Burnt Mill Academy Trust

Still Making Time For Music

Are SLTs really being forced drop non-EBacc subjects from the timetable in order to satisfy accountability measures? Not necessarily, as Kelly Clark has been discovering...

Joyce Frankland Academy, in Newport, hit the headlines recently when it took the radical decision to replace traditional music lessons with six drop-down days per year for Year 7 and 8. The move saved the school the £35,000 it would have spent replacing a music teacher who left for pastures new. Headteacher Gordon Farquhar was quick to dispel fears music had been “dropped”, however; spelling out his intention to cover the whole music curriculum in this innovative way, bringing in guest musicians to teach as well as visiting music studios, theatres and concert halls. The school is not alone in having to take a long hard look at non-core subjects to establish where they fit into today’s challenging curriculum, and adopting alternative methods to keep them covered.

Music teacher My-hanh Doan, of Beaumont School, St Albans, says EBacc and Progress 8 have pushed music down the list of priorities for the government and, therefore, schools. “Schools are desperate to maintain or improve standards and it is understandable some will set rules in terms of options to encourage students to take higher priority subjects, or those in a better Progress 8 bucket,” she says. “This also means schools will give less money to these subjects and hence there’s a negative domino effect. I am very fortunate to have an extremely supportive SLT who see music as a valid subject. People often give you the value of music in terms of what it does for other aspects of learning, but music is important simply because it is music. The study and performance of sounds is unique and is a discipline unmatched by any other subject.”

Continued investment

Despite the pressure and fear spreading among schools, many heads are adamant music must remain a priority, with some continuing to invest in the faculty. While the Burnt Mill Academy Trust, with secondary and primary schools in Essex, has for years given students free music tuition, the changes in school funding is making this increasingly difficult to sustain. CEO Helena Mills says: “As a Trust, we have always had a focus on getting all children to play an instrument because of the skills it gives young people; the ability to be a team player, resilience, confidence and the positive impact music has on wellbeing. We subsidise this provision and use Pupil Premium funding for disadvantaged students, but that is becoming increasingly challenging.”

When a popular local music venue closed earlier this year, one of the Trust’s schools, Burnt Mill Academy, stepped in to provide a home for some of the events it used to host. “There is a view for it to be used by the wider community, but also be accessible for students to improve on the work they have been doing in music and performing arts,” says Adam Smith, Trust media officer. “For more than ten years, the school held or participated in music events at the venue, giving students the opportunity to work and perform in a professional setting where the likes of Blur and Coldplay played in their infancy. Playing there also meant using equipment not available at school which they used for their GCSE music coursework. Since the venue closed, the Trust has invested in the professional sound and lighting equipment to offer students the same experience.”

At Clacton County High School, in Essex, a “significant” investment has been made into music resources and infrastructure recently, with a suite of 30 iMacs equipping students with industry standard equipment to boost their chances in securing careers in the competitive sector. Principal Neil Gallagher says it’s all about providing a curriculum with a healthy balance. “We recognise the importance of the arts within the curriculum and will continue to offer a full range of courses to our students. When specialist status was in place, we were a designated arts college and have always valued the impact the arts have on our students. The removal of specialist school status has not changed our commitment to the arts. Ultimately, students will have to make choices about what subjects they wish to continue to study from Key Stage 3 into Key Stage 4 and I image smaller schools, in particular, are having to make very difficult choices about which courses are viable and which are not. The days of running courses with only a handful of students are behind us with the budget cuts. Working in collaboration to provide a real curriculum breadth is arguably the only sensible way forward.”

No excuses

As far as Mark Lehain, principal of Bedford Free School, is concerned, there are no excuses for dropping music and it’s simply about priorities. “I don’t accept a squeeze on music is inevitable given Progress 8 or EBacc,” he says. “There has always been an emphasis on these core subjects and I would question why any head wouldn’t want every child who could manage it to study them. But there is plenty of time left within a school’s timetable for students to study a full range of subjects at GCSE, including music. Time has always been finite, it is just a matter of priorities. When I’ve spoken with colleagues at schools where they felt the arts were being squeezed, it’s often turned out students are being given discrete lessons in irrelevant stuff. So, there is time, it’s just schools have decided other things are more important. I respect a school’s right to do this – it’s what heads are paid to decide – but we mustn’t pretend it isn’t a choice, because it is.” To ensure high numbers choosing music, Mark’s school increased the quality and amount of music students had in Year 7, 8 and 9, with two lessons per week instead of one, and all students learn an instrument from scratch. They removed discrete lessons for PSHE, which is now delivered in other ways and even reduced the amount of time given to design technology in Key Stage 3. As a result, 20% of students pick music at KS4. Mark, who is part of the Parents and Teachers for Excellence campaign for a knowledge-rich curriculum, says: “Just as students need to know the outline of the humanities to understand how we got to where we are today, they need to understand music and the wider arts to appreciate the influence they’ve had on mankind, as well as their beauty and spiritual / emotional value in their own right. You can enjoy Beyonce at face value, but you can really appreciate her when you realise she’s building on Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks and Tina Turner. You can dig Led Zeppelin and the Stones on their own, but they’re even more powerful when you know a bit about the blues artists they lovingly ripped off.”


Originally published in Teach Secondary Magazine 18/08/2017