This piece will investigate the current system for music education in the UK and look at how the government has reacted by launching its first national plan. A firsthand account from a living, kicking product of the system, music student Stephen Bache, provides a more complete understanding of how it all works and where the money ends up.
Music education matters
In November 2011, the UK government launched its first national plan for music education, with the goal of enabling every child to learn a musical instrument for at least one school term. Although the national music curriculum must be followed by all local authority maintained schools, the content of this agenda places most of its focus on ensuring that children appreciate music across many forms, but at a basic level only. Local initiatives have existed that support and encourage the learning of musical instruments, however until recently no nationwide plan was in place.
The government’s initiative was proposed following a report by Darren Henley earlier that year, in which he critically examined the current musical education system. One main area detected by Henley that yearns for enhancement, was the public funding for local music services and instrument hire. As it were, local authorities received £82.5 million annually from the Department for Education to ensure that music services are delivered across the schools in their area. Mainly this consists of supplying instruments and subsidizing the cost of musical experts. While this is undoubtedly a positive arrangement, no strict national guidelines were in place and so it was determined solely by agreements between local authorities and individual schools as to what exactly the music service would provide.
From beginners to professionals
As such, the subsequent plan proposed by the UK government, dubbed ‘The Importance of Music’, has three main objectives with regard to encouraging musical prosperity and fulfillment. The first goal is to ensure that every child between the ages of five and eighteen has the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. The second is to provide opportunities for children to play in ensembles and perform regularly from an early age, and the final aim is to guarantee clear progression routes are available and affordable to all young people.
Realizing the first goal is ultimately a matter of funding and collaboration with local authorities and music centres, hence, one for the future jury. However, one clear initiative in coordination with the first two objectives is the Art Council’s ‘Take it Away’ programme, which supplements the government’s existing ten million pound annual contribution to purchase instruments for the less well-off students. Although noble in nature however, this accession equally could be seen as a temporary suspension of capitalist exploitation rather than a genuine act of benevolence on behalf of the UK government.
Paving the way for future musical sensations, the Music and Dance Scheme is the subject of interest for the third and final ambition. This government funded agenda directs money towards the gifted and talent on a means tested basis meaning that, in brief, a progression route is made accessible for the more deprived musicians to give them the best possible chance at professional success. This scheme, which already helps 1600 exceptionally talented musicians each year, is to receive further backing from the Department for Education to help ensure that children capable and deserving of specialist training are able to receive it, regardless of their socioeconomic background.
The proof is in the pudding
These conservative promises sound lavish, profound and yet somewhat ambiguous. An interview with music student Stephen Bache however offers us a tangible insight into this system. Growing up in Wigan, a town that perhaps best exemplifies the potential of this earnest agenda, Stephen was subjected to lessons of the tenor horn from a young age by music teachers who came to his school from the local borough as part of a funded scheme to get more young people playing instruments. Despite his modest socioeconomic background, these lessons continued throughout his schooling where he was also able to join and perform with a brass band, choir and orchestra. This, his school, and his family's support, meant that Stephen was able to progress all the way to undergraduate level music, a feat that would’ve been rendered impossible without the backing of the local authorities that provided Stephern with, not only the continued hire of musical instruments but ultimately the initial lessons that began his journey.
As we have seen, a case like Stephen’s musical flourish is an example of how the UK musical education system has the potential to be the making of a gifted musician. In a town where government funding is accordingly distributed and a fruitful relationship between local authorities and schools is established, the UK government’s national plan should exists merely to supplement further development. In reality however, these arrangements are not always present within a given community, and so despite the conservative party’s wide-scale agenda, whether or not a child from an unprivileged background has access to a comprehensive musical education remains to be a matter of local provisions and indefinite opportunities, not one of national surety.
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