A new curriculum and some central funding are welcome, but it’s local action that will ensure all children benefit from music education, writes Madelaine Caplin

When I arrived at to take up the headship at my current school, I was struck by the fact that there was no music. The children struggled even to sing and music lessons were non-existent. Although not a musician myself at that stage (I went on to take up the clarinet three years ago!), I understood the huge importance of music in schools and the many benefits it brings.

Yet I also understood that making music accessible is not always easy. Instruments and tuition can be expensive. Many non-specialist teachers are daunted by the prospect of teaching it. And timetabling more creative subjects can often be an issue.

So I sought the help of our local music service, Bird College. With its expert support, we introduced music into all our classes and embedded it into the heart of our school community.

Specialist teachers came in to take whole-class lessons. We began offering subsidised tuition and group lessons to make learning instruments more affordable. We made sure music became a key part of our school curriculum. And we reached out to the wider community by setting up choirs, youth orchestras and putting on performances.

Eighty-two of our KS2 pupils now have instrumental tuition and we have two choirs with over 60 pupils participating on a weekly basis. More than 45 pupils take part in the annual Royal Festival Hall performances with children from across London and we showcase our musical work at assemblies, open events and other community performances, including at local care homes.

From a school with no music, we have gone to being rich in it

From a school with no music, we have gone to being rich in it. And it has been transformative.  So it is encouraging to see the publication of DfE’s model music curriculum and £79 million to support it.

The new guidance rightly acknowledges that music should be a genuine, timetabled part of a school’s curriculum (ideally given at least an hour’s slot each week) rather than being an ‘add-on’ or a ‘nice to have’ extra.  When we talk about ‘lost learning’, we must look beyond the gaps in English and maths. Music should not be overlooked when it comes to catch-up plans.

But the pandemic has heavily impacted on creative arts. We had to work hard to ensure our pupils could continue with their musical activities throughout the lockdown. While the DfE focused on delivering laptops to children, we also delivered keyboards to enable this vital aspect of their education to continue.

And the problem runs much deeper than that. Sadly, the financial impact of Covid is undoubtedly putting music education at risk. The reality of that became stark for us when we found out last summer that Bird College could no longer afford to run its excellent service.

Having seen first-hand the difference this provision had made to our entire school, we knew that the service had to be saved. Fortunately, we had full support from our executive team and trustees.

Our bid to take on the service was successful and we are now delighted to be heading up the re-named Bexley Music. Every member of staff from the music service has been retained and every activity has been able to continue. We are now looking at ways of further expanding the service and making music accessible to as many people as possible.

This new venture very much reflects London South East Academies Trust’s commitment to adding social value to its communities – providing opportunities above and beyond qualifications. But that commitment is not unique to us, and nor is a commitment to a broad curriculum.

The pandemic has highlighted that attending school is about so much more than academic learning. And it has also shown the importance of local problem solving.

So we are glad to see the DfE supporting music. But the true test is whether every child can be offered the same access, and that will require more than a curriculum and some ad hoc funding.

Empowering creative, local solutions like ours will be key to delivering on that promise.