Britain's got talent, but is it being overlooked?

I have just greatly enjoyed two extremes – the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and the final of Britain’s Got Talent. Both shows demonstrated enormous talent at opposite ends of the spectrum, musically speaking. Britain’s Got Talent is clearly the more accessible of the two as it enables anyone to participate, of any age and, restricting ourselves purely to music, in any musical genre. The Young Musician of the Year would appear to be restricted to the classical. Interestingly, only one of the finalists (and incidentally, the winner) in Young Musician of the Year is actually a student at a regular comprehensive school. The others are products of independent specialist music schools. This leads me to wonder whether students of classical music, who show particular promise, are encouraged to apply for scholarships at specialist schools, as the state system is simply not tuned up to provide the high-level teaching required for the most talented? Could it be that such youngsters, being gifted in this manner, find themselves isolated in the average comprehensive, and are compelled to find more nurturing and challenging musical environments elsewhere?

There will probably never be a definitive answer to these questions, but now, with music education being at yet another crossroads, it is a good time to think about accessibility to music making for all young people at secondary level.

As this article is being written, Arts Council England has just announced who has been awarded ‘hub’ status and the funding to support it. Though supportive of music in schools, the government has made less money available (and it will decrease year-on-year over the next two years). Those now granted hub status will have to work harder than ever to make sure that funds generate the best possible value and provide the greatest possible inclusion, especially in areas of deprivation. This is no small ask, as the government has left the sector free to implement their schemes as they deem appropriate within their own geographical areas. Partnership is a word frequently used these days, and will become a necessity, especially under reduced financial input from the State. We are assured that provision and outcomes will be closely monitored, not least by Ofsted. Thus head teachers will be encouraged to buy into the local hub’s programmes – though this is not obligatory. Heads and Governors could well make alternative arrangements to fulfil the Ofsted requirement that all schools will need to be able to demonstrate a vibrant cultural life, including music, at an inspection. This still leaves Academies and Free Schools outside the fold if they so desire.

Music, as a subject, is incredibly broad. Secondary schools do have the expertise of subject-specialist teachers, but most music departments are understaffed, and the majority of music teachers find themselves fitting in rehearsals at lunchtimes as well as before and after school. Furthermore, these unfair demands are exacerbated, by the requirement of the music teacher to have expertise in pop to classical, jazz to ethnic, or choral to instrumental music, in addition to being able to encourage and develop creative music-making, whether this be through improvisation or written compositions. This is all challenge enough without the expectation of producing a school musical, termly concert or showpiece for a school prize giving – all outside the normal timetable. For these reasons, it is almost inevitable that some children, even those keen to develop their musical talent, may be overlooked in the secondary school. This has been recognised in part by the Henley Review which acknowledged that the quality of music provision in England is, to date, patchy.

Choir Concerns
Many secondary schools no longer have a choir, despite the raising of awareness and credibility of choral singing through an array of TV programmes in recent years. Children at primary school, for the most part, do a lot of singing, though quality varies enormously. I know of at least one instance of children moving up to their secondary school where no school choir exists. They so missed their singing that they approached the teacher from their former school, and asked if they could form an out-of-school choir under her leadership. So, without funding and through the goodwill of that teacher, a new teenage choir is now in existence. On a larger scale in South Wales, the phenomenal success of Only Men Aloud, in the Last Choir Standing competition, has brought about the formation of an independent training choir called, Only Boys Aloud. 140-strong, this organisation gathers together young men from all over the region. These are just two examples of independent community projects which now help to fill a musical gap in the education system, with repertoire which is eclectic yet age- appropriate and not wedded to a particular style of music.

Saturday Schools

Saturday music schools, hitherto run under the auspices of local music services are another avenue for aspiring young musicians across a wide age-range and not just involving orchestral instruments. Only time will tell if these are able to continue once the hubs are up and running. One sincerely hopes that they will. Similarly, county youth orchestras have been available to all young people if they are of the appropriate standard on their instrument. It would be comforting if all youngsters, even from deprived backgrounds could participate, but there are so many non-musical social factors which work against this – such as getting to and from out-of-school hours rehearsals, the timing of these rehearsals (do they conflict with Saturday jobs?) etc.

Youth Music, the government funded organisation, is a grant-making body for projects which will have the widest possible impact upon young people, especially from challenging and disadvantaged backgrounds. Access to funding largely depends upon other bodies being successful in applying to Youth Music for grants, rather than young people themselves putting together a bid. In areas where this has happened, great successes have been recorded in terms of benefit to those communities and the young recipients themselves.

When we zoom in on the individual teenager, we cannot ignore the ‘online’ culture of social networking and the plethora of material at their disposal on the internet. Many young people receive their preliminary lessons through online tuition, much of which is free-of-charge, particularly in the guitar world, and embark upon self-teaching. The more aware and analytical student will undoubtedly be able to make good progress to a certain level by this method. Ultimate musical satisfaction, motivation and development however is only truly achievable when making music in collaboration with others, be it fellow players/singers or with a mentor. Having said all that, music can be just a ‘consumable’. We don’t all have to be players and singers. We can be great ‘audience’ and get enormous satisfaction and fulfilment in the appreciation of others’ talents. In that respect, technology has made it possible for anyone of any age to access for free, just about anything musical that exists through the likes of You Tube for example.

GCSE decline
One very concerning trend however, is the declining number of GCSE Music courses now being offered to our young people. Here at the Schools Music Association’s office, we have received a worrying number of letters from distraught parents of musician-children, who, having chosen a secondary school because of its emphasis on music, now find that their school is no-longer offering GCSE Music. We can only assume that this is because some schools now believe that they can afford to ignore any subject not currently included in the English Baccalaureate (E-Bac). While professing to espouse the desire of ensuring that all children receive a broad education, by not including a single Arts subject in the E-Bac, the Government has sent out a highly confusing message – one which is denying opportunities for study in music, in particular.   

So, in summing up, I think we can be cautiously proud of the range of musical opportunities available to our teenagers, where they exist. The hope is that the new hubs will extend the availability to all young people, especially to the disadvantaged, where I am confident there lays a vast pool of hitherto untapped talent.

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