The Impact of Music in a Secondary School Curriculum

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Those of us that believe in the importance and necessity of music, drama and dance in the school curriculum often come up against a view that the core subjects of literacy and numeracy take precedence over everything else, and when standards still continue to fall, we should double down and pile even more hours of the same into the school day.

Inevitably, something has to give and unfortunately the performing arts and other creative subjects are often the low hanging fruit that take the hit. Hours are cut, staff are made redundant or not replaced when they retire and gradually performing arts provision begins to disintegrate until nothing or at best very little is left.

Excessive core subject learning hours can (and often do) impact on motivation and engagement even among pupils who are high achievers academically. Conversely, making creative subjects (such as music, drama and dance) a central part of the core curriculum has proven benefits in terms of social and emotional integration and well being, brain development in children and young adults, and perhaps most importantly, it allows an outlet for the expression of youthful energy and creativity that should be one of the most beautiful aspects of growing up.

One particularly painful aspect of this national decline in Performing Arts provision is that privately funded schools tend to do better in provision and sustaining creative subjects. They have the money to provide facilities and a student population that comes from largely middle and upper income families. Those, who through choice (or lack of it) attend state schools are arguably the group of children / young adults who need this provision most and yet they are the ones most likely not to get it.

In South Devon, where I live, the closure of the music department at Exeter University and Dartington College of Arts are just two of the more recent casualties in higher education. These were both acts of cultural vandalism that were pushed through despite huge opposition from local communities. I could also point to a good number of schools in the area, both secondary and primary, where once thriving music and PA departments are now just a shadow of their previous glory. The COVID crisis has only accelerated this descent into a learning environment which eschews creativity and imagination.

At the moment, post-lockdown, all the talk is about 'mental health' and the consequences of the COVID pandemic. Why then are schools cutting back on the very subjects that could help alleviate the mental health issues that afflict so many young people? I have no rational answer to this, except to observe how the levels of stress and unhappiness among young people grow with each extra helping of exams and targets and 'achieving' this and that.

Recently I was asked whether I understood that there was a significant group of teenagers who couldn't actually read their text books because their level of literacy was so low. Well, I do understand, but I don't think adding on more hours of literacy classes is going to make things better. If it hasn't worked up to now, why should it in the future? How about, I suggested, increasing the hours of drama and see if student engagement in a play would help with their literacy issues.

There is a great deal of research which shows pretty conclusively that music, drama and dance help improve academic achievements, increase self confidence, develop social skills and generally make a positive contribution to the development of those that engage in it.

Unfortunately, most state or academy schools have a constant  eye on league tables, Ofsted inspections and 'performance data'. I'm sure these have their place, but the problem with 'data' and 'statistics' is that they de-humanise  and rarely address the needs of the individual or the unique makeup of the local community. Data can also be easily manipulated and weaponised so that questions and challenges are deflected and ignored in the face of 'the facts'.

These issues are part of a much larger societal malaise and they should lead us to question the values and aspirations we as adults want to impart to the younger generation for whom we ultimately have responsibility.

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