Please, Sir (Maxwell Davies)

I’ve just read the following article in the Telegraph ( which quotes Peter Maxwell Davies’ comments on contemporary musical education. It concerns me in multiple ways. It concerns me in that it causes me anxiety and it concerns me in the way that anyone who cares about the future cares about education.

Firstly I just want to clarify that this is no blanket statement about everything Peter Maxwell Davies has said in his recent comment on the state of state school music education. I’m not trying to say he is either right or wrong, but I do want to discuss a few matters with arguably a little bit of insight that he might not have. This said, I’m not claiming to be some wondrous omniscient oracle, and I’m sure PMD knows lots of things I don’t.

To give some context of where I’m coming from, because as I hope to explain, context is what it’s all about: I was lucky enough to go to a school that was at times ‘the best state school in Newcastle’. Because the school was a faith school the catchment area was massive which I loved. I knew people from every corner of the city and from all sorts of backgrounds, socially, racially, economically, religiously, everything. I don’t know how one can give a concise evaluation of a school that no one will be offended by but I feel like it is important to clarify, going to Oxford/Cambridge/Durham/LSE/KCL/similar after A-Levels puts you in a minority at my school. We were blessed, lucky and an exception. I am not saying such universities are the main measure of success but it’s just one way of illustrating it. I thought the music department was the best thing ever, but friends who had high quality musical education outside of school disagreed with me.

I am also about to start on a scheme called ‘Schools Plus’ where I’ll be assisting teaching music in a school that has only had music back on the curriculum for one year since it was dropped a decade ago. I’ll be helping with GCSE, and I’m admittedly a little put out that none of my friends have questioned the GCSE revision guide in my room! When PMD says that the standard of music teaching in schools is a digrace, that doesn’t sit comfortably. I see a range of teachers in my mind from my school, this new school i’m working at and others I’ve visited who are doing amazing things. Whether it’s writing songs specially for kids just to interest them in actually coming to registration as something to look forward to, staying every night after school to help with choirs and bands or actually starting up a musical life from scratch then I massively applaud that. Hopefully the fact I’ve seen various schools at different ends of the country means that I’m not biased, and when I think of music teachers, I do not think of disgrace. I’d love to know, genuinely, not saracastically, which schools PMD has recently visited for either a short or sustained period of time.

This is where I stand: if a child is playing electric guitar instead of violin, that is so much better than nothing. If they know what a dominant chord is or a modulation or a melodic sequence is because they’ve analysed a popular song not a symphony then again, that’s so much better than nothing. I put it in these terms because with the current educational climate, this is where we are at. Unless PMD manages to make a set number of hours compulsory for music teaching in schools and chucks a load of money at it there is no space for (damaging) value judgements when in many places it is something or nothing for music education, something I’ll save writing about for another day!

Putting this in context of other criticisms the Telegraph cite, such as children being ‘oblivious to Shakespeare or Dickens’ we see another strain of ignorance. It is not ideal that children do not know these works of literature (and music) but it is worse that they do not have access to them based on a lack of basic skills. I’m cool with someone complaining about children not having read Great Expectations if they can tell me first about the levels of illiteracy in the UK, which to my mind is a more pressing issue, and I believe it is through these lenses we must currently look at education in the UK.

I’m going to wrap it up before I get too angry but quite simply, to those who think it is wrong that in a developed country in the year 2013 we are having looking at any substance at all in education before being able to make ideological comments and changes to education you have a good point. But this is a point that you probably need to take to Mr. Gove. And to Peter Maxwell Davies, if he manages to teach a group of 30 thirteen year-olds sonata form the congratulations, maybe I’ll listen up then. I’ll listen even more closely if he manages to make them feel that it’s relevant to them, whilst the government is busy rolling out ‘welfare reforms’ which will be causing havoc in the lives of any child who by no fault of their own has (an) ill, disabled, unemployed or low-paid parent(s).

The End.


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