I am a music teacher working in the public and private sectors and I’ve recently been reading the ABRSM Music Mark report. I am a great supporter of the ABRSM, particularly the teaching of Grade 5 Theory. Indeed, my intent here is to be supportive.
However, the authors do rather shoot themselves in the foot with the disclosure that whilst the report is based on earlier surveys, methodological differences mean there are no comparators and no way of differentiating the earlier samples. They damningly acknowledge the results are only indicative and no conclusions can be drawn. Clearly, this is a serious issue but the report raises many. So many, in fact, that it is hard to be brief. Its range and its depth deserve creative criticism but I intend to confine myself to addressing what I think is the major issue identified by the indicative data.
It seems incontrovertible that the teaching of classical music is declining/failing. The report implicitly acknowledges this, however much positive spin it applies to its statistics. To quote Richard Hallam Libretto January 2014 “there is no better way of making the case for increased funding…… than by showing how well we use the funds that have been entrusted to us”. It seems clear that making this case is the purpose of the report.
I am not privy to the internal workings of the ABRSM but I imagine the authors sitting around a table with the raw data from the survey and scratching their heads. They needed scratching! The raw data put them on the horns of a dilemma. If they are bullish, there is no case for increased funding and if they are too bearish, there is definitely no case for increased funding because they have not put previous funding to best use. “So” they said “shall we be manic or depressed?” They opted for bi-polar. From the initial statement that “there is much to celebrate” they present a series of statements which, for me, effectively postpone the party.
From a classical music point of view the survey results are depressing. The numbers of students learning classical instruments are declining and the numbers learning non classical instruments are increasing, often outside formal teaching and institutional structures.
The other thing the report makes clear is that classical music is the preserve of the privileged. Only those from the top socio-economic groups (AB) can afford quality teaching and the instruments. Lower socio-economic groups (CDE) cannot. To quote Richard Hallam again, “what can we do about it”?
The answer depends on where you locate the problem. The ABRSM report identifies multiple problems which in my reading devolve to the roles of Ofsted and the Hubs. If ever there was a case for formal intervention, the ABRSM makes it.
The majority of state educated children have their first learning experiences of classical instruments at school with peripatetic instrumental teachers working through the Hubs. Peripatetic teachers in schools do not need qualifications and monitoring is carried out by the Hubs themselves. They have a vested financial interest in keeping their teachers so are hardly the best assessors! The outcome is that unbeknown to many parents and schools, their children may be lucky and learn with an excellent teacher or, too often, unlucky and learn with with a poor teacher. It is a lottery. The same can be said for the quality of instruments, especially in junior schools.
The report confirms that electric guitar has overtaken the violin in popularity. It must be wholly beneficial to society for everyone to enjoy playing a musical instrument. However, in the teaching of popular instruments notation is generally dumbed down to its easiest level of alphabetically labelled chords and tablature. This may well make certain instruments more accessible but is it at the expense of learning classical music in schools? In not teaching notation in schools are we enhancing the divide between classical and popular?
By allowing a system where those who pay for private lessons have a much better chance of a good musical education, we not only reinforce the classism of classical music but also potentiate the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ . Given all the studies of the profound neurological effects on the development of children’s brains and academic attainment whilst reading and playing/singing music, I find it extraordinary that it is not a compulsory part of the curriculum to learn to read and play/sing music for every child and for it to be on a par with the 3 r’s. We are supporting a system where the less privileged are denied the opportunity of this development.
If Ofsted were to take responsibility for ensuring that all Hub peripatetic music teachers had a standard teaching qualification,and for monitoring the teaching and instruments used for teaching, we would see a radical improvement in the learning of classical music. Moreover, and this may sound draconian but I believe that depriving children of the opportunity to learn to read and play/sing music is tantamount to stealing points from their IQ as well as depriving them of the possibility of a source of lifelong pleasure that will enrich both their internal and external worlds.