Here’s a question as old as time: why do we teach creative subjects in schools? Why are children singing and dancing when they could be adding sums and swilling test tubes? Especially now, as the world dusts off the ashes of coronavirus. Many would argue that we need plumbers and health professionals, not violinists and poets. But we’ve spoken to one teacher who wants you to know that creative subjects could be of more benefit to the rebuild than you might think.
Jimmy Rotheram teaches music at Feversham Primary School in Bradford. When he arrived at the school, academic results were low, and so was the mood. But he was hired to lead a new music programme. Music teaching hours were drastically increased for each student. And as Jimmy explains, this led to a radical turnaround. “We went from being one of the worst schools in Bradford to one of the top 1% of schools nationally for pupil progress. Our SATS results went through the roof, and we won awards.” And the reason for this transformation is surprisingly simple.
Some have questioned the link between increased music hours and academic achievement. But Jimmy says the more time they spent on English and maths, “the WORSE our results got. Children weren’t enjoying coming to school, had no sense of belonging there.” Music brought that joy back to the classroom and gave students and staff a welcome shot of self-esteem. And with a fresh sense of enthusiasm, they were better placed to tackle the rest of the curriculum.
What other benefits does music education have for children? Read more here.
Jimmy leading the children of Feversham Primary in a creative workshop
Despite Feversham’s success story, creative subjects like music continue to fall behind in schools. According to a report by the Education Policy Institute, GCSE entries for creative subjects have fallen since 2013. And Jimmy feels that only offering music “on a carousel” doesn’t help. “When you add up the hours of music education for the average child, it’s often paltry.” He also blames a lack of quality provision in primary schools and difficulties accessing music for poorer children. And in the post-COVID era, the situation appears to have darkened.
In January 2020, the art museum group, Tate, warned against a focus on EBacc (academic) subjects. They claimed that a lack of investment in creative subjects was putting the future of the arts at risk. By March, the coronavirus pandemic had swept the globe, slamming the school doors shut. In the aftermath, EBacc subjects have taken even greater priority as teachers scramble to fill the gaps left by multiple lockdowns. An OFSTED report found that “In music, many [school] leaders had made the decision to suspend singing and instrumental work for the time being.” And the Incorporated Society for Musicians found that “39 percent of secondary school teachers reported a reduction in music provision as a direct result of the pandemic”.
And government funding might follow suit. The Department of Education recently implied that the skills we need to “build back better” are grounded in EBacc subjects. But Jimmy disagrees. The entertainment industry, he says, “creates a huge amount of employment for all kinds of professional artistic roles and brings in billions to the economy. We need to ensure that the talent pipeline continues.” And creativity in itself, he adds, is something that “a number of industries are crying out for.” So, how can schools turn things around?
One of Jimmy’s creative workshops
The solution for primary schools, Jimmy says, could be to deploy the small pool of specialist music teachers more effectively. “I think the best approaches have specialist input and support, but ultimately the school staff are responsible for the musical development of all children.” And he believes this could be cost-effective as well. “I’ve seen children getting a good music education in schools in developing countries, where resources don’t even stretch as far as a classroom – they sing under a tree. It needn’t be expensive.” He feels school leaders across the board need to believe in the difference music and other creative subjects can make.
As we emerge blinking into the post-pandemic light, the need for students to rebuild social bonds, and rediscover themselves, arguably outweighs academic achievement. But the real lesson we can learn from Jimmy’s experience is that schools don’t need to choose one or the other. Creative subjects can reach into the minds of tomorrow’s chemists, doctors and artists, and relight their fire. And just like at Feversham, happier children can have the confidence to shine across all their subjects. Then perhaps those same children really will build back a better world.
Jimmy Rotheram is the music leader at Feversham Primary Academy. He is also a pianist, keynote speaker, consultant, author, advocate and writer. He sits on several advisory panels including the ABRSM, Department of Education, Music Teacher Magazine and the Benedetti Foundation. In 2017 the Guardian Newspaper published an article about how putting music and the arts at the heart of school life at Feversham led to unparalleled school improvement. The school went from being one of the worst locally to one of the top 1% of schools in England for pupil progress. This led to worldwide media coverage of his work, and visitors gracing his classroom from New Zealand to Canada. In 2018, Jimmy was shortlisted for the Varkey Foundation’s $1m Global Teacher Prize, and Jimmy continues to represent the Varkey Foundation as a Global Teaching Ambassador.