‘For many children, the Arts are an absolute lifeline’: why music teachers are supporting Keir Starmer’s proposed changes to the curriculum

Children learning music


On Wednesday, 22nd of May, Rishi Sunak called a General Election, to take place on the 4th of July.
And while the next month will see Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer - as well, of course, as politicians from other political parties - go head to head on a variety of matters as they attempt to win voters, for creatives, a spotlight will be on Starmer’s promise for their skills to be “treated as a necessity, not a luxury”. 




Back in March, the politician, 61, delivered a speech at the Labour Creatives event, in which he built on his party's pledge to overhaul the current Progress 8 secondary accountability measure by adding a creative or vocational subject. 


Progress 8 - a measure which is used to measure the progress pupils make between the end of primary school and their GCSEs - is currently heavily skewed towards the English Baccalaureate, which contains no arts subjects. It was launched by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.


Starmer - who plays the flute - vowed to introduce these changes “straight away” should Labour be elected, and spoke of his own upbringing and the opportunities having a musical education brought him. 


“My first ever trip abroad was to Malta with the Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra,” he told the audience at the conference, held on the 14th of March. “And the excitement you feel, when you have an encounter with the Arts that changes your life. Everyone here will know that feeling…That sense of being drawn into something bigger than ourselves: of being truly moved by a piece of music, a painting, or a play; of losing yourself, and finding something new in that space art creates. 


“These encounters with art and culture change us forever - they certainly changed me forever.” 
Highlighting how the current Conservative government has “no plans for the Arts” and that GCSE enrolment in creative subjects is down by 47 per cent, Starmer continued, “From day one, Labour will reform the school accountability framework, to make sure arts count. We will update the ‘progress eight’ performance measure [...] And we will review the curriculum so creativity and oracy – confident speaking - is woven into everything our children learn. 

“With Labour, creative skills won’t be treated as a luxury, but as a necessity - because we know they’re essential to our economic growth and our national identity.” 


'Music is in all of us - but it is best nurtured from the start of a child's educational journey' 


The move would obviously be a huge win for music education. 

Jamie Turner, director of the SoMi Academy CIC, says, “We support reform to the EBacc system. Music and Arts degrees provide an extremely useful skill base and allow students to develop communication skills, teamwork, discipline, performance under pressure and critical reflection. These ’soft skills’ will become even more relevant as we navigate the AI revolution. We also support the notion that every child should have the opportunity to learn music, not just children whose families can afford to pay for optional lessons.


“There is an extensive body of research linking music learning to cognitive development, mathematical learning, language proficiency and memory - especially when learned from a young age. Music is in all of us - but it is best nurtured from the very start of a child's educational journey and followed progressively through their educational journey to maximise the benefits.”

‘Music is valuable for many reasons - least of which because it improves subjects valued by the state’


Music teacher Lauren Elliott agrees. 
“Starmer’s proposed changes to make creative subjects a ‘necessity’ in schools is vitally important for the well-being and cultural future of this country. For many children, these subjects are an absolute lifeline. An opportunity to express themselves, a safe space in which they can work through some of the challenges they are facing, and an opportunity for talents to grow and flourish. We are not raising a generation of robots, but one of creative, alive beings, who have so much to give - if only they have the chance. 

“Children have hugely suffered under the last government, thanks to their insistence on subjects such as maths, but music is maths: understanding rhythm, pulse, time signatures, division of the beat, intervals. All of these skills, practised again and again in music, are fundamentally mathematical concepts. The contextual understanding of history, geography, languages - all of these are a wonderful byproduct of studying music.” 
While this is certainly true, jazz musician and musical educator Tara Minton thinks that “music for music's sake should be enough”.

“I teach in an independant primary school, and the amount of pressure the 11 year olds are under in this country is unhealthy,” she worries. “For some of my students, their 30 minute music lesson is the only time where they are able to explore their inner world, their creativity in a safe, nurturing environment. I see too many stressed out, highly strung kids who believe their entire value is determined on their ability to achieve. It's heartbreaking.
“Music is valuable for many reasons, least of which because it improves subjects valued by the state. Playing music is an intellectual, physical and creative practice. Learning to play an instrument well requires daily practice, dedication to process, and patience. When we play in ensembles, we must find space for our musical voice while making space for the voices of others. Listening and responding… it is democracy in practice.”

Tara adds, “One of the most important things children learn in music lessons is that their voices and ideas are valid. Slowly, I have seen my students grant themselves permission to take up space - physically, sonically and emotionally. Music lessons give children tools to cultivate healthy ways of processing emotions and communicating their feelings and ideas.”


‘By ignoring the Arts in schools, we do a disservice to natural creatives’



And it’s not just teaching staff who would welcome the change to the curriculum. 
Eight-year-old Sofia Ratcliffe - whose father is a piano teacher, and who also loves to sing - says that music has made her a more confident person. 

“Music is a way to express your feelings or feel something which you’ve never felt before,” she says. “When I’m happy, I write a happy song; when I’m angry I write an angry song. It cheers me up sometimes - when I’m sad, singing gives me a boost.

“We have clubs after school for things like drama and drawing, but I would like to do more music in classes at school, and I think my friends would as well. Music is something I would like to continue in the future.”
Her mum, Nicole, agrees. 

“We’re very lucky - Sofia’s just at a state school, but it’s absolutely fantastic when it comes to the arts. There are a lot of schools that aren’t as privileged so we’re very lucky - the staff take the arts very seriously.

“School is tough - some people are fortunate and can fly through, but a lot of people struggle with the academia side of things, or they may have bullying going on or things in their homelife. Music, drama and dance are an escape to a world of pure imagination, to feel whatever they want, and express themselves.”

Nicole continues, “Having a bit of nous to improvise on the spot in a job interview is a skill that can be learnt through music or drama - those subjects teach you how to deal with tricky situations, so you are learning life skills. They also help to turn children into more well-rounded people. It sets them challenges: overcoming nerves while onstage, committing to rehearsal and performance schedules, and the rush they feel afterwards are all really important. 
“Sofia loves to sing and express herself - but she’s struggling in her academia. So if the curriculum doesn’t acknowledge that the arts are part of it, then it absolutely does a disservice to those people who are natural creatives.

“How does a child learn to express themself? How do they learn how to get certain feelings out, when they don’t necessarily know how to identify them? That escape to music is a place where someone can help to regulate themself, and if we’re not even giving creative children that in the first place, it can start coming out as anger, rather than channelling it in a positive way. It teaches kids emotional intelligence - music isn’t just about expression, it’s actually a form of communication.”


So with election campaigns from all parties now in full swing, it will be interesting to see if Starmer comes through with his promise to emphasise the importance of the Arts within the curriculum. Will subjects, like music, still be at the forefront of Labour’s plans, or will they once again be pushed aside if his party is successful? For the sake of children, such as Sofia, we can only hope that Starmer remembers his roots, and how he was “changed forever” by that music trip to Malta as a child.