18 January 2012

The Importance of Children's Access to Music

Last Thursday I really saw the importance of music. Most mornings here in Argentina, I help at one of the Houses run by an organisation my charity supports, called Bethel. The House where I work provides an amazing and loving home for children and adults with a range of physical and mental disabilities. A visitor came to the House with a guitar, and played and sang for the people there. The reaction was great. One teenager in a wheelchair sat nodding his head to the beat, with a big smile on his face. Another girl, who calls out random words and can get quite agitated, sat calmly, listening to the music, while another boy swung his feet to the tune. It was wonderful to see everyone enjoying it! That afternoon, I was invited to go to a school in the town of Unquillo, which my organisation, CHW, also helps. We had recently given the school a donation to buy music equipment, to be able to provide good quality music education to the pupils, and I was going to see the new equipment. This is coming at a time when back home, in the UK, cuts in the budget are planned for music education.

The Benefits of Music for Children

The effect of the music on the people at Bethel made me think of the music project of another organisation which my charity supports, in Romania, called FAST. FAST is concerned with helping Roma children and families through many different projects, one of which is their Music School. FAST states on its site that music is an integral part of the Roma people's cultural background and it is being lost due to a daily struggle against poverty. By giving the children at their projects an opportunity to learn this music and dancing, the children are able to retain a part of their cultural identity. 

Cultural music and dance: Children from a Roma school perform at the "Gala pentru Supervoluntari" in Brasov, Romania, November 2011; and children at New Life International Children's Home, which CHW works with in Ghana, doing traditional dancing along to music.

Another point FAST makes is that enduring poverty gives youth few chances to express themselves through any outlet and that "music can be an outlet for their interests, energies, and sense of cultural self-worth." Children from any background could be helped to express themselves through music. The Creativity Institute, which makes educational toys in the USA, states:

"Children of all ages express themselves through music. Even at an early age children sway, bounce, or move their hands in response to music they hear. Many preschoolers make up songs and, with no self-consciousness, sing to themselves as they play. Kids in elementary school learn to sing together as a group and possibly learn to play a musical instrument. Older children dance to the music of their favorite rock and roll bands and use music to form friendships and share feelings." (You can see the full article here)

Helienne Lindvall, who attended a music school in Sweden, describes further benefits of receiving music education in a Guardian blog post. She says that singing together created a sense of community between the students, so there was less truancy as students looked forward to school, rather than dreading it. The grades obtained at the school were usually above average for all subjects. Music has been shown to have a positive effect on numeracy and literacy skills as well as behaviour. Summaries of various studies showing this can be found on the 'KidsDevelopment' website.

In November 2011, the UK Government launched it first ever National Plan for Music Education - "The Importance of Music", following the Henley Review, released earlier in the year. The Plan's foreword says: "This National Plan is clear about the importance of music: it will ensure not just that more children have access to the greatest of art forms, but that they do better as a result in every other subject.The UK Government seems to agree with the benefits of music for children. 

The UK's National Plan for Music Education

The Plan states that music education is patchy across the country and that change is necessary to ensure all pupils have access to a high quality music education. From September 2012, new music hubs will take forward the work of local authority music services and will provide a music infrastructure which transcends schools. Hubs will build on existing music services and will consist of different organisations, such as  local orchestras, ensambles, charities and other groups, working in a local area to augment and support music education in schools, as well as offer broader opportunities to children that reach beyond their school. The Federation of Music Services has produced a toolkit for developing hubs. Hubs will be formed in two stages: firstly a lead organisation will create a framework for the hub, which is in line with the National Plan, and it will then pull parties together; secondly the partners will then become the hub. The partners should be a range of providers and stakeholders committed to delivering the local music education plan, according to the area's needs.

Despite the tough economic times, funding has been ring-fenced for music education, although it decreases each year. From April 2012 to 2015, the following amounts will be available each consecutive year: £77m; £65m; £60m. The vast majority of this will be invested in the hubs and should be supplementing local and national funding for music, from, for example, local authorities, cultural organisations, businesses and foundations. Government funding, augmented by equivalent funding from the Arts Council England, will increase for the In Harmony, Sistema England programme, inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema model. This is a community development programme which aims to use music to bring positive change to the lives of children from some of the most deprived areas of England.

