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Another brick in the wall; or lives without music?

28th April 2014

When the coalition government’s National Plan for Music Education (NPME) was first published in November 2011 it was welcomed for its demonstration of strong political support for the importance of music education and the continuing need for ring-fenced money to underpin key area provision and opportunities that schools alone could not deliver.

A key initiative in the plan was the development of music education hubs, to take forward the work of local authority music services. Partnership would be at their core – bringing together a range of organisations to work together with schools to provide the best music education for children and young people.

The Department for Education’s Music Education Hub Grant (MEH) is the successor to the previous government’s Standards Fund Grant. It is distributed through the Arts Council to 123 new music education hubs, almost all of which are led by music services.

Some hubs serve two or more local authority areas (and have two or more music services in their partnership). The hubs have core roles prescribed in the NPME including the provision of high quality instrumental and vocal teaching in and out of schools and the huge range of bands, choirs and orchestras for children and young people.

As with previous government funding for music, the MEH was only ever intended to be an underpinning, a proportion, of the overall funding needed. In 2013 the grant accounted for 34% of the £187m spent nationally by music education hubs. The rest of the funding continued to come from other sources – schools’ budgets (31%) parents’ contributions (17%) other grant aid or income streams (10%) and in some cases grants from the Local Authority (8%).

The MEH has been cut in four successive years: from over £80m in 2011-2012 down to £60m in 2014-2015 (although only £58m actually reaches the hubs themselves). Whilst the new music education hubs had known about most of these cuts since the plan and the indicative budgets were first published in 2012, it hasn’t been easy to deal with them, especially with the colossal bureaucracy demanded in accounting for the diminishing grant and funding formulas that seem to have changed mid-stream producing some additional surprise cuts for some hubs.

Worryingly, it isn’t only the MEH that has been cut. Huge downward pressures on schools’ budgets and a significant decline in parents’ disposable incomes in the last four years have added to the financial strain for music education. Together they have already precipitated a withering of the infrastructure in some schools and markedly in some music services, a number of which have been forced to displace teaching staff and/or significantly reduce their terms and conditions of employment in their efforts to balance the books.

The number of children and young people who are able to learn to play a musical instrument will be reduced as a consequence.

Schools continue to be hallmarked by turbulence, with constitutional, curriculum, examination and budget upheaval and an Ofsted inspection regime that places scant, if any, value on music education in its Section 5 school inspection framework. Though it strongly criticised schools and music hubs for not doing enough in music education in its latest subject report “Music in Schools: What Hubs Must Do”.

Schools and music education hubs must indeed do more and the new School Music Education Plans currently being written by hubs and schools could play a very important part in driving standards. But others must do more too.

For all the NPME is lauded to be important by the government, and by Ofsted, neither appear to have a willingness to write to schools to let them know just how important they think it is. Whilst it wouldn’t solve any of the issues, one letter would go some way to raising the profile with key decision makers.

But now appears yet another potential blow for some music services, specifically those that benefit from financial support from Local Authorities. (The range of Local Authority financial support for music services varies widely from 0% to almost 52% of their budgets – an average of nearly 8% nationally. The total amount spent by those Local Authorities that do provide financial support is over £14m per year.)

The Department for Education’s recent consultation document, “Savings to Education Services Grant for 2015-2016”, contains a raft of “proposals” for consultation on what Local Authorities should and shouldn’t do with this similarly declining grant, though it already seems to have made up its mind about LA support for music services.

“As schools have greater autonomy over how they spend their money and in delivering the curriculum, we believe there is a limited role for local authorities in providing these [music] services…. Our expectation is that music services should now be funded through music education hubs (which can cover one or more local authority areas) and from school budgets, not from the ESG.”

Does this “expectation” assume that schools and hubs in those areas affected by this proposal will pick up the £14m budget hole that will appear? Does the “expectation” confuse what is understood about schools’ curriculum responsibility? Does the “expectation” assume that schools are funded fairly and equitably in all local authority areas?

As an aside, the proposal seems to fly in the face of the government’s own policy, in the Communities and Local Government Department, which trumpets that it is “giving local authorities more control over how they spend public money in their area”. How does the “expectation” support more control in local decision making?

This £14m cut for some, on top of the £20m cut experienced by almost all music services in the last three years (whether or not they are the lead partners in music education hubs) and the continuing economic and financial gloom that schools and parents are grappling with, will significantly raise further the risk to many children and young people’s music education in the coming months and years.

There are fine words written at the beginning of the National Plan for Music Education, and even quotations from Aristotle and Plato.

But actions speak louder than words. On top of the downward-spiraling financial position for most music services, this latest policy proposal by government will undermine the basic viability of some music services to deliver high quality teaching and learning. It sends an extremely negative message to the whole sector about the value of music education in general, and the value of local decision making in particular.

The UK Association for Music Education – Music Mark stands squarely with all its music service members and on behalf of them asks the Department for Education to:

1. Halt this latest policy proposal which will be very damaging for those music services most affected
2. Confirm that there will be a MEH in 2015-2016 (the consultation document seems to suggest that there will be, which, after months of speculation, of itself would come as welcome news).
3. Agree the financial value of the MEH at better levels (at least an additional £14m would go part way to address the serious challenges being faced by music services because of successive cuts to the MEH, the huge strain on schools’ budgets, parents’ incomes and now the cuts identified in this proposal)
4. Decide the distribution mechanism for the MEH; the huge financial costs and time expended on the bureaucracy of distributing, monitoring and accounting for the MEH need slimming down to release more resources
5. Write to all schools and music education hubs to exhort them to work together to improve children and young people’s music education and accelerate the progress of the National Plan for Music Education
6. Require Ofsted to raise the profile for music education in its Section 5 school inspections framework and require all of its inspectors to take more seriously music of itself, and the role it can play in school improvement

My colleagues in music services want our children and young people to have the best music education possible and they aim to provide it, deliver it and support it through music education hubs in and out of schools. There are outstanding examples of brilliant work; some of it with children and young people in the most challenging of circumstances. There is a lot more still to do to spread this best practice and to make the improvements that we all want to see.

The National Plan for Music Education is an eight year plan: 2012-2020. It is but twenty months into its operation across England. Music services are right at the heart of the Plan – its viability and its delivery. If some are caused to fail because of the serious financial challenges they face, and from all sides, far fewer children will be able to learn a music instrument and/or sing, hubs may implode and the NPME will be damaged.

Music, of itself, is vital for children and young people. The large canon of research literature also demonstrates the vast range of its personal, social and educational benefits.

It’s not just about the money. It’s about what is valued in a civilised society, and just as much about fighting for children and young people’s entitlement to a good music education in a civilised society.

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, and life to everything… Without music, life would be an error.” Plato

Nigel M Taylor
Chair, The UK Association for Music Education – Music Mark
28 April 2014