Does music education have a future in England? Dr Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason Jump to main content

Does music education have a future in England? Dr Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason

Author and lecturer Dr Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason delivered this speech during the 'Does music education have a future in England?' panel session at the ISM Trust's Where to next for music education? conference in November 2021.

I come at this issue as a parent, and as someone for whom music education has always been vital. When I think about this issue, I have three points of reference in my mind. One is my own schooldays and experience of music education at a state comprehensive in South Wales. The second is my older five children (of seven) and their progress through a state comprehensive in Nottingham. And the third is my youngest two- there are three years between the fifth and the sixth child- and their rather different experiences at the same state school- now a state academy school.

As a child, I would have loved the opportunity to study music further. I played the piano to Grade 7, but lacked in-depth teaching and any introduction to wider repertoire beyond the grade exams. I longed to play the violin but the primary school didn’t have one so I had to play the clarinet instead.

But, I had free one-to-one clarinet lessons with a specialist clarinet teacher in school every week. From primary through to secondary, I was in the school band, the large school orchestra, the school choir, involved in playing for all the school musicals and had mandatory music lessons as part of the curriculum where we studied notation and classical music. This was in a poor, working-class area, dominated by the Llanwern steelworks and in what was deemed a ‘rough’ comprehensive school that had recently been the local secondary modern.

Music education was deemed a necessary and central part of the curriculum and the creative and performing arts were an unquestioned part of everyone’s school life. It was the same (or actually far more developed with extra initiatives and funding) for my husband, Stuart, as a child under the jurisdiction of the Inner London Education Authority. This was the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s.

Roll on to 2001 when my eldest was five years old. By then we were in the state school system in Nottingham and, as parents who were brought up with free music education, we were looking for the same for our children. By now, you had to look for the right school, with the head teacher who valued music and wanted it to be available for all. We searched and found the primary school. It wasn’t difficult. Very close to us, central in the city and very diverse. The secondary school, a state city comprehensive we again sought out. Not every headteacher cared about music and it was becoming evident that schools could choose to sideline the subject. What made the school stand out was its sense of order, community, mutual respect, academic and sporting achievement and excellence in music. It was designated a performing arts school and was rated outstanding by Ofsted.

The children were able to go into school, play music in a context where it was expected and encouraged, and thrive.

Then, in 2016, there was the multi-academy takeover. The headteacher was removed, a hostile business head put in their place, a swathe of music teachers sacked, the cello teacher pointedly removed, and many teachers of all subjects, sympathetic to music and the performing arts resigned. What happened, within the space of one year is Ofsted rating the school down to ‘good’ after many years, the atmosphere in the school becoming more aggressive among the children, and the sense of wellbeing, nurturing and possibility diminishing.

So what happened over those years from the 1980s to recently, is the acceptance and expectation that music is for everyone, to school choice and then to the rapid removal of choice. I see the issue as a matter of funding priorities, of course, but also of ideology. The government has been very deliberately whittling away at the music to both dumb it down, make it less academic and less central, and then brand it as unnecessary. Two things need to happen and not just within music education. If we don’t reinstate our societal respect and understanding for creative intelligence across all subjects, the ability to think, analyse, express and communicate, the majority of our children will not have access to music. We all know why that matters- I know I’m preaching to the converted- but there is a policy direction that calls for challenge and it’s being dressed up as pure financial constraint.

So, to summarise, I would isolate four points:

  1. The culture fear: The idea that classical music, and advanced instrument learning should only be for certain groups of privileged children. That offering excellence in music is somehow insensitive to Black and working-class children for whom the music is not ‘within’ their culture
  2. Music has to be centrally mandated, part of the National Curriculum and not a headteacher choice. Which means, of course, it needs to be a core subject and properly supported.
  3. The relationship between professional musicians and schools should be enhanced. Music teachers - including instrumental teachers- should be given the chance to teach music effectively. Scrap whole class instrumental teaching. It’s a nonsense and ticks a box while achieving nothing.
  4. My children navigated the system, firstly by having parents who were offered music education themselves as children, understood its value and learned not to accept exclusion; secondly, by having schools that offered and welcomed music as part of their whole school culture, and thirdly, by having parents who were prepared to undergo a huge amount of financial sacrifice to pay for private music lessons.

Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason lives in Nottingham and is a former lecturer in English at The University of Birmingham. She has recently published her memoir, House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons for which, in November 2021, she won the Royal Philharmonic Society's Storytelling Award. They described it as ‘a fresh, moving account of raising children and nurturing their creativity. It captures what’s sincerely human in classical music-making.’ Kadiatu has seven children, all of whom are classical musicians and the family has been the subject of several documentaries. Kadiatu is on the Board of Trustees for ESTA String Teachers Association, The Nottingham Education Trust, Real Talk TV, and Music Masters, and she is continuing to write and gives talks, interviews and lectures around the U.K. on diversity in classical music, music education, issues of race and inclusion, literature and parenting.