The halls are not alive with the sound of music

The national curriculum was supposed to improve music lessons for all children. But has it succeeded?
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Music, in the words of Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, is "relevant to all pupils, and needs to be viewed as a normal part of school life". But what exactly is "normal"? The extent and quality of music education that a child will receive varies dramatically from school to school, county to county; in some cases it is almost non-existent.

The national curriculum, when it was introduced in 1988, was welcomed by many involved in music education, in that it ranked music among the seven foundation subjects, making it a statutory requirement for all schools, with specific aims and objectives. Music lessons were no longer to be desultory singing around the piano, but a challenging programme based on the key activities of performing, composing and listening, for every child and at every stage. One and a quarter hours per week was the recommended amount of time to be spent on this.

But what was laudable in theory has proved widely divergent in practice. Roger Durston, chairman of the independent Music Education Council and director of Wells Cathedral School, estimated that in a sizeable minority of schools, music is still pretty negligible, confined to weekly hymn practice and singing for the end-of-term show. Another minority is the schools that are having a go at the music curriculum, but not feeling very confident about it. In a further 30 per cent of schools, music is being well taught, either by those with musical training or by enthusiasts who may, for instance, sing or play the guitar a bit.

Music sadly all too often exerts a powerful mystique over the uninitiated: it is one of those things, they believe, that only some people can do and enjoy. For many primary teachers, then, to be faced with the technical demands of the new music curriculum - a world of pitch, tone, timbre, notation, improvisation - was a bewildering and often frightening experience.

More than seven years on, musical confidence and competence are growing, particularly among infant teachers, according to John Stephens, head of music education at Trinity College, London. "But there are still a lot of teachers who need a lot of support," he says.

Drastic cuts in funding for in-service training to help non-specialists have not improved the situation. In addition, changes in teacher training, with up to 80 per cent of training time now spent in school, have made it harder for new teachers to acquire the musical skills and knowledge they need, says Colin Durrant, music education co-ordinator at the Roehampton Institute in London. In primary schools 41 per cent of new teachers feel they are not well prepared to teach music, according to a report, Guaranteeing an Entitlement to the Arts in Schools, by the Royal Society for Arts.

Singing in schools is on the wane, despite pockets of good practice, Colin Durrant says. "Many teachers are afraid themselves to use the voice."

This concern is supported by a review by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), of 1993-94 inspection findings, which noted that children's singing often failed to progress: the singing of 10- to 11-year-olds in class lessons was often no more accurate or expressive than that of 7- to 8-year-olds. Ofsted also found secondary schools where lacklustre singing was accepted, "and sometimes praised".

While music teaching in the early primary years is generally believed to have improved, there is concern about the upper primary end, and particularly about the discontinuity in musical education that pupils suffer when they change schools at 11. "Almost without exception, what is expected of them decreases," notes Ofsted.

In terms of resources, the RSA report says one-third of primary schools and one-third of secondary schools are not properly equipped with good- quality instruments for performing and composing. Ofsted, too, is critical of the inferior electronic keyboards that in many secondary schools 11- to 14-year-olds work on almost exclusively.

For children wishing to learn an instrument in school, changes in the way music services are funded have had a serious impact. Most education authorities no longer provide instrumental lessons themselves, but the funding is devolved to schools, which can choose whether or not to buy music services, usually from a trust or agency. Again, the quality of these agencies varies widely. For some schools, music lessons may simply not be a priority. Even for those wishing to offer lessons, few can afford to provide them free - although some may subsidise them - so the charges are passed on to parents: learning an instrument is thus confined to those who can afford it.

Also, the range of instruments on offer from commercial agencies is frequently restricted to the cheapest and most popular, resulting in a surfeit of flutes and clarinets, and a dearth of the more unwieldy bass instruments such as bassoon, trombone and double bass: this, in future years, is likely to have grave consequences for the nation's wind bands and youth orchestras.

Instrumental teachers have traditionally been quite isolated from the music that goes on in the classroom. But Elizabeth Poulsen, education administrator of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, which looks after the interests of professional musicians, believes that the way forward is for instrumental and class teachers to collaborate and reinforce one another's work. Not only would this enrich their pupils' education, she says, but it should also help to strengthen the somewhat fragile status of music in school and defend it from further cuts.