Music & architecture in british schools

On Tuesday I met Fiona Insley, a trained musician who teaches singing, ukulele and drumming twice a week at St. John’s. Her class-based work is complimented by four peripatetic teachers, who hold individual lessons at the school with talented pupils. As shown in James Rhodes’ recent two-part Channel 4 documentary ‘Don’t Stop the Music’, this is a pretty good set-up compared to many state primary schools in Britain, which have tiny budgets for musical education and poorly trained teachers with little or no background in music.

Whilst this is a problem that existed before the current coalition government came into power in 2010, it’s been exacerbated by funding cuts and curriculum reform. The government’s 2011 policy paper ‘The Importance of Music: a national plan for music education’ clearly states the value of both learning about music and playing instruments – not only in terms of nurturing talent and contributing to the UK’s creative economy, but also because of the the proven positive impact music has on children’s academic performance in other subjects, as well as social benefits. The document outlines a new system of ‘music education hubs’, regional centres being funded by the Arts Council on behalf of the Department for Education, that aim to bring together schools, community groups and professional arts organisations to help insure access to high quality opportunities for playing and performing. Despite the fanfare, many have dismissed the scheme as political re-branding that hasn’t improved the existing infrastructure, and note that funding will have dropped from £82.5 m in 2011 to £58m by 2015. Although St. John’s may be well-served in terms of teaching, the school lacks a dedicated music room, and Fiona has to move around depending on the timetable. When I visited last week for example, she began the class in the gym (which also doubles up as the dining hall), only to be asked to move half-way through by the PE teacher, who was concerned it was too cold outside for her sports class. The other space available is a classroom, which has to be rearranged at the beginning and end of each music class, to enable her pupils to stand in the round and perform together. This space is right next to four other classrooms, meaning the inevitable acoustic disturbance during her classes is problematic.

In the first year of taking office as the Secretary of State for Education, Conservative MP Michael Gove notoriously announced  ‘we won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school; we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.’  This statement was made in reference to the termination of the ‘Building Schools for the Future’ scheme, somewhat ironically given that Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ only school building in the UK was built outside of the BSF program (as Rogers pointed out in an indignant letter to Gove). Launched by Tony Blair’s Labour government as a public/private partnership in 2005, the program was beset by problems of mis-management and over-spending at the start. However, lessons had been learnt, and in recent years the program had generated some very successful buildings including dRMM’s Kingsdale School (2008), Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy, (which won the Stirling Prize in 2011), and AHMM’s Dagenham Park Church of England School (one of the last schools to be completed under the scheme in 2012). Rather than asking talented architects to work imaginatively with tighter budgets, the Coalition scrapped the BSF and introduced the short-sighted and uninspired ‘Priority Building School Program’ in its place, headed by the CEO of ‘big box’ retail chain Dixons. The program stipulates architectural standardisation and buildings which are 40% cheaper, 15% smaller, with no curves, no rooftop playgrounds, bare ceilings, no glazed walls, no expensive cladding, and no translucent plastic – a particularly unintelligent requirement given ETFE can be a very cost-effective option. This announcement was, as the Labour politician Ed Balls commented, ‘a black day for our schools’.

In parallel to this infrastructural policy, Gove swiftly introduced reforms to the curriculum, placing an emphasis on teaching facts rather than skills. For some, this was seen as a long-overdue reversal of the trend for experience-based learning within education, which can be traced back to Rousseau in the 18th Century, and John Dewey in the 20th. Certain of the educational potential of direct interaction with the world, Dewey wrote in 1916: ‘if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind’. Gove and his supporters, on the other hand, have been strongly influenced by the American professor E. D. Hirsch, who published the best selling book ‘Cultural Literacy’ in 1987. Based on his own experience teaching in American high schools, Hirsch had noticed that while some children arrived at school with a broad understanding of history and literature, many of less affluent children (who came from homes where these subjects weren’t discussed as part of everyday life) were so under-informed that it was very difficult for them to engage with what was being taught. Realising that knowledge was power, and eager to close the social gulf between many Americans, he proposed a fact-based curriculum which ensured every child left school equipped with the shared intellectual currency of society.

It’s a powerful concept, and one that few on either side of the political spectrum would disagree with. However, the way in which it is being implemented by the current government – less coursework, more exams, restrictive curriculum and an emphasis on core subjects rather than humanities – is concerning. It has been described by the Cambridge University Professor Robin Alexander as ‘neo-Victorian’, and by the journalist Ruth Wishart as akin to ‘ordering a stock of biros in the age of the laptop’. In Scotland, a new ‘Curriculum of Excellence’ has recently been introduced, which aims to help children develop as confident individuals (leading to responsible citizens) rather than successful learners. The curriculum is designed to impart knowledge in creative ways, and equip children with the collaborative, imaginative, lateral thinking that contemporary employers are looking for.

In musical education in particular, the lack of direct experience playing or composing in the English education system, has been highlighted as a concern by OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills). In a report from 2012, they found that ‘too much music teaching continued to be dominated by spoken or written word, rather than musical sounds’; in one class,14 year olds were copying out information about the life of composers, without listening to any of their music. They also found that ‘the use of music technology was inadequate or non-existent in three fifths of the primary schools and over a third of the secondary schools inspected.’ When I visited Fiona, she was using a projector to display the words of the song she was teaching – and the homework was available for the kids to download from the school website – but said she was missing out on great online resources, as she doesn’t always have internet access during classes. Making sure there’s space to accommodate digital equipment is one of the criteria for the new space; now that I’ve had a chance to see how the classes are held, know the capacity and storage requirements, it’s time to start designing…