Growing Pains; how a brilliant primary school programme becomes a victim of success

So Michael Gove is sending his daughter to a Westminster comprehensive. As a measure of how small inner London is, in distances if not population, it’s the school attended by the older sister of a child in my son’s class. I assumed some other girls from our class would eventually go there (the school is girls-only). But since last Friday I’ve been thinking, good as that school is, it may not be considered good enough for most of them.

Our school is a bog-standard inner-city community primary, in terms of intake (30% free-school-meals, 50% English-as-second-language, 80% non-white-British), and curriculum (largely imposed) and resources (stretched). All of which is enough to make it exceptional historically, and, like a beloved child, irreplaceable those of us committed to it. But there is one way in which it is exceptional by any standards: its intensive music programme. Every single child takes violin class for half an hour, three times a week, every week, from age five. One of those lessons falls out of school time, another is taken with just one other child. Violins, music, everything is provided free of charge, and, oh yes, for three years, it’s as compulsory as learning to read and write. After that the same programme becomes optional and costs something like £3 a week.

It’s only been running for six years, so the first year to benefit has now reached year 6. Like all year 6 children, they’ve just received their secondary school offers. And guess what – no less than four (out of 30) have full music scholarships to well-known private schools. A fifth child has an arts scholarship.

“How fantastic!” exclaimed the mother of the child in Michael Gove’s chosen school when I told her this stunning news.

Fantastic or not, a parent governor told me that at last week’s governor’s meeting she’d had to defend the music programme for all she was worth.

“But I thought everyone loved it!” I said. “I had no idea it was controversial.” But then I put two and two together. “Of course, it doesn’t benefit everyone.”

“Some of the other governors,” the parent governor said, “think it diverts too many resources.  And (our head teacher) agrees.”

“But I thought she was really keen!”

“Yes, but she’s listening to them. She is concerned about equality. The violin drop-out rate is too high.”

My child’s year, now 2, is, it’s been suggested, an especially musical one. Even so, I can’t see any child from the lowest of the three music streams, and even some in the middle stream, carrying on with the violin for a week longer than they have to. And guess what, the top stream is increasingly made up of children doing well in every area, while those in the bottom stream are almost exactly the same children in the bottom reading and maths sets. This isn’t completely uniform, and several of the brightest kids are just middling violinists (as yet) while some middling-academic children are up with the best musicians . . . but there are absolutely no completely non-academic kids in our year’s top violin set.

Not that any of them are exceptional, at this stage. It’s just that some come from homes where practice is taken seriously and some do not. Some come from homes with at least moderately musical parents; my own child is one of two with a piano in the living room; one of three, I believe, whose parents can sort-of read music. No prizes for guessing where our children end up. And which children, in four years’ time, will have the best chance of those scholarships.

So it’s not so odd, after all, that the Head has mixed feelings; in fact I share them. Not about the outstanding music programme, about which I among many parents can hardly believe my luck; but about how it’s slowly, inevitably, going to affect our unassuming little school. It’s just another one of those examples; wherever you go, whatever you do to help the most deprived, it ends up benefitting the already-relatively privileged most, rubbing our hands together as we do at our own good fortune. And all that does is exacerbate inequality, especially when financially- exclusive private schools are involved. I’m fairly sure the wonderful music charity which initiated this scheme, choosing our school for its non-denominational, mixed ethnic, high-deprivation-area intake, didn’t foresee it as a means of distributing private-school tickets. I’m sure they didn’t sell it that way to our head.

And now year 5 private tutoring has started in earnest, I hear, in some families’ hope of their child being one of the chosen ones next year, although until recently most were probably perfectly content with the prospect of the local comprehensives (pretty good, according to OFSTED).

Soon, the many local parents who would normally take prep-school for granted, will be sharp-elbowing their kids in, looking to save themselves a few thousand on both prep-school fees and music lessons, and a fair chance of a cheap ticket to Eton later on.

In which case – saddest of all – the programme won’t last long. It or our head teacher and the whole quality of our school will have to go. As it is, it’s a constant financial struggle to maintain, but without idealism behind it, the effort won’t be considered worthwhile. If its principle goes, then so will everything else, and then our bog-standard inner-city primary really will be back to where it started.









About marytuda

An accidental first time mum in her fifties reflects on all things maternal from position of perpetual outsider and prolonged state of shock. An urban odessy through parenthood plus from one who thought she'd never go there.
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4 Responses to Growing Pains; how a brilliant primary school programme becomes a victim of success

  1. It sounds like a wonderful programme – but it also sounds, as you suggest, as though it has its limitations. I’ve never been a fan of ‘imposing’ an instrument on children – all instruments are different, and suit different personalities! The commitment to practice is another extremely important point. I’d be interested to know if the school has held sessions on parents’ evenings to teach parents exactly what kind of practice their children should be doing. There is a very similar programme in the feeder primaries for my secondary school, but, exactly as you have found, many give up because there is a lack of support at home.

    • marytuda says:

      Thanks for your comment, I can see from your profile are an expert on the subject, which is terrific.
      Our school’s music programme is great, a truly one-off, and possibly too good to be sustainable in the long run, that’s my big fear, unless it is accompanied by a lot of thinking and necessary adaptation.
      First up would be more, regular, communication with parents, I would say. Parents are encouraged to attend two out of the three lessons our child has every week, but in practice, some parents never do, while others, like me, are virtually always at the after-school session and some of the in-school ones as well. But then, I don’t have other children, nor do I have a “proper” job. Nor am I facing a myriad other possible challenges ranging from cultural and language barriers, housing or immigration-status insecurity and benefit cuts. For those who are, it is clearly expecting the impossible.
      Then, practice: Parents and child sign a “contract” in Year 1 promising to practise every day. In practice – ha! – the child has no idea what he’s signing, and the difficulty of inducing a tired 5 year old to pick the thing up and play (once the novelty has worn off), along with reading-book, homework, and (recently) daily maths practice is a triumph of diplomacy to which I suspect few parents aspire. In fact I know of many (not necessarily at our school) who despair of ever getting their children to do music practice. But, as another very motivated parent said to me last week; “don’t (other parents) see, it’s the same as reading-book and homework! It IS homework, not an optional extra!”
      On this point I would say the school has been ambivalent. Yes all the children have to go to violin class, and practise. But how we prioritise the different Homeworks is left up to us, with few guidelines, and no lessons in child-diplomacy.
      I can only really speak for myself here, but the mind-bogglingly inventive range of pressure points, personal demonstrations and games of consequences I’ve applied over the past year and a half to get this 5-6 year old to practise regularly deserves a galaxy of gold stars and special mentions in morning assembly – for me! And that’s with a child who, though very young for his school year, basically loves music and has more than his share of natural aptitude for it.
      Yes I do think the programme needs to be compulsory; precisely for those families who would never “choose” it otherwise. And also for the rest of us, who don’t want our kids shunted into an inevitably white-middle-class “elite” right from the start (especially if they’re not white.) They should all have to try, and it’s got to be a good try – a couple of years, not a couple of weeks. There are in fact a range of other instrument options for them to choose in Year 4.
      But families also need to be more on board; and given how much is demanded of us already, in terms of national-curriculum back up, I’m struggling to see the best way of achieving this. I hate to be defeatist, in the face of so much idealism, but it is probably inevitable that the easily motivated families will be the ones to benefit most. And it just takes one child, perhaps, to become a competent and enthusiastic musician, who would otherwise have had no chance, to make the whole thing worthwhile. In our year we will have more than a handful of those.

  2. marytuda says:

    For a giggle on a different, but related subject, try this!

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