Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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.

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!

Even the chair of the Commons education select committee thinks it’s inadvisable – and he’s supposed to be running an official inquiry into it, writes Christopher Walters

You have to admire Michael Gove’s staying power. By now, the EBacc should have been just another coalition U-turn: it’s even more unpopular than the forestry sell-off. But despite a consistent flow of critical comments, the government insists on ploughing on with what everyone can see is a disastrous idea.

Let’s get one thing straight: the EBacc debate is separate from the argument about whether music should remain on the national curriculum. The music education sector is understandably heated about both issues, but it’s important that they don’t get mixed up. The national curriculum debate is worth having; the Ebacc debate is not.

Unfortunately, music education has not shown itself in the best light during the curriculum debate. It has made it a taboo to express the view that taking music off the curriculum might not be a bad idea. While on balance it probably makes sense for music to remain a curriculum subject, some of the arguments for having music outside the compulsory curriculum are well considered and worth hearing. But these have been drowned out by the louder voices of the curriculum camp, many of whom seem to think that everyone should feel as they do. This has almost had the effect of vilifying practitioners who dare to see things differently.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of the way the curriculum debate has been conducted, at least it is a debate. The same cannot be said of the EBacc row: at its centre is a policy with contradictions at every level and no logical rationale.

The EBacc was proposed as an assessment measure for schools, an equivalent to the current league tables. It will be awarded to pupils who achieve a C and above in six GCSEs – not including any arts, ICT or vocational subjects – and a school’s performance will be judged on the number of EBacc passes. But during a recent hearing of the Commons education select committee, it was denied that the EBacc will become the dominant accountability measure. Instead, it was claimed that it will be just one of a range of measures by which parents can judge schools. In which case, why instigate it at all? League tables already exist, and information on schools’ performance in individual subjects is already available.

If it is to be merely the repackaging of existing information, the EBacc will offer no discernable benefits. But this does not mean that it will do no damage, as music educators, headteachers and many others have been quick to point out. The Department for Education has reminded critics that other GCSEs – which could include music – are likely to be taken alongside the EBacc subjects, but surely it is the case that schools will direct more resources towards the EBacc subjects as they strive to improve their ranking – at the cost of the non-EBacc subjects.

Graham Stuart, chair of the Commons education select committee, appears to agree. Despite being responsible for an inquiry into the EBacc which has yet to report, Stuart has freely expressed the opinion that music and other arts subjects will suffer as a result of the EBacc. Perhaps even more worryingly, he has commented that lower-achieving students may find their provision ‘dismantled’ – not exactly a ringing endorsement for the EBacc’s likely knock-on effects.

All of which begs the question of just when the coalition will back-track on the EBacc. Yes, it will mean yet more embarrassment for Michael Gove, just as the Building Schools for the Future U-turn was beginning to be forgotten, but this cannot be helped.

We must all hope that the EBacc will soon be consigned to the past, so that music educators can concentrate on throwing their weight into a fair and transparent debate on music’s place – or otherwise – on the national curriculum. Unlike the EBacc, this is an issue we must debate rigorously if we are to produce an outcome that will best serve our young people. Which, of course, is what really matters.

Since 2007 Arts Council England’s Take it Away scheme has helped approximately 50,000 people buy musical instruments, an achievement recognised by Darren Henley in his recent music education review. But despite such ringing endorsements, the scheme would appear to be under threat, writes Christopher Walters

Purchasing an instrument is a milestone in the career of any budding musician. But while most parents will do what they can to equip their child with an appropriate piece of musical hardware, many are taken aback at just how much instruments cost, particularly at the later stages of development. In the current climate even a starter instrument can be a stretch, which can easily prevent parents from low-income families from encouraging their children into music.

With such concerns in mind, Arts Council England (ACE) launched the Take it Away scheme in 2007, offering interest-free loans on the purchase of musical instruments. The scheme has so far helped some 50,000 musicians to get the equipment they need, and was recently described in the Henley Review as ‘excellent’. All the hallmarks of a genuine success story; but inevitably, cuts loomed.

First of all it’s important to understand exactly how Take it Away works. Individuals aged 18 and over can purchase an instrument for themselves or on behalf of a child by taking out an interest-free loan provided by ACE. Loans are available up to £2,000 (and can be put towards the purchase of an instrument worth more than this), and are repayable in nine monthly instalments. Instruments must be bought from participating stores (there are over 300), and a 10% upfront deposit is required from the purchaser.

But from 1 April ACE is to restrict the scheme to those aged 18 to 25 who work a minimum of 16 hours per week. In practice this means that the majority of parents will be too old to access it, which many feel will undermine the strategic goals laid out by ACE at the scheme’s outset:

  • To encourage children and young people to develop their interests and skills in music making
  • To inspire new players of all ages to begin learning an instrument
  • To enable those on lower incomes to acquire an instrument appropriate to their needs (or the needs of their children)

At the time of writing there was no information on Take it Away’s website regarding the changes, and a number of participating retailers have told MT that they have received mixed messages about the future of the scheme. Mike Coleman, director of Core Music, Hexham, is one retailer who has been made aware of the plans. ‘I am extremely disappointed that the Take it Away scheme is, in effect, being “taken away” from the vast majority of people,’ he said. ‘To offer the scheme only to 18-25-year-olds is a dreadful decision and will, in effect, mean that very few applications will be received or accepted.’

He added, ‘I am also concerned that young people in this age group will have their expectations raised that they will be able to purchase instruments through Take it Away when they may not have the ability to pay or, indeed, the credit record to qualify in the first place. It is a cynical move to limit the scheme, and hugely detrimental.’

