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Breaking the Class Ceiling in Music

MPs and Peers looked at access to music and the challenges emerging artists face in the second session of the ‘Breaking the Class Ceiling’ inquiry.

Lineup of percussive instruments for classroom use
Lineup of percussive instruments for classroom use. Photograph: Musicians' Union

Led by the Performers’ Alliance All Party Parliamentary Group – a group of MPs and Peers who work alongside the Musicians’ Union (MU), Equity and The Writers’ Guild – the inquiry is looking at social mobility in the creative sector and the challenges facing those from working class backgrounds.

The first session looked at social mobility and what it means.

This time, Tracy Brabin MP, Baroness Bull, and Baroness Bonham-Carter focused on music. The trio put questions to academics and musicians nominated by the MU. Here’s a look at what they found.

Music education in schools

SATs, the Ebacc and other forms of testing are pushing music out of classrooms, Dr Alison Daubney (Senior Teaching Fellow in Education, University of Sussex) told the inquiry. As schools drop music and arts subjects in order to give more time to the subjects that they are measured on, music and the arts become the preserve of the few who can afford it.

The statistics bear this out. The number of secondary school music teachers fell by 1000 between 2010 and 2017, ABRSM exam entries are dropping, and music is the fastest disappearing subject at A level.

Yet the Government wants 90% of children taking the Ebacc by 2025, which means music and the arts are only going to be pushed out further, said Daubney.

Now most children are only getting music for a term or half a term – more than half of schools do not have a music offer from the start of school through to year 6, argued Daubney.

Let every child learn music

For Daubney, fixing the problem is a question of changing how Government measures schools. Schools end up working to current accountability measures, like the Ebacc, to the detriment of other subjects. Including music and arts subjects in the Ebacc means schools would have to put meaningful effort into those subjects too.

There also needs to be people in every school who can provide that. It’s important to recognise the value of teachers, explained Daubney. A lot of instrumental teachers are on zero hours contracts, with no guaranteed hours, no sick pay, no holiday pay and none of the rights salaried workers take for granted.

She also argues for strong leadership from the Department for Education, and a long-term financial commitment for music education in schools.

Taking it to the next level

Young musicians from low income backgrounds are less likely to apply for conservatoires, according to research by Dr Christina Scharff (Senior Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London).

Scharff suggested that musicians from working class backgrounds don’t feel as comfortable in the conservatoire environment as more well off peers.

One student from a working class background who she interviewed as part of her research told her about feeling excluded in a conversation about Mahler. Having never heard of him, the student made up a symphony that didn’t exist. “That moment really stuck with her,” said Scharff.

She also found an underrepresentation of BAME students. In one conservatoire she looked at, 110 BAME students applied but none were accepted.

“I really suggest blind auditions,” said Scharff. These have already been proven to have a positive impact on gender, and can have a positive impact on BAME and working class representation as well.

The challenges for musicians with disabilities

“It’s not just about the practice, what you do inside the classroom. It’s about the attitudinal barriers at the confidence barriers,” says Douglas Noble (Think22 Programme Leader at Drake Music).

“We have to expect disabled children want a route to progress,” said musician John Kelly. “Music is a key tool for expression, not just therapy,” he continued.

Kelly’s focus is on ensuring music technology is attainable to boost access to music for people with disabilities. Barriers are easy to identify but harder to overcome – “It’s about finding solutions… resilience and resolution to overcome those barriers,” he said.

Musicians’ perspectives

Kelly sees a radical need for change, telling the inquiry that it’s when musicians act that you get bold, innovating music. There’s a real movement of young musicians who want to see that change. “It’s within our grasp,” he said.

When it comes to the level of technology you need to support disabled musicians in the classroom, it doesn’t have to be expensive. After all, “Cultures play the guitar in a million different ways,” said Kelly. It’s about mixing high tech and low tech, and using what’s in the room, he explained.

For Johnny Thirkell, it’s about the value of music. “I was one of the very fortunate ones that got free instrumental music tuition in school and it didn’t matter that my parents were dirt poor,” he told the inquiry. “Music tuition was valued then. I’m not sure it’s valued now,” he continued.

It’s not just about the music – Johnny was keen to highlight the other skills it gives children and young people. In his case, it gave him confidence. “It’s an incredibly powerful thing,” he said, recalling the first time someone applauded a performance. Other skills include teamwork, self-discipline and responsibility – skills that help you for life.

Asked what’s needed to boost opportunities for young people from working class backgrounds to access music, “We have to start by getting people to understand the value of music… It’s becoming incredibly devalued at every level,” he said. From a lack of government funding, to teachers being moved from salaried position to zero-hours contracts, to a popular perception that music isn’t something you have to pay for.

Jane Beese (Head of Music, Roundhouse) agrees – she highlights the relative lack of status of cultural careers. Young people she works with are often encouraged to “study something more serious,” instead of or alongside their creative careers. At the same time, these young musicians are not being equipped for the freelance life typical of many musicians.

In Thirkell’s case, growing up in the North East in an area with a strong brass band tradition, gave him role models at a crucial stage in his musical development. “A lot of people don’t even know it’s a thing, being a professional musician,” Johnny explained. He was lucky to have informal, ad hoc mentoring from people he met on his journey to becoming a professional musician – something Alan Davey (Controller of BBC Radio 3 and the Proms) also highlighted as essential in the first session of the inquiry.

Add your voice to the call

Over 40% of those from low-income families say music lessons are beyond their household budgets.

We’re fighting for access to music lessons in schools for every child, no matter what their background.

Take action now!

  • Write to your MP to protect access to music education in schools for every child. It takes five minutes, and could make a big difference. Here’s more information and something to get you started.
  • Share this article on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #BreakingTheClassCeiling.
  • Tell us what you think should MPs and Peers should know about social mobility and music. Tweet us @WeAreTheMU using the hashtag #BreakingTheClassCeiling.

The third session of the inquiry, on Monday 13 May, looks at breaking into a career in writing.

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Published: 23/04/2019

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