school music

Learning Culture

James MacConnachie – 16th September 2022

Recently, in an attempt to keep myself busy during my university’s incredibly long summer holiday, I took a trip up to the University of St. Andrews, to visit a friend of mine from school during their Fresher’s Week. The town was jam-packed with new (largely American) arrivals, and come the evening we couldn’t even find standing room in any of St Andrews’ three million pubs. Having been forced to return to his flat, we ended up chatting about our shared school experience, and laughed about how little we felt we’d learnt in primary school – ‘what was it even for’? And while it seemed funny to me at the time, I’ve since realised that this mutual assessment of a crucial stage in a child’s education deserves some investigation.

Now, of course it’s not true that you learn absolutely nothing in primary school. The education system, delivered by fantastic teachers, ensures that children graduating to secondary school are literate and numerate, can express opinions and ask questions, and have some experience of science, language, social study and art in a broad sense. Sounds great. However, the problem with this self-styled ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ is its delivery. Education Scotland do not actually supply a set curriculum – rather, a list of vaguely-worded ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ that children should have obtained by various stages in their primary school career. 

While this skill-based learning can work for ‘STEM subjects’, it leads to predictable (and avoidable) headaches when teaching arts and humanities, like literature, history and music. For instance, the Experiences and Outcomes expected for students by the end of Primary 7 in ‘Social Studies’ include an ability to: use primary and secondary sources; compare and contrast societies; and explain why historical figures are important. Here, teachers are expected not only to devise lesson plans, but to first figure out what teaching materials to use (none are supplied), and even to select the period of history themselves. With such lack of direction, it’s little wonder that most teachers are looking to companies such as Twinkl, which produces digital and physical classroom materials on specific areas of Scottish and World history, as well as all of Education Scotland’s other vague ‘curriculum areas’, for teachers prepared to pay. Thus, the privatisation of the curriculum itself.

Again, don’t get me wrong: the focus on teaching important life skills in primary school, rather than dry facts, is admirable. But the total abolition of setlists – works of art, periods of history, schools of philosophy and so forth, that are mandatory learning for all – means that children go through their entire school careers without having ever been exposed to arts and ideas that built the societies and cultures of today. And don’t rely on national qualifications to fill these knowledge gaps either: all the National 5 English exam requires of you is in-depth knowledge of just one or two ‘Scottish texts’, making it incredibly easy to leave school having never read Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell or MacDiarmid. And most schools don’t make any other ‘humanities’ subject mandatory, meaning that many students never learn history, philosophy and music in any unified and rigorous way.

Should the government want to re-nationalise the national curriculum, and ensure a level of shared cultural knowledge for all Scots, it would have a number of ways to go about it. The current education policy landscape comprises: a Cabinet Secretary; two supporting ministers; two executive agencies that maintain and deliver the Curriculum for Excellence (Education Scotland and the SQA); and the ‘Curriculum and Assessment Board’, a steering group made up of even more arms-length executive agencies. While this system is somewhat confusing, these executive agencies could easily liaise with an advisory board to draw up lists of mandatory reading, listening and watching. Alternatively, teachers themselves could be given more say in the matter. Education Scotland’s board could be required to include a number of actual practicing teachers; or a new permanent advisory committee made up solely of teaching professionals could be set up, and their involvement in decisions on education policy made mandatory. However they choose to go about it, the government and its agencies must now ensure that every child leaves school with a basic knowledge of arts, events and ideas that have built our modern world. Then all of Scotland will be able to participate in intelligent cultural conversation – provided we all share a foundation in the ‘crucial literature’.

But if only everything was as easy as reading a book! There is in fact another barrier on the path to a well-rounded primary education. Because, while students can begin on an equal footing in almost every other subject, learning a musical instrument doesn’t come naturally. It requires years of active learning, practice and dedication – and one-on-one instrumental lessons remain the only way to provide adequate support to child learners. But unless a system of state-funded lessons exists, the cost of private lessons becomes prohibitively expensive for many parents, and this source of great joy – and amazing transferrable skills – becomes a privilege reserved for those who can pay. As a university music student, I’ve seen how this plays out: a self-fulfilling prophesy, where privately-educated children from privileged backgrounds have an enormous advantage over state-school applicants, ensuring that music is always one of the least diverse subjects at every university. And that’s if the state-school student hasn’t already been put off applying by parents and teachers repeatedly telling them that a degree in music isn’t ‘worth anything’.

The arguments in favour of instrumental lessons for all – even perhaps compulsory ones – are strong. Those who are lucky enough to have received an extensive musical training will readily inform you of all the transferrable skills they have acquired in the process: dedication from years of sometimes infuriatingly slow development; organisation from balancing music lessons and ensemble practice with other commitments; teamwork from years of orchestras and ensembles; confidence in public from countless nerve-racking performances; and growth mindset from all those embarrassing mid-concert mistakes. Furthermore, there’s a wealth of research pointing to connections between musical training and aptitude for STEM subjects – I found this myself at school, and am still amazed by the fact that in my university’s best jazz band, engineers outnumber music students by four to one. Yet, whenever cuts are made to school budgets, instrumental lesson provision is first to go.

In this context, I welcome the Scottish Government’s repeated attempts to provide free instrumental lessons across the country, last year through an agreement with COSLA, the association of Scottish councils, and this year as a direct £12m investment. However, it is still the responsibility of local authorities to deliver the scheme, meaning that instrument and lesson provision varies markedly between council areas and even individual schools. Many local authority websites make mention of waiting lists for teachers and instrument loans, and some usually popular instruments aren’t even included in the scheme – Renfrewshire and Moray Councils don’t teach piano, and the latter doesn’t offer guitar or bagpipes either. The resulting postcode lottery is clearly far from ideal. If the principle of free instrumental lessons were important enough to the government, they’d make provision consistent across the board, as they are with their scheme to provide every child in Scotland with a free laptop. This would either require investment in local music lesson infrastructure – ensuring there were enough teachers of different instruments in every local authority – or would require the scheme to be administered by the national government itself.

Whatever the method, ensuring maximum provision of instrumental music lessons across the country can only give children more transferrable skills, more opportunities for social interaction in ensembles, and ultimately gift them a source of immense enjoyment. Couple this with a ground level of mandatory cultural education and appreciation, and perhaps one day we will finally be able to look back on our primary school years with pride.

2 thoughts on “Learning Culture”

  1. Jacqueline Noltingk

    Hello, James
    One thing you’ve missed out, and that is the value of singing. We’ve got NYCoS and the RSNO Junior Chorus (and I’m sure other bodies) which are doing a fantastic job in teaching children and young people to sing and giving them the experience of performing with professional musicians. Those taking part learn (among other skills) to sing in tune and listen to those around them, but they don’t need expensive equipment. The process does, though, require committed and knowledgeable teachers.

  2. Kenny McGhee

    Also the fantastic work delivered by Sistema Scotlands Big Noise programmes in various communities across Scotland. Delivering not just excellent musical tuition but engaging, empowering and transforming families and and communities. These opportunities should be part of the fabric and available to every school and community in Scotland

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