MEC musing; Lockdown Impact on schools

Throughout the nation schools are closed for the third time in under twelve months. Students’ learning in all subjects has been disrupted, GCSEs and A Levels have been cancelled, the Government has left decisions about vocational subject examinations such as BTECs to schools themselves. However, despite teething problems the music examination industry is doing its’ level best to offer an online examination system.  It has become apparent that digital poverty is playing a significant role in preventing many young people accessing the digital offer made by state schools and that the pandemic is highlighting the widening gap of wealth and access to facilities. Despite best efforts, the vast majority of young people are going to lose a year of continuous music education.

An unscientific survey of school- based teachers shows they are all concerned that either their online or their in-school bubbled teaching is different, less practical and more listening and appreciation orientated. Some students relish this content for they achieve more highly than they do in practical lessons, but others are frustrated as there is so little practical work.

Teaching spaces for music (main teaching rooms, practice rooms and rehearsal spaces) vary from school-to-school and the way in which schools have “bubbled” their populations means that music is sometimes taught in non-specialist rooms with teachers having to revert to “the music trolley” and even carry their equipment around the school. Teaching groups have changed and what might have been a class at the beginning of a year is not necessarily the same now. However, music is sometimes is taught in different bubbles to most of the curriculum and students enjoy the different social and learning groups that they have a chance to be taught in There are concerns that those who have opted for GCSE in Y10 still have a Y9 mentality as they didn’t complete the year in any real sense and due to lack of access to facilities are not experiencing the course as it is meant to be,

We know that music in schools is multi-faceted and there is above school learning through tuition and through extra-curricular ensembles. Some school senior management teams have abandoned any artistic or sporting extra- curricular activity completely, whilst some schools have maintained some socially distanced choral and instrumental work. Leading up to Christmas it was great to see so many performance advent calendars and virtual concerts. However even these opportunities to perform are creating a new mindset in young performers for without face-to-face rehearsals, concerts and festivals to aim for even the most motivated can become fed up with zoom lessons and limited ensemble opportunities. Rock musicians suffer too as much of this non formal creativity is not allowed, perhaps the genre will become even more singer songwriter dominated in years to come?

With many parents becoming furloughed or losing their jobs the number of students continuing with or taking up instrumental and vocal teaching is under pressure. Take up and retention rates are falling. Schools do use Pupil Premium funding to support musical learning but with so much time lost this funding is now being refocused on those whose education has been held back more than others and particularly in the “core” subjects. Some schools can easily provide the large spaces with adequate ventilation to accommodate visiting teachers, but this term online tuition is the name of the game.  For many instrumental teachers online tuition has been a success as students do not forget their instrument, they are more focussed and teachers get to know parents better and feel more appreciated but as with student views on the curriculum not all get on with online learning and crave face to face tuition.

Whilst the media focus is student orientated, teachers too are facing pressures. Schools have not been closed and teachers, without doubt front line workers, have continued to deliver throughout,  but not in their usual style. Some teachers are feeling musically de-skilled. Hours in front of a screen and preparing lessons gives them little chance to play their own instrument either to demonstrate or accompany. For many home circumstances are not necessarily conducive to delivering good online tuition for not everyone has a state-of-the-art computer, many have partners and children working at home so there are “management “issues there. Indeed, there is a sense of desperation in some commenting that the impact of the pandemic will set music education back ten years. Others see their life’s work disappearing before their eyes.

From the above it can be seen that school-based music teachers are bravely trying to ensure that the investment they make in their students’ musical learning is maximised. Whilst Music Services continue to work with shall we say the, “more musically experienced or engaged”, schoolteachers who create the pipeline for music services are facing greater challenges than ever before.

There are too many variables at play in the system to suggest any short or medium solutions. No one knows when the pandemic will truly be over and schools will return to “normal”.  We must look to shape a “new normal”.

