Yes every child should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument–but how, where and when?

The concert pianist James Rhodes is conducting a campaign to get the UK government to give every child the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. He is presenting a series of programmes on C4 where he starts a school orchestra in primary school which is on special needs (i.e. doing really badly). He has started an on-line petition. And I have no doubt there is/will be a lot of activity as well. The result is a sort of combination of Jamie Oliver on school dinners and Gareth Malone on school choirs. (The C4 series is made by Jamie Oliver’s production company).

I really, really like the idea and have signed the petition but am also quite concerned it may all back fire. Rhodes is quite candid that all he is doing is demanding the government provide the opportunity. The details of how to do it are “for the policymakers”.


This is a complex problem and experts agree it’s about more than just money. We need action: whether it’s providing teachers with proper music training or asking Ofsted to pay specific attention to music in their inspections or even a guarantee of funding until the end of the National Plan. But the details of how to achieve it are for the policymakers. What I’m asking for is something simple

Nevertheless a lot of energy and enthusiasm without thinking about the implementation could backfire, kill this campaign and endanger similar campaigns for reforms in education. If it ends up with mouldering heaps of unused instruments cluttering up schools and headteachers being harassed to do the impossible, then it will be a backward step not a forward one.

Giving every child the opportunity to learn an instrument would be something unprecedented in UK education. It may that there is even less emphasis on music education now than in recent years – but it has never been the case that the majority of  schools offered a serious opportunity to all children.  In most schools music education has always been of secondary status to mainline subjects such as maths, science, English, history and languages. I went to seven primary schools (my father was in the air force and we travelled a great deal) and an academically excellent grammar school during the 50s and 60s. I was never even shown a musical instrument. My children fared little better when they went to reputable state schools in middle class Hampshire in the 90s. So this is a new venture and we don’t know how to do it.

Some things to bear in mind.

Music is not alone in its case for more attention/funding in schools. Sports, drama, cooking, citizenship, home economics – the list of topics that the education system is asked to support is seemingly endless. Yes music brings immense benefits to those that learn it. So do many of these others.

The methods used by Rhodes in the C4 programme were not scalable to schools as a whole or sustainable over an extended time. They were great for getting attention and rather moving – but required his  time, energy, and very rare skills; many volunteers with a musical background; and a one-off campaign to obtain gifts of instruments. It also appeared to disrupt the rest of the school quite extensively -  we heard that other teachers lessons were badly affected during music lessons because of the noise but never heard how this was resolved.

Offering children the opportunity to learn an instrument is a lot harder than offering them decent school dinners. It needs a great deal of the time and commitment from the child and teacher. It needs suitable space and equipment. Ideally is needs opportunities to perform to an audience. There is no reason why changing school dinners should disrupt the rest of the school’s activities in  significant way. There is good reason to think that the opportunity to learn an instrument will effect every other aspect of the school.

But I think the thing that concerns me most is that the campaign positions this as a problem to be solved by schools.  It doesn’t matter what goes on in schools if the child is not practicing at home. On the other hand if the parents are supportive and the child is practicing at home then it probably doesn’t require much of the schools. In the first programme Rhodes goes to visit the family of a child who is apparently not practising. It turns out most of her time is consumed by gadgets – i-phone, tablets and playstation. He successfully persuades her parents to encourage her to spend less time on gadgets and more on practice. But this is not going to happen for every family in the land. We have to look beyond the formal education system if this is to work.



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