There’s no denying entertainer George Formby’s prowess on the ukulele-banjo: but, for most youngsters, recorder or ukulele alike should serve as the portal to more sophisticated music

According to the well-informed online education paper Schools Week (11th November), “Ministers stand accused of prioritising ‘cuts to beer and prosecco over opportunities for young people’ after they quietly shelved a £90 million arts premium for secondary schools.” Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget found room to cut duty on less strong booze, but not to honour that election pledge.

Schools Week continued that “[its] investigation found the policy is one of four commitments made in the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto that have been scrapped or are currently unmet, over halfway through the current Parliament.

“The manifesto pledged to “fund enriching activities for all pupils” through the new arts fund. Last year’s spring budget confirmed plans to spend £90 million a year on the policy, an average of £25,000 per secondary school, from this September.

“But the scheme did not launch, and no funding was allocated in last month’s spending review. The Department for Education said this week that its priorities ‘inevitably had to focus on education recovery over the next three years’.”

It’s more than just another example of (rather predictable) Government reneging on an election promise, in this case to provide extra ring-fenced funding for the arts even up to university level. It’s actually downgrading the arts, which are not seen as a “strategic priority”.

What’s so frustrating is the suggestion that we must choose between science/technology and the arts. Tourists cross the globe in order to enjoy London’s Theatre Land. Hollywood seems to be increasingly building colossal studios not in LA but in our Home Counties: we’re good at both the tech and the performing!

In 2018 the UK music industry contributed £5.2bn to GDP: rather than being hailed as a triumph, that appears to be an inconvenient truth, studiously overlooked by education policymakers.

I must declare an interest here: I’m nowadays Chair of Governors at one of the country’s four specialist music schools.  The Purcell School helps prodigiously talented musicians (mostly funded by government, to be fair) to develop their skills, in a specialist curriculum that allows them to put in the hours of practice they need, and for the most part to proceed to conservatoires in the UK and around the world. It’s a fast-track, if you like, into the performing arts industry that I’ve described, one without which we’d quickly see the industry starved of professionals.

I love my opportunities for involvement in excellent, even élite, music: but the specialist music schools are only the tip of a pyramid. And I believe passionately that the pyramid must have a broad base.  From the very grass roots up, children must be offered excellent musical experiences led by expert practitioners that take them beyond what they know into unfamiliar and challenging realms.

Believing in grass-roots development, I don’t entirely share the recently-expressed concern of guitar teachers that the ukulele is flooding primary schools and ousting even that old standby, the recorder.

Like the recorder, the (very cheap, rudimentary, four-stringed) ukulele is a very simple instrument: it takes the placement of only one finger to make a D major chord. Small wonder that ukulele choirs, whose members sing unsophisticated songs and accompany themselves with simple chords, have become popular within adult communities as well as in schools.

There’s surely nothing wrong with that: it’s a way into music-making that’s marked by rapid early progress. But there’s the problem aired by guitar-teachers. Recreational activity like that doesn’t of itself lead into more complex stuff, into what I’d term (without any intention of being pretentious) higher art. And we need at the same time to recognise the huge diversity and breadth of music and musicians which those who develop educational curricula are arguably only just beginning to appreciate.

The musical journey mustn’t stop at the recorder group, the ukulele band, even the school Nativity Play about which ministers seem exercised currently. Rather as in the teaching of English (Literature), I don’t subscribe to arguments about the irrelevance of Shakespeare to many young people: they should be challenged by the best.

The musical pyramid should boast – but increasingly doesn’t at present – a structure of school-based, local, area, Local Authority (remember them?) and regional opportunities for singing and instrument tuition and choirs, orchestras, bands, and inspiring teachers.

What about digital technology? Tech offers amazing opportunities for creating complex music: but children’s singing, playing, even composing experiences must be authentic, high-quality performances, not a glorified vocal, instrumental or ensemble karaoke. Technology misused makes dumbing down too easy, a tempting way to cut corners and, worse, save money, always a winner with policymakers. Perhaps there is, after all, a parallel there with the remarkably inexpensive ukulele.

Talking of pyramids, if you want to make the tip higher, you have to broaden the base, not squeeze it like an old-fashioned toothpaste tube. The inverse is true, of course. Whittle away the base, and the top will swiftly  crumble: as we’re already seeing.

Music is a vital, creative part of human life, of the whole experience of living, and active participation enriches us at every level: from the primary school child singing in its first Christmas play; through the fifteen-year-old experiencing the adrenalin rush of singing and dancing in the end-of-term musical; to The Purcell’s students playing and singing in London’s prestigious St John’s, Smith Square, concert hall last month.

Why stop there? Adèle and Ed Sheeran are megastars. Yet it’s surely not the money that drives them to write songs and perform them, but their innate creativity: which also provides a living for the many professional musicians who arrange, back, produce and record their songs.

And we need at the same time to recognise the huge diversity and breadth of music and musicians which those who develop educational curricula are arguably only just beginning to appreciate.

By the way, scientists are creative, too: witness the extraordinary speed at which Covid vaccines were developed and produced around the world.

So let’s make no more false dichotomies. We need high-quality arts education as much as we need technology and science: and we need music within it.

It requires funding, and it needs quality, which in turn demands a highly qualified cadre of music teachers.

And no more tokenism: no more excuses.

Two pence off a pint? I know where I’d rather put my money.


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