Posted on 17th March 2021 at 15:25
Why Children Need Arts Subjects More than Ever, and Why Teachers Need Support to Provide Them.
As children get back into the swing of school after successive UK lockdowns, one of the main concerns is that they should ‘catch up’ with their education. After a year with little connection with peers, and little structured learning, some of the most vulnerable children have suffered the most. At the same time, areas of the curriculum normally aimed at supporting those children have been hugely depleted.
The benefits of music and arts subjects for cognitive and social development, mental health and engagement are unquestionable. But while we’ve written (at length) in the past about the squeezing of arts subjects from the curriculum, a concerning picture is growing of post-COVID schools where music is simply disappearing.
Just when our children need it most, music is giving way to perceived learning gaps in English and maths, and to difficulties providing ‘safe’ learning.
Ofsted Report Raises Concerns for Arts Subjects
In September 2020 we wrote about the Bridge England Network’s report, which suggested that remote and live access to arts and cultural practitioners could enhance the curriculum, potentially representing an exciting way for children to access vocational learning. Unfortunately, the ensuing months produced a very different reality for many children.
This was highlighted by a November 2020 report from Ofsted. In her commentary, which was published alongside the reports, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman wrote of children not only failing to progress, but actively regressing. Leaders reported that some children “had forgotten some basic skills they had mastered, such as eating with a knife and fork – not to mention the loss of early progress in words and numbers”.
For older children, some had lost physical fitness, or stamina for reading and writing, while others showed mental distress including an increase in self harm and eating disorders.
In terms of curriculum, many schools were still able to teach every subject, but there were restrictions that prevented full delivery of practical activities including music. Spielman’s commentary explains: “In music, many leaders had made the decision to suspend singing and instrumental work for the time being. Other schools had introduced singing outside or were able to find alternative resources and large spaces inside to safely deliver their usual music curriculum.”
And in special schools and Alternative Provision settings, leaders were unable to use outside workshop providers, dance groups, speakers or day trips to enrich the curriculum for children.
The loss of foundation arts subjects was taken seriously in Ofsted’s report. Spielman warned against the potential impact, saying: “It’s important that these adaptations are short term and do not slide into a more corrosive, longer-term narrowing of the curriculum.”
The ISM’s Report Paints a Bleak Picture
In December 2020, a survey from the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) revealed:
• Nearly one in 10 primary and secondary schools were not teaching music at all.
• There was no singing in 38% of primary schools.
• Instrumental lessons had stopped in 23% of primary schools.
• Extracurricular music has been curtailed in 72% of UK primaries and 66% of secondary schools. Figures were even worse in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
• 53% of primary schools and 63% of secondaries that normally hold a festive end-of-term concert did not do so last December.
One primary school teacher told the ISM,
“We cannot sing, and the children are hugely disappointed when they ask to sing and we tell them no.”
“Due to staggered breaks/lunch and the need to constantly wash hands, the amount of time spent on music has been reduced.”
A secondary school teacher said:
“Honestly, it’s impossible to state how devastating this will be in the long run for music as a subject. There is no provision at all for instrumental lessons, ensemble projects, bigger inclusive performances or even classroom ensemble work. This will, of course, harm students emotionally and academically.”
The ISM’s report also shows that music teachers are having the change their day-to-day teaching:
• 86% report having to re-write schemes of work,
• 16% have no access to specialist music classrooms,
• 43% of music teachers are required to move between non-specialist classrooms, sometimes taking whole sets of classroom instruments with them,
• And some music teachers even have to teach other subjects in place of music.
Music Gets the Backing of the New Education Recovery Commissioner
Fast forward to February 2021, and Sir Kevan Collins was appointed the government’s new ‘education recovery commissioner’, or ‘catch-up Tsar’. Collins took a broad approach, acknowledging Spielman’s concerns, stating:
"I think we need to think about the extra hours, not only for learning, but for children to be together, to play, to engage in competitive sport, for music, for drama because these are critical areas which have been missed in their development."
A Spotlight on Mental Health
In early March 2021, the BBC reported a survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which found that 83% of parents support policies to promote children's wellbeing. Most of these parents believe that in-school activities like arts, creative writing and spending time outdoors will make the biggest difference.
At the same time, there have been calls for extra funding for mental health support for school children, to smooth their return to the classroom and help them catch up. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) suggests that when teachers are trained to improve emotional wellbeing, pupils make significant gains in learning. And the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank has proposed £650m of extra funding for additional school staff and in-school counselling programmes in England. The #CanDoMusic campaign is helping to publicise these issues, but more needs to be done.
Research has repeatedly shown that music benefits learning, helps children develop effective study habits and enhances mental health. It is an activity that supports social development, cognitive function and emotional welfare.
As music educators, the Music Workshop Company is saddened by the current situation. Of course, there need to be adaptations. But it’s vital that we ensure young people have access to music, so they can benefit from skills and experiences that support their ongoing wellbeing. And we need to ensure music teachers are supported in the process.
The EEF suggests that it is beneficial for teachers to be able to support pupils emotionally. This is valid, but perhaps first, we should be looking for ways to let them get on with their jobs effectively. Let’s get music teachers back to teaching the subject in which they specialise, and let the children get back to creativity, self-expression and reconnecting with their peers.
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