Yesterday it was reported (here and here) that Labour MP, David Blunkett, claimed that the Government was undermining its pledge to provide more children with access to music education by cutting funding "coupled with the near demolition of the role of local government in music education" and that this will reverse the equality of treatment already achieved. He is quoted as saying:

"It would be at least honest if the Government were to come clean and admit that those substantial cutbacks will undermine the life chances of youngsters, not merely in accessing the wonderful creative opportunity and use of talent but also the spin-off effect of music teaching of attainment in other key subject areas."

Jonathan Savage, who has written extensively on music education, wrote of his concerns about the statements in the Plan that the music education hubs cannot be funded solely by government money. This could create an unequal playing field, as some possible leaders of music hubs may have a greater potential to fundraise than others, and this may then become a influential factor in selecting hub leaders. As well as this, hubs in more affluent areas will most likely find it easier to secure funding than those in poorer areas, which goes against the Plan's stated aim for equality.

Classical Music blogger, Tom Service, wrote about the Plan the day it was launched and said that that even though the funding for music education predictably decreased each year, the fact that money was ring-fenced for this made music unique amongst the other school subjects. This meant that the Government accepted the necessity of dedicating money to music education, having taken on board the suggestions of the Henley Review. Service said that he thought the Plan seemed quite good overall, but of course, the important thing is to see what happens next. (You can see his post here.) There is added uncertainty due to the National Curriculum Review currently being undertaken, and so it is left to be seen how this may impact music education in the UK.

A Right to Music?

Children attending the music project run by FAST, in Romania

The child's right to play, leisure and recreation is set out in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Every country in the world, apart from Somalia and the USA, have agreed to be be bound by the Convention, which sets out children's rights. A simplified version of the Convention was made for children, and it refers to music directly when summarising Article 31, stating: "You have the right to play and relax by doing things like sport, music and drama." This can be found here, on the website for Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People. 

Although music is not directly referred to in the full text of Article 31 itself, States Parties must recognise the right of children to engage in age-appropriate recreational activities and to be able to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. States Parties must also encourage the provision of equal opportunities for children to participate in cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity. The UK's National Plan seems to be attempting to provide equal opportunities, as set out in Article 31, with regards to providing music education, as it aims to address the 'patchy' provision of music education across England.

In the UK, there has been a statutory entitlement to music education for children aged five to fourteen since the Education Reform Act 1988 came in to force.The UK's Plan states:

"Most children will have their first experience of music at school. It is important that  music education of high quality is available to as many of them as possible: it must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition. While music touches the lives of all young people, the disadvantaged can benefit most."

It is recognised how beneficial music can be for the most disadvantaged in society.  Organisations, like FAST in Romania, are doing great work when they reach out to children living in extreme poverty. (FAST is not just concerned with music - it has a general education project, helps build homes for families, and much, much more.) A lot of Roma children across Europe do not attend school. Many states, around the world, struggle with providing a primary education for all children, although making primary education free and compulsory for all is an obligation under Article 28 of the Convention. Where this is the case, it is unlikely the governments will give much (if any) priority to music education. 

Feeling the Beat!

Drumming at New Life International Children's Home in Ghana

The enjoyment of simply having music in their Home was evident from the people's reaction at Bethel, as they heard the beat. Music and music education offer a lot of benefits to children. I am glad that CHW could help children at the school in Unquillo have access to a better music education. The immense benefit of music education is recognised in the UK's Plan for Music Education, and now we must wait and see how effectively it is carried out. I really hope it will be successful in moving towards equal access to music education for children across England. I believe that projects, such as FAST's, are very much worth supporting, as music can enhance children's skills in various areas, be a way they can express themselves, provide a link to the culture and give them a sense of self-worth. I will leave you with a quote from Jim Henson, the television producer and puppeteer, who created the Sesame Street characters and puppets, loved by children around the world:

“Music is an essential part of everything we do. Like puppetry, music has an abstract quality which speaks to a worldwide audience in a wonderful way that nourishes the soul.”

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