How austerity policies are killing music education

Stuart Nicholson takes a look at how austerity and the policies of the current government are undermining music education in our public institutions

It says something when the Daily Telegraph, once dubbed “the voice of the Tory Party at prayer”, takes issue with the cause it was put on earth to champion. But there it is, a bold headline proclaiming “Music In State Schools Facing An Existential Crisis” with Conservative peer Lord Black, chair of the Royal College of Music, warning that “music is literally disappearing from our schools”, pointing out that, instead of music education being the right of all children, it’s now become the preserve of the privileged few at independent schools as it dies in the public sector. Black is also deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group, so is not easily ignored by the tenants of 111 Buckingham Palace Road, and so is able to give Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, on whom the paper has lavished countless adoring column inches, a resounding clip over the ear. Black said it was Gove’s introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) that led to subjects being “downgraded and punished” since secondary schools have no incentive to offer them as GCSE subjects. The result, said Black, was that one in five schools have given up teaching music entirely, with only 35,000 pupils completing GCSE music in England this summer [2018], representing a decline of 23 per cent since 2010, while entries for A-level music have fallen by 40 per cent since 2011. “Those shameful figures are part of a wider picture of music in ferocious decline in our schools”, he continued.

Shameful decline pretty well sums it up, but there will be those who argue that, yes, while these findings are troubling, get to the back of the queue, pointing to an underfunded NHS, the debacle of Universal Credit, a crisis in social care, a police force so underfunded the murder rate is soaring and no-one is charged for 9 out of 10 crimes, a navy that in 2018 was unable to put to sea four Type 23 frigates and possesses a hugely expensive aircraft carrier but can’t afford the aircraft to go on it, an army no longer “fit for purpose” according to General Sir Richard Barrons, an undermanned prison service, an education system that is forced to convert state schools into corporate-run academies, a train service that by any measurable standard is laughable, privatised public utilities that cost more than a third of those in France or Germany and, to cap it all, roads so bad that pothole damage totals £1.7 billion a year.


“Researchers have consistently found strong correlations between music and academic achievement”

Yet, set against this dismal record – which should come as no surprise since we arguably have the worst government since the South Sea Bubble of 1711 – the music crisis in our schools, by NHS funding standards at least, is relatively cheap to put right and the advantages dwarf any outlay. So why is music education disappearing from the state sector? This is down to instrumentalism [oh, the irony – Ed], an ideology that many feel is eroding the value the arts in Western culture. When a government adopts an instrumentalist approach to education, certain subjects are promoted as being vital for ‘economic progress’. It is not knowledge, or ideas or art that is valued, but the utilitarian use of knowledge in order to achieve a wider practical purpose. Degrees in creative subjects (art, music, literature and so on) are increasingly regarded ‘soft’ university subjects (in comparison to degrees in technology, engineering or science), since they are considered unlikely to lead to the kind of ‘meaningful’ employment that contributes to a nation’s gross domestic product. Instrumentalist pressure on knowledge production has meant art and culture are now no longer valued by criteria internal to themselves, but by their utility to serve the wider practical purpose of contributing towards a nation’s gross domestic product. That’s why, in education today, the subjects that matter are the ones industry and commerce value most – the one’s that Gove emphasised in his promotion of the EBacc – so arts programmes are first on the budgetary chopping block.

Yet there’s no shortage of robust research findings that support the value of music during adolescent development. Researchers have studied the benefits of music education for decades, consistently finding strong correlations between music and academic achievement. In America, for example, a 10-year study tracked more than 25,000 middle and high school students and discovered music-making students, regardless of socio-economic background, got higher marks on standardised tests than those who have little or no music involvement, while a study conducted by the University of British Columbia put to rest the widespread notion that instructional time spent on music courses is “wasted” because it takes away from time spent on other core academic subjects and thus slows down a student’s progress. “Our results imply that music participation benefits students in ways that are directly or indirectly linked to higher academic achievement in general,” the report concluded. The point here is that there is now a mass of empirical evidence that shows all forms of art education helps prepare children for success in the workforce in all professions. But nobody is listening.

Dogma bordering on crass stupidity has become the hallmark of our government today; cutbacks in the name of ‘austerity’ have in fact been the imposition of neo-liberalism by the back door, which includes cutting the public services upon which the majority of us rely in the name of a small state and deregulation – Tory Commons leader Andrea Leadsom says she dreams of when there is no regulation at all – so freeing the state from the “burden” of providing, among other things, adequate unemployment benefit (the intention under Universal Credit to force low-paid workers to seek more hours or move to higher-paid jobs, under threat of financial sanctions (“in-work conditionality”), care homes for the old age and infirm, dental provision, and, as is widely rumoured in Whitehall, plans to saddle the individual with bearing the costs of health insurance if the NHS is fully privatised, all so the markets can run free of tax and legislation. It’s against this background that culture, the arts and music are increasingly measured and quantified instead of valued, where what they see as self-indulgent lefties squandering public money in schools on fripperies like the arts and music are replaced by an education system producing workers trained for industry and thus the creation of wealth. If all this sounds like social engineering, it is.

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