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'We stand back and allow the decline of music and the arts at our peril'

Posted on: 23 Aug 2016
Posted by: Alun Jones

Alun Jones, incoming head of the world-renowned Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, says we should all fear the continued decline of music in our schools.

As we learn of another slump in performing arts entries at A level, educationalists have every reason to worry about what the decline in these hugely important subjects will mean for students for many years to come.


Entries for A level music dropped by 8.8% in a single year from 2015 and 2016, and with just over 2,000 students across the whole of the UK now opting to take the subject in Year 13, the fear that music will end up becoming the preserve of the elite looks to be well founded.


The marginalisation of the arts in state education may well offer huge marketing and recruitment opportunities for independent schools, but it gives me no pleasure at all to see the deprivation imposed on our colleagues in the state sector where children are sometimes starved of the huge benefits of a meaningful music education.


I am perplexed there are still children who are not receiving high quality music education bearing in mind the vast amount of neurological benefits music lessons provide. Music is one of the only things in life that utilises our entire brains. Time and again, research tells us of how music education improves human cognition and the proven power of music on students’ wider learning.


Whilst I am aware that music, like drama and art, will continue to be offered by schools and will remain a compulsory part of the national curriculum up to the age of 14, my conversations with numerous Directors of Studies in both the state and independent sectors reaffirm that timetable constraints, due to the fact that pupils are being encouraged to take extra 'academic' subjects at GCSE and the demise of the AS, will further 'downgrade' the arts in schools.


When one remembers that, since 2012, the Government has invested £460 million in cultural education projects to complement what's happening in the classroom, the perhaps unintended consequence of Ebacc and examination change seems very much out of step with the government's commitment to music and the wider cultural sector.


There are of course pockets of excellent practice around the country. Some Music Hubs absolutely thrive and provide an invaluable service to local schools. The Music and Dance Scheme is a remarkable and much admired part of the UK’s education and training system; the scheme is the government’s main vehicle for supporting exceptionally talented young musicians and dancers regardless of their background and financial circumstances.


Schools like Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, the largest specialist music school in the UK, provide access to excellence for our most talented children and give strategically targeted means-tested financial support to those who need it. We will continue to set these children with exceptional potential on pathways to world-class careers.


We know that music is a huge contributor to the key domains of public life: economic wellbeing, cultural development, social development and personal development. We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that economic studies reveal the vast contribution music tourism makes to the UK economy.


As we learn more of the competency based university courses of the future - the need for such skills as collaborative working, focused critical thinking and listening, perseverance without immediate gratification, the ability to interact in a community and work together with different backgrounds and values – surely the importance and significant benefits of music and the arts in our schools are clear.


Creative, open-minded people are highly desired in all career paths; I can’t help thinking we stand back and allow the further decline of the study of music and the arts at our peril.

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About Alun Jones

Alun Jones is incoming head of Chetham's School for Music in Manchester, and formerly head of St Gabriel’s in Newbury and President of GSA.