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Why music education matters

By Kate Hilpern

A primary school in a deprived part of Bradford has been completely transformed and it’s all thanks to music being prioritised in the school week. No wonder the story was picked up by some of the national press. But with music proven to boost children’s intellectual, linguistic and emotional development, why aren’t more (or all) schools putting it in the spotlight?

Since headteacher Naveed Idrees embedded music into every part of the Feversham Primary Academy school day, the children’s learning and behaviour has gone from strength to strength, lifting the school out of ‘special measures’ and into the top 10 per cent of schools nationally for pupil progress in reading, writing and maths.

The results are reported as ‘remarkable’ – and it’s achievable in other schools too. In fact, the body of research showing the benefits for children learning music would probably make for a book not far off the size of The Good Schools Guide (and that’s saying something). Over a century ago, Zoltan Koaldy, who established some of the most respected principles in music education, claimed that a 14-year-old would be three years ahead of his or her peers in every subject if given intensive music training. Since then, more and more studies have shown the vast number of benefits that music can bring to children’s wider potential.

One, led by Dr Alexandra Lamont, now senior lecturer in music psychology at Keele University, found that children who learn a musical instrument are more likely to be high achievers, as well as having a more positive identity. Young musicians were found to develop social, language and reasoning skills, as well as better memories. Singing in a choir has been shown to improve timing, counting, listening and language development. And just this summer, Frontiers in Neuroscience reported on a study that found structured music lessons significantly enhance children’s cognitive abilities – including language-based reasoning, short-term memory, planning and inhibition – which leads to improved academic performance.

And yet we see too many schools in which music isn’t seen as important, let alone vital. Unlike maths, English and science, it is not a core subject in England’s education system. There isn’t even a  minimum amount of time that schools have to devote to it – merely a few vague targets for musical competence. ‘It’s just a tick-box exercise,’ according to Jimmy Rotheram, music co-ordinator at Feversham. ‘It might be just putting a CD on and writing about Beethoven’s trip to the countryside,’ he told the BBC – something that will resonate with all GSG school reviewers.

A far cry from his school, where pupils have three hours of music timetabled into their school week, with many doing eight. In younger years, children enjoy the music in a party-like atmosphere, with Rotheram playing the piano. They do things like memory games, with kids singing back short musical phrases, while older ones do more complex activities, as well as sight-reading songs – all based on the Kodaly (mentioned above) method. The BBC reported on how one hyperactive pupil at Feversham, who may also be on the autistic spectrum, can recite the alphabet while playing a simple tune on the piano – no mean feat for a child who could hardly speak English when he first attended the school.

Myleene Klass is the latest in a long line of public figures and musicians who have made headlines for condemning cuts to music tuition in school. ‘It helped me with my algebra. It helps with your interpretation and learning of different languages. You’re working as a group. It uses every single facet of what you’re taught at school. Yet it’s seen as one of the softer subjects, which is a travesty,’ the classically trained former pop start told the Guardian this summer.

Also this summer, violinist Nicola Benedetti and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, both previous winners of the BBC Young Musician Competition, spoke out about musical provision in schools depriving some children of ever realising a musical talent. Instrumental music learning is, they claim, being ‘left to decay in many British schools.’

‘Music education is now only for the white and wealthy,’ believes Charlotte C Gill. Writing in the Guardian last year, she said, ‘Music education is deteriorating around the country. ‘The Conservatives are too focused on the English baccalaureate, introduced to boost the number of students studying science and languages to care.’

Music education matters. That is not in any doubt. But as it is, it remains inaccessible to many children unless their parents take up private tuition...

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