There is no reason to assume that music will be removed from the school curriculum indeed we should work to ensure that music is even more firmly embedded in it. Whilst school accountability measures will pressurise schools to concentrate on the core, music teachers must advocate that the type of collaborative learning used in the classroom is of greater importance to the health and well -being of children and young people than core curriculum recovery.  The “soft” skills of communication, teamwork etc are the skills and the social interaction that students have missed out on and need to be engendered in the student body once more. As regards the Key stage 1-3 curriculum perhaps content and progression in the classroom should not be the focus but rather experimentation and creativity. Secondary colleagues may care to read  “ Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music- Fifty Years of Sound and Silence”, published in December 2020.

Place no longer matters. The relationship between music services, schools and parents has moved on significantly in the last year. Music services have become wonderfully adept at providing online individual, small group and whole class teaching. This surely will remain as part of a blended offer. Such provision is surely more cost effective in terms of reducing travel time and it opens up the opportunity for delivering in more rural areas even to individuals. Whilst this could create an economic benefit to the service it must be ensured that teacher salaries are maintained. Music service teachers might have to become more flexible in the hours they work for it could be foreseen that some parents will want online learning shifted into the evening. School based ensembles and music centres will return at some time: dare it be suggested September 2021?  However, if there is a whiff of Covid in the air, then young musicians and directors will be reticent to get together to rehearse.

This however will not be the problem for “instrumental teaching and ensemble recovery”, it will be the economics. Unemployment is already rising, and families will have less disposable income. In 2018 the Musician’s Union reported that families with a total household income of less than £28k are half as likely to have a child learning an instrument as more affluent peers with a family income of £48k or more and looking forward this will be exacerbated. Given a year of lockdown what will be uppermost in families thinking, a week in Fuerteventura or a year of fluting, French horning or bass guitaring?

The New Model Music Curriculum and the refreshed National Plan for Music Education are now two years behind schedule. Is it  not better to think about a recovery programme for young people’s music making rather than impose new initiatives? Music Hubs have continued working, many have continued to support their partner organisations thus ensuring that in the post Covid world there will be an infrastructure in which students can make music. Music Hubs are encouraged to apply for the ACE Culture Recovery Fund; thus, the institutions have a means of survival.

The centre of a Music Hub is actually the student, with the spokes leading to the surrounding delivery infrastructure, schools, music services, private teaching, churches, friends, informal music making etc.  Given that these will remain a student needs to access these without the barrier of lack of finance. The Government has borrowed billions to keep the country afloat. Interest rates are not currently prohibitive. Is this not time to invest in our children’s musical recovery by turning back the clock to provide free tuition, free instrumental hire, free ensemble activity, free entrance to concerts for without such music in schools, in our communities and the pipeline to the professional world will quickly atrophy.

Published by askrichardarts

Recently retired (September 2019) after a 42 year career in Music and Arts Education I am an experienced arts educator specialising in school leadership and all aspects of arts education but with particular expertise in music and music education. From 2011 - 2019 I was Music and Arts Strategy Manager in South Gloucestershire leading the South Gloucestershire Music Hub, Arts Council England’s preferred provider of Music Hub activities in South Gloucestershire. Always regarded as a minor risk organisation it provided teaching and ensemble activities to over 4000 children a week and many ensembles achieved national recognition at the Music for Youth Proms and National Festival. From 2005 to 2011 I was National Specialist Coordinator for Performing Arts and Music at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust effectively a national adviser on arts education contributing to many national initiatives e.g. Music Manifesto, Musical Futures, Henley Review of Music Education, and Building Schools for the Future. I also provided curriculum support and professional development to over 600 schools in England and in 2010 gave a keynote speech on Music Education in the UK at Gifu University in Japan. The bulk of my teaching career was at Richmond School in North Yorkshire where I led a highly successful Music Department with over 300 students a week learning musical instruments and large classes at GCSE and A level. I commissioned a number of works for School Wind Band by composers such as Bill Connor, Adam Gorb and Philip Wilby and developed UK and Worldwide commissioning networks to commission works by Christopher Marshall and Marco Putz. As an adjudicator I have worked throughout the UK, in the Netherlands, Australia and the USA and Canada. In retirement I am a Trustee of the Music Education Council ,Independent Chair of the Music Hubs in Somerset and Torbay , and a doctoral student at the University of the West of England.

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