Overheard in the Sheffield secondary staff room where I work this week, English teachers were having a bit of a moan about students leaving their lesson every Wednesday for music lessons.
Worried about their GCSE results next summer, they obviously want to have as much time with their Year 11s as possible, and they were very agitated about the same kids going out to learn an
instrument at the same time every week.
I suppose it’s a fair point; even if the one-to-one music lesson only takes 15 minutes this can soon add up to hours and hours over the year.
A good school will make sure children are offered a variety of musical opportunities and that they
are delivered by first rate teachers.
And it’s also important that these lessons, which run throughout the day in short time slots, are
rotated so they don’t impact on one lesson for too long.
A school I used to teach at changed the timetable for individual music lessons every four weeks so the lost time was shared among teacher’s lessons in the whole school, but not all establishments are this thoughtful.
Whenever a child asks me to leave my classroom for a music lesson, be it singing, drumming or
guitar, I do two things – firstly I allow them to leave straight away so they aren’t late and, when they return, I ask them how it went and learn a bit about their musical skills.
Not everybody is this accommodating; I know teachers who have point-blank refused to let a pupil go to a music lesson because they think their subject is too important. This is particularly harsh, given that parents usually have to pay a small fortune to ensure their child has music lessons
throughout the year.
I do not dispute the power of music to transform lives and boost academic achievement. Learning to play an instrument can break down social barriers, boost confidence and improve both progress and results in exams.
Given the overwhelming evidence to support how important musical education is for academic success, you would think schools would be embracing the opportunity to deliver a broad and wide curriculum.
Sadly, the opposite is the case in many schools.
Learning an instrument in parts of the city now depends on the ability of parents to pay for private tutorship during the school day. It’s not cheap and through necessity many of our poorer families will simply bin the letter about music if children bring it home.
Tragically, there are children in my school who won’t even take a letter home if it involves a request for money because they know how hard times are for their parents.
But government after government have had an unhealthy obsession with league tables and focusing on English, Maths and Science at the expense of art-based subjects such as music.
Too many schools have squeezed music in the curriculum to an almost insignificant dot on the timetable, and unbelievably there are several schools that have completely ditched their music department.
That’s right – no music teachers, no music lessons, just privately paid for tutorial for those who can afford to pay for it.
It’s a ludicrous situation to be in when schools have no music specialist but are aware of the academic merit of having a healthy musical curriculum – it shows just how far the timetables of our young people are being squeezed.
Hopefully in the future there will be a shift in focus across the country, meaning that music lessons will be free and now defunct music departments will be reintroduced.
But with league tables and Progress 8 giving most headteachers tunnel vision as they try to look
after their own backs, I fear this may be a long time off.
Anybody believing that music should play a key role in the modern school curriculum will have a long wait before things start to move in their direction.