William Wallace: Helping music education in state schools to hit the right note

The brass band at Foxhill Primary School where pupils perform outside the local supermarket to raise funds for music education.
The brass band at Foxhill Primary School where pupils perform outside the local supermarket to raise funds for music education.
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AT the age of nine, I was lucky enough to go to a choir school and thus to drop out of the state sector. The independent school to which my father’s employer then gave me a scholarship had, in those days, pretty basic music facilities.

It has since invested in the most superb music and drama facilities, which thankfully it has made available to the state schools around it. Part of the increased gap that we see between the independent and state sectors is due to the fact that independent schools have now developed these superb facilities, and it is important that they share them. That is part of the public benefit that justifies charitable status.

Music lessons have become a victim of austerity cuts, says Lib Dem peer William Wallace. Do you agree?

Music lessons have become a victim of austerity cuts, says Lib Dem peer William Wallace. Do you agree?

I am the trustee of a music charity, the Gresham Centre, which runs VOCES8 and Apollo5. We have actively pursued those partnerships, and the best independent schools now actively take part in them. One has to praise what they achieve. I wish that the best quality would spread further through the independent sector than it has done so far.

My children went to a state school with a very good music department. I recall attending an early school concert there, at which a young woman of Nigerian parentage sang a Fulani folk song. I thought that was just what diversity in school music should be about.

My daughter was, frankly, intimidated when she arrived at university by the greater self-confidence and achievement of the children arriving there from independent schools. It is sadly that case that music scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge are dominated by children who have been educated in the independent sector, because children in state schools do not get the training and experience to qualify. That is part of the gap that we are talking about.

There are two sides to what we are talking about: one is the basic provision of the opportunity to sing and to learn an instrument for all children who go through British schools; the other is the chance for the talented and the interested to progress and learn an instrument to a ​high quality of performance or to sing with a highly developed choir, and perhaps, in time, to become a professional.

We have the wider context of the impact of austerity across the board. We know that local authority support for music hubs has been squeezed. We see county orchestras – a valuable opportunity for young children to learn to play to a certain level while still in state education – being cut back.

For example, Bradford Council has not only cut much of its support for music but has just closed its final trio of public toilets. Saltaire is a tourist destination as a world heritage site, and when you receive busloads who want to look around the village, the first question they ask is about toilets. This is an example of austerity at its most acute.

The squeeze on school budgets means that teachers in marginal subjects are not replaced and, with the EBacc, music now looks like a marginal subject. In The Yorkshire Post, there was a story on the decline in musical education across Yorkshire. It focused particularly on Foxhill Primary School in Queensbury, in Bradford, that is home to the Black Dyke Mills Band. The primary school, therefore, does its best to maintain its own introductory brass band, as well as a school choir. How is it funded? The band play outside Tesco for the four weeks before Christmas, and the school depends on that collection to support what it wishes to include in its curriculum but cannot otherwise afford. That is the sort of thing schools are having to do to maintain the music.

The evidence of the value of music in schools is overwhelming, and the charitable sector is having to take over more of what the Government previously funded. We are doing that, but the demand is more than we can cope with. My charity is now involved in training for schools where no teachers have any basis in music, providing them with the core skills to be able to manage a school singing together. The quality of this country’s cultural life matters. The quality of our education matters in the broadest sense.

Yesterday, I received a newspaper cutting from Singapore. It said that the Singapore authorities are more and more clear that exams and maths are not the full story. When educating children, you need also to inculcate imagination, independent thinking, self-confidence and the ability to work with others. Music does that, and that is why it is a core part of education.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer. He spoke in a House of Lords debate on music education. This is an edited version.