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Fair Play – A blog by Stephen Wild, Head of Music at ArtForms

I walk past the coat of arms of Pudsey Municipal Borough Council every day. The council was reorganised out of existence decades ago, but its heraldry lives on, complete with its motto: Be Just and Fear Not.

Familiarity means I don’t often notice this, despite its impressive size – it covers most of a large wall. But the motto has set me thinking: since it says this on my office building, how should this be affecting the way I work, and the service my team delivers?

Music education should be ‘just’. Of course it should. I work for a democratic public body – a local authority – and social justice is a key part of our mission. Nowadays, the terminology has evolved, and we talk of ‘treating people fairly’, but the sentiment is the same.

Music education should be ‘fearless?’ Really? What does this mean?

There is a lot of talk nowadays about social mobility. This is always presented as a good thing. It is always assumed to work upwards. As music education hubs, we are given the task of lending our weight to this. But mobility implies leaving one place to move to another. I’m mobile when I commute from home to work, or when I go on holiday. But I know that when I am away my home is still there.

Is that the mobility that we want for music education? For children to depart from a starting point, be that a place of social, economic or cultural deprivation, but for the place of deprivation to remain? If we as music educators are to be fearless, then we must challenge this. We must talk about social mobility for all children and for all communities, not for some to escape from their communities.

Social and educational justice, and professional fearlessness, means that we need to identify the barriers and obstacles that stand in the way of children, and to tackle those barriers and remove them.

Maybe we should just provide music education to those children who want it. This was, in all seriousness, once suggested to me by a professional orchestral musician. How is this either just or effective? How does a child identify what is available and know what they want to learn? Have they the skills to get it? This would probably provide the next generation of orchestral musicians (or folk, jazz or whatever). But this isn’t our job in music education. Our job is to serve the needs of children.

Or maybe we should say that we operate in a strictly meritocratic system, and that only the best and most able should receive musical training. After all, we have scarce resources, and this would ensure that the brightest and best achieved to a high level. This was a model followed by many music services and schools over the years: those who were good at classroom activities were picked to play the trumpet or the cello. Or we used tests of ‘musicianship’ – remember those? A bit like only giving driving lessons to those who have demonstrated that they can already drive. We produced a generation of fine youth orchestras, certainly, but were we being just? I think not. We know that

In general, children living in poverty have lower educational outcomes compared to those from more affluent families[1]

And this applies to success in music as much as in other subject areas. So how just would a strict meritocracy be? If rewards go to the ‘best’, aren’t we proposing that we give more to those who already have, and less to those who don’t?

(Incidentally, this meritocracy seemed inextricably linked to the concept of cultural superiority. Classical music was the best, and was firmly linked to the concept of musical and social success. Orchestras and choirs ruled the roost. A music service might have included a brass band, if it was located in a ‘brass band area’, and maybe a jazz group if it really wanted to seem modern. But nothing closer to the average child’s experience. So how accessible did this feel to the majority of children? For some, including me, it brought me into the world of sonatas and opera, which I hadn’t been born into. I was very fortunate. The vast majority of my peers were not. This is not the blog where I take apart the class-specific signifiers surrounding classical music – the white ties and tailcoats, the gilded concert halls etc. But we must be aware how off-putting this world can be to many.)

If we want to be just, we must be aware of the need to be affordable. Music education can be very expensive, as instruments (including computers and technology) and tuition don’t come cheap. What is the mechanism for assistance with this? Are there grants and bursaries available? How easy are they to apply for, and is there any stigma of poverty attached to claiming?

Linked to cost is location. How fair is it to expect children to travel long distances and spend cash and time getting to the place where music happens? And how just is it that the child of parents with a car will find this so much easier than those who rely on the bus? Do we understand how fearless a child has to be to go to an unfamiliar location to take part in an event? An unfamiliar building, new adults and children, a location away from the familiar streets of childhood: these are a challenge to many children. (And also to many adults).

There is a wide, and growing, range of technology available which assist children who find it difficult to use conventional musical instruments. Sounds can be triggered by sound beams, tracked eye movements and many other ingenious mechanisms. It is a mark of a just system that these should be available where and when they are needed: no child’s disability should prevent musical engagement and participation. But they are sometimes expensive, so how do we afford this?

How should we deliver our services and how should we allocate our resources? As music educators we have some funding to play with, which comes through to music education hubs, in England at least. There is further funding in schools (if schools choose to invest in music), which is actually a lot more than the hubs have. And specific schemes are funded directly – In Harmony, Centres for Advanced Training and some national ensembles. How effective is this investment? Is it best to provide generous funding for a comparatively small number of children, In Harmony-style? Or to fund programmes to assist a specific demographic group wherever it may be across the city? Or to provide a universal service – the most expensive but most inclusive of all. The reality is that all have their advantages and pitfalls. We need to retain our sense of justice at all times: this must inform all decisions we take.

Music education can, and does, change lives. But music education cannot undo all the wrongs of society. We live in a city, and in a country, where children are living in poverty and deprivation. Our education system has very different outcomes for children from different backgrounds, in music and across all the ways we can measure outcomes. Children are being left behind. Leeds has the aspiration to be a Child Friendly City. We must address this in all that we do. Music educators cannot hope to solve all the problems that stand in the way of young people. If we could, we would. But we must change what we can.

There are obstacles to children engaging with music learning. There are obstacles to music services, hubs and schools to helping these children. These obstacles won’t shift themselves, and we may need to change how we work and what we do to have an impact on these obstacles. Changing outcomes may involve changing what we do and how we do it, and this might be the real call to ‘fear not’: change is often daunting, but we have pressing need to challenge ourselves.

Musicians are able to ‘play’ music. Life offers few other opportunities for ‘play’ in so many ways. We play when we practise and we play when we perform. We play as children, as amateurs and professionals. We listen to others play. We play alone, and we play as part of teams.

We need fair play.

Stephen Wild, July 2019.

[1] White J. Children’s social circumstances and educational outcomes. Edinburgh: NHS Health Scotland; 2018