a degree of success, especially with some of the small ensembles I formed, but as time passed I realised that the heart of the school’s music-making was always going to be found in choir rehearsals. Here, away from the dry formality of the classroom, teaching was much more engaging and numbers were huge; boys were often turned away simply because there was no more space in the rehearsal room.

I came to see that the choir, and to a lesser extent my instrumental teaching, were successful because they offered a rare channel for creative expression in an educational environment that offered plenty of nourishment for the head but not nearly enough for the heart. Good Kenyan music teachers know that they have a vital job in this regard: they realise that it falls to them to facilitate the holistic, spiritual sort of learning that young people intuitively crave, and which is unlikely to be found in other subject areas, at least in Kenya.

So what does this mean for music education in the UK? Well, it is an important reminder that there are things about music which are unique – and that music teachers are at the front line when it comes to defending these things and their educational applications.

There have been many arguments recently in the campaign to protect music education. Among them are claims that music improves children’s literacy and numeracy, and that the academic study of music is as rigorous and important as any other academic subject studied in schools. But if we’re honest, children’s literacy and numeracy would probably improve if they were actively engaged with any creative subject, and you can write a rigorous essay about almost anything. But only through the study of music – which must be purely for its own sake – can you access, understand, feel and appreciate the unique magic at work inside a piece of Rachmaninoff, Stevie Wonder or Eric Wainaina (an excellent Kenyan musician – look him up!). This is why all children should have the opportunity to learn music at school, and it is the lesson we can learn afresh from the experiences of music teachers in Kenya.

This post also appears as the current Editorial on teachingmusic.org.uk