The arts are under pressure in Britain’s schools, but they can be a life-changing outlet that children must not lose
The Lords are today having a debate about the arts in education. This follows recent comments by the secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, about arts subjects being limiting to career prospects, which are ill-judged and deeply worrying. They are particularly hard to understand when you look at the hugely impressive contribution that music and the other creative industries make to the UK.
The government’s own figures show that these industries are worth well over £71bn a year to the UK economy. Employment seems to be the education secretary’s particular area of concern. Yet the latest figures published by her government show that there are 1.68m jobs in creative industries, and that jobs in this sector grew by nearly 9% in just one year – more than 10 times the figure for the UK economy as a whole (0.7%). Music alone is worth £3.8bn to the UK economy, and as the culture secretary Sajid Javid has pointed out, one in every eight albums sold anywhere in the world is by a British artist. We may be a pretty small country in terms of population, but our musicians exert an enormous influence across the globe.
Despite this success, comments like those from the education secretary reflect an attitude that puts music and the arts under incredible pressure in our nation’s schools. In my work for the Don’t Stop the Music campaign, I’ve come across schools where there is no music budget at all. I’ve learned of schools where music lessons are barely a part of life – and where musical instruments for children to learn and progress with are almost a novelty.
As schools grapple to meet targets and focus hard on maths, English and science, subjects like music can be squeezed way down the priority list. Together with an Ofsted inspection regime that simply does not pay enough attention to music in schools, a perfect storm has hit music education. While some children are reaping the benefits of a fantastic musical education and the chance to learn an instrument, far too many are not. A recent report from the exam board of the Royal Schools of Music, for instance, revealed that 40% of UK children from more disadvantaged backgrounds who have never played an instrument said they had no opportunity to learn at school.
There are also immense benefits for those children who may be suffering from certain behavioural or mental health issues. If you take a child who is not particularly academic or athletic, who feels isolated or anxious, and are able to offer them a creative outlet, it can often have life-changing effects. Quite apart from the proven effects of specialist music therapy, simply having a musical instrument for company, being able to practise and focus on making a sound, and eventually playing as part of an ensemble can have a huge impact on self-confidence and self-belief – two things that provide life-long benefits.
My own experience as a child who experienced severe mental health issues was that music was the one thing that never let me down – being able to spend time playing and listening to music provided a safe haven for me at a time when I needed it the most. It still does. Of course learning the violin isn’t going to cure various health issues, mental or otherwise, but it is another invaluable tool that can help provide comfort, self-esteem and encourage social skills, teamwork and focus.
I am far from alone in my concern about the pressures facing the arts in schools. Last weekend I was joined by a raft of senior voices in the music and education sectors in signing an open letter to government, demanding it take action on music education. From the Royal College of Music to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Association of Head Teachers, highly respected figures called on the government to fulfil the promise of the National Plan for Music, and end the inequalities in music education.
As the Lords debate the arts in education, I can only hope that they take note of these voices. Music and the arts in schools are not impediments to children’s education and later careers. I urge the government to recognise their importance, and ensure these subjects are not marginalised for our nation’s children.