Struggling against the tide of austerity cuts, music education in Wales is fighting to keep its head above water, but a new raft of measures is offering some respite, says Karen Stretch.
There was more than a touch of irony when members at the recent Welsh Assembly Culture Committee meeting were asked to donate unwanted flutes, cornets and violas to the summer instrument amnesty.
‘Perhaps we should have our own orchestra here?’ joked UKIP Wales leader Neil Hamilton. Indeed, committee chairman Plaid Cymru’s Bethan Jenkins said her much-loved viola was going nowhere, Welsh Conservative Suzy Davies mentioned her long-forgotten guitar and Welsh Education Secretary Kirsty Williams pleaded for those present to bring ‘whatever you’ve got lurking’ into the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in July, for a network of fixers to repair and refresh the instruments ready to be redistributed amongst needy schools across the principality.
Of course, the very fact that these representatives of Welsh society even own such dust-covered instruments is the legacy of their own musical upbringing in a country renowned for its harpists, male voice choirs and dedication to music above all other art forms.
‘I went through every possible avenue,’ recalls Bethan Jenkins. ‘That included the Local Authority’s two orchestras because I straddled two areas of education. I played violin and piano initially (my mother was a piano teacher) and then swapped to viola when I was 17 and was in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales for three years with Owain Arwel Hughes as the conductor.’
It is Arwel Hughes who has vocalised the growing discontent with the current status of music services in Wales. The renowned conductor and founder of the Welsh Proms told members of the Welsh Assembly’s Funding for and Access to Music Education evidence session back in January that music in Wales was teetering on a cliff edge.
‘We are supposed to be a musical nation, but something is radically wrong,’ he said. ‘We are at a crisis point. No question at all. Schools don’t have instruments, so that in itself is a crisis. Playing is going down, singing is going down, choirs everywhere are going down. That’s a crisis, in my language.’
The committee has heard evidence over a total of 12 evidence sessions over the last six months from different musical sectors including county council providers, the Welsh Musicians’ Union, Ensemble Cymru and Cardiff Music School. All of these have reinforced the importance of music teaching and learning and the desperate need for staff support and funding solutions to not just paper over the cracks, but breathe new life into the harmonic soul of Wales.
Emma Archer, chair of the Welsh Authorities Music Education Association (CAGAC) which promotes Local Authority music education in Wales, has seen the musical scenery of Wales shift drastically in recent years, especially when compared to services across the borders in Scotland and England. ‘The immediate problem for us is kids not being able to afford lessons and it is becoming quite elitist,’ she says. ‘The longer-term picture is slightly more dramatic because it is saying: ‘Where will artists be in the fabric of education if they are not even starting the journey?’ We’re pushing and trying to get the Welsh government to step in with proportional funding for Wales to match what comes through Arts Council England to English schools, but how realistic that is, I don’t know.’
In Wales, over the last five to eight years, local authorities budgets have been slashed and they have had no choice but to pass on savings to music services. Because these services are non-statutory, they have been seen as a really easy target and with no music education plan in Wales as there is in England or Scotland budgets have been squeezed almost to death. ‘We are still within the education department of the LA and yet schools are not really being challenged or have to be accountable for what they are delivering,’ explains Archer. ‘There is no clear remit in terms of specifically music that isn’t linked into the curriculum that they have to hit.’
Speaking later at the Culture Committee evidence session, Archer voiced her concerns about the charges imposed on young musicians wanting to join regional ensembles. ‘If we could get to a point where our regional ensembles were all free of charge again, then that would have the added benefit to the children then going on to have places in the national ensembles,’ she said. ‘Because they wouldn’t be having to find money for both.’
It is a topic Jenkins is also passionate about. ‘I’m worried that people are not able to even get to rehearsals in their own area,’ she says. ‘My sister is 17 and plays the cello and has to pay every Friday night for her orchestra rehearsal and some people have stopped because of that. I’ve got a really good friend who helps with these things and that’s voluntary.’
There is some light on the horizon, however. Back in 2015, the Task and Finish Group on Music Services in Wales published 15 recommendations based on the future role of local authority music services. These included setting up a national database of musical instruments so that schools and local authorities could identify gaps in provision and share instruments across borders; developing a national endowment fund to ensure mid to long term investment in music services; funding new instruments across Wales; and holding an instrument amnesty, allowing unwanted instruments to be repaired and redistributed for use in schools and orchestras.
Spearheading these schemes, Kirsty Williams feels that big steps are being made in the right direction. ‘What’s been important to me has been to identify the positive steps Welsh Government can take… and being able to ensure that we have that progression of children who take part in musical activities in school, develop a passion, a talent for it, and how that can be developed further,’ she told the latest evidence meeting of the Culture Committee.
‘You’ll be aware that we have, firstly, made £220,000 available for the purchase of instruments. That’s £10,000 for each local authority. We’ve also made £280,000 available for the national ensembles. So, that is recompensing the local authorities for their spend in the last financial year, on the condition that they will continue to support this financial year.’
Still, despite the seemingly large sums, many still claim this is just a drop in the ocean. A good harp, for example, can cost £10,000 alone, and many authorities have older instruments that need repair to ever be put back into circulation again.
The National Endowment for Music fund, announced in February and currently in the process of being created, may provide one source of financial support. Kick-started with a £1 million contribution to Arts Council Wales, it is hoped that both public and private sector bodies will step up to contribute to the fund with the aim that it will begin to support young musicians by 2020.
‘We are in the early stages of the endowment. The board has been created they are looking at structures, roles, remits… It will be run by a charity, in a sense, and it will be completely divorced from the Government,’ explains Williams.
This is not all. Discussions are still underway regarding the establishment of a national database for instruments, as detailed in one of the recommendations in the Task and Finish report, enabling instruments to be tracked and shared where there is a need. The project has received a cautious welcome from representatives as yet it is unclear where the funding for such an operation will come from after Williams said the cost could be taken on by already stretched councils. ‘We’ve used a bit of a carrot-and-stick approach here,’ she told committee members, ‘We’ve given local authorities money for the instruments on the condition that they will go on to develop that database so those instruments can be widely shared.’
A new school curriculum post-2020 is also being proposed, with pioneer schools investigating and consulting on possibilities for more cross-curricular music being available. There’s also a charity being set up to take forward the county music ensembles by fundraising although, like the endowment fund, this is still in the design stage with concerns already being raised about both funds chasing the same pots of money.
As Jenkins says: ‘The problem we’ve got in Wales is that we haven’t got this cohort of rich philanthropists as they have in England and Ireland in relation to music. Everybody seems to be asking the same people.’
Perhaps, though, the tide is starting to turn. Music education in Wales clearly has its challenges ahead, but the conversation is on the table and being heard at last.
‘We can’t have the situation where reports are written and the work is done and nothing changes,’ muses Jenkins. ‘People have said that it is a crisis and if Owain Arwel Hughes is saying it, and he is at the top of his game, then we really need to listen.’
About the author
After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.
Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.
Header photo: Cardiff County and Vale of Glamorgan Music Service Foundation Band © Tom Griffin