Liz Turner of Turner Violins has also been informed of the changes. She told MT: ‘Changing the scheme to make it only available to 18-25-year-olds will rule out parents from buying instruments for their children, which will make it the opposite of what it was always intended to be.’

But Ronnie Orme, director of Rock Hard Music in Milton Keynes, has to date heard nothing definite. ‘All we’ve been told is that there may be changes to the way Take it Away operates,’ he said.

Orme can sympathise with the fact that ACE has had its budget reduced and needs to cut costs: ‘Take it Away has been a really good scheme for us, but I can see that it is expensive to run in its current form. The way it has operated pretty much anyone has been able to use it, and we have been given a lot of discretion about who to accept.’

It’s a matter of public record that ACE had its budget cut at the last comprehensive spending review, and Orme’s comments highlight the fact that many people can understand that belts have to be tightened. But are the propsed changes the best way to do this? Emma Russell, ACE’s media relations officer, told MT: ‘In line with the goals and priorities set out in Achieving Great Art for Everyone, our ten-year strategy for the arts, the Arts Council has decided to use its investment in the Take it Away scheme specifically to encourage 18-25-year-olds to continue and develop their involvement in music beyond school and into adulthood. By restricting the eligibility criteria in this way, ACE will ensure that its investment is focused exclusively on supporting the musical interests and talent of young people post education.’

But doesn’t this represent a significant departure from the scheme’s original goals? ‘With such a change to the scope of the scheme, it is inevitable that the original aims will need to be adapted. We believe that a large amount of 18-25-year-olds will be in a position to take advantage of the scheme, and although some of that demographic are students, many of them will also be in part time employment.’

Russell doesn’t shirk from stating that ACE simply cannot afford to maintain Take it Away in its current form. In response to MT’s suggestion that the scheme be kept open to the parents or guardians of those in education while preventing adults from accessing it to purchase instruments for themselves, she said, ‘From customer demographic data, we predict that offering the scheme to those in full-time education and their parents/guardians would generate sales over and above what our budget would allow us to support at present. We are currently exploring other opportunities for supporting children and young people in education.’

What about the Henley Review’s verdict that Take it Away ‘should continue to be funded’, but that it should be ‘focused on providing loans for those in full-time education of any age’? The government’s response stated that the matter was to be left in the hands of ACE. With that in mind, might now be the time to ask whether there could be a better way for ACE to juggle its reduced budget, in order to allow Take it Away to function in line with Henley’s recommendations? When so many people are agreed that the scheme is working well, and when less drastic ways to reduce its costs would surely be available, perhaps ACE should be encouraged to consider alternative solutions.

This article also appears in the March issue of MT

A week on from the publication of the Henley Review, MT editor Christopher Walters takes a critical look at the review’s recommendations and the responses of the music education sector

The saying goes that a week is a long time in politics, and it certainly applies to the week since the Henley Review was published. Just one week ago we had no idea whether or not the government would retain the £82.5m of ringfenced music funding. Now we know that it will (for 2011-12 at least), in line with the review’s recommendations. And while the government has deferred any decision regarding the place of music on the national curriculum, due to its ongoing curriculum review, it was reassuring to see Henley write so unequivocally about the importance of curricular music. His recommendation that music become an English Baccalaureate subject at the next review was a further positive.

But did so much good news cloud our judgement of the review as a whole? The review contains a total of 36 recommendations. Did the speediest commentators really have time to assess all 36, not to mention what wasn’t included, before tweeting and blogging their verdicts? For me, it’s telling that the music education sector’s earliest responses were broadly positive, and that only later did more critical voices emerge.

The Federation of Music Services was one of the first groups to comment, calling the review ‘a landmark report’. This must have been heavily influenced by the news that the ringfenced funding on which music services depend will remain for another year, because it could be argued that a number of the review’s other recommendations are rather light on details. For instance, what form will the National Plan for Music actually take? And how will Music Education Hubs function in reality? These may be sensible, practical ideas, but while details are still being finalised the music education sector would do well to keep a close eye on the situation. (Incidentally, it took a few days for anyone to point out that the £82.5m is in fact a real-terms cut – well spotted, NUT.)

Youth Music’s response came a few days later. This response was eagerly awaited, as the review contained a number of gentle criticisms of the way Youth Music operates, recommending it be prevented from spending its lottery funding on public affairs or lobbying. Youth Music’s response addressed these points as expected, but other comments stood out more, including that Henley had painted a ‘somewhat narrow picture of music education’, and that it ‘would have liked to have seen a broader representation of music education, encompassing the wide range of genres and styles of music-making which the sector is well placed to support.’ Similar criticisms were posted on a Musical Futures blog soon after (the review failed to mention Musical Futures or any form of ‘informal learning’).

Perhaps it was only to be expected from the chief executive of Classic FM, but Henley’s view of musical achievement seems much more likely to lead to a place in the National Youth Orchestra than a headline gig at the Brixton Academy. But music teachers know that this is precisely the kind of achievement that tends to happen outside curricular music lessons – so, having stated that he believes in it, just what is Henley’s vision for curricular music?

A week may be a long time in politics, but it’s a short time to digest and form an opinion on a complex document that looks likely to play a major role in shaping this country’s music education for years to come. Yes it’s a serious and thorough piece of work, for which Henley should be acknowledged, but music education professionals have both a right and a duty to analyse it critically and independently – whether or not they find themselves agreeing with any consensus. It’s what Darren Henley would want.