Hitting the Right Note: Inquiry Into Funding For and Access to Music Education

An interview with Bethan Sayed AM, Chair of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee.

Introduce yourself briefly explain the remit of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee.

My name is Bethan Sayed, and I chair the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications committee in the National Assembly for Wales.

Bethan Sayed AM, speaking at the report launch event.
Bethan Sayed AM, Chair of the Committee, speaking at the report launch event.

We scrutinise government ministers in relation to their portfolio. For example, we’ve recently done an investigation into radio in Wales. We’ve looked at the Welsh language and we’ve also looked at the historical environment as well as non-public funding of the Arts.

It’s been good to be able to have a remit that includes communications so that we can look at the broadcasting landscape of Wales and scrutinise that effectively also.

The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications committee has just launched its report on its inquiry into funding for and access to music education in Wales. The topic of this inquiry was chosen through quite an innovative and slightly unusual way.  Could you explain the background and what led the Committee to look at this particular issue?

After being on committees for quite some time that, of course Assembly Members have their own ideas and bring ideas for future work to the table, which is valid but it could obviously be based on our own pet subjects.

I thought it would be interesting to go to the public to ask them exactly what type of investigation they would like us to look into what the population wanted us to focus on, and what were the key priority areas.

We did a public poll and it came out that people wanted us to look at music in education the music tuition that people receive in schools and in our communities and how that can be improved and developed.

It was really good to launch this public poll because then people could engage with a committee in a very different way. So I was happy that our committee was the first to try this and perhaps we could do it again to come up with other ideas for the future.

 What were the key themes that the inquiry covered?

They were very keen for us to look at music services in schools. We were seeing, constituents coming to our offices saying that there were problems with the funding of this sector. We were seeing that music services by local authorities were being cut.

So we wanted to get to grips with what was important and come up with solutions to see how we could aid the sector.

We didn’t look at the curriculum, because music education in relation to the provision of tutoring was very different to that. That’s something that we could look at in future. But that’s not what we focused on this time.

During the inquiry the Committee heard from a wide range of witnesses and due to your own experiences as a musician this topic must be very close to your heart – Was there anything that came up through the course of the inquiry that was a particular surprise?

 When we went to Ysgol Pengam, we found that they were doing very structured work in the rock and pop field, and they were competing in competitions in England, but they weren’t able to do that in Wales and there was no ensemble. There’s an ensemble for the orchestra, here in Wales but no rock and pop ensembles.

Maya Morris performing at the event
Maya Morris from Lewis School Pengam performing at the event

So I guess what did surprise me, perhaps because I’ve come from the more classical side, is that there was such an enthusiasm to set up this ensemble so that people who wanted to go into the rock industry or the pop industry could do that through their school structures.

So that was quite enlightening, but also pleasing to see, because orchestras and ensembles is not always going to suit everybody You don’t necessarily have to be able to read music to take part in those types of activities, so it would open up a new avenue.

In relation to funding streams, that didn’t surprise me, because my sister is 18 and she’s attended orchestras, and I know from my interest in this issue that this downward trend of the provision of services was not new.

The report says that music services must be protected, nurtured and accessible to all.  The Committee also states that it welcomes the Welsh Government’s Commitment to put creative activity on an equal basis to other areas of learning and experience.  Why is music education so important? What are the benefits?

I think a lot of schools get it in relation to music because they understand that it’s a transferable skill – it’s working as a team, it’s discipline, it’s allowing people to be creative and allowing their wellbeing aims to be met. But some schools, unless the head teacher really understands the value of music, then it might not permeate throughout the school.

As somebody who’s played the piano, viola and violin from an early age, I think it has to be seen as something that isn’t niche, that isn’t exclusive, that is accessible – because it can aid you in so many different ways in life.

For example, an orchestra course would allow me to become independent. It would allow me to make new friends. You’ve got to learn to listen to others and to be able to be respectful of others, and so is not all to do with the music that’s on the paper – it’s about how you want to progress as an individual.

People who go into music at a young age can take their skills elsewhere and you will meet doctors, you’ll meet scientists, you’ll meet politicians who have used music in ways in which they can be quite focused on what they want to do in life.

I think we need to encourage more schools to understand that it’s not just this fluffy thing about listening or playing music for an hour a day, it’s about how that can be seen as a core part of the curriculum in every shape and form. I hope that through this report that we can convince people that we can grow and develop music in our schools.

With all those potential benefits it must have been troubling for the Committee to hear some witnesses characterising the position of music in Welsh education as in ‘crisis’.  In July 2015, the Welsh Government commissioned a report into music services in Wales – What has been the Committee’s conclusion about the progress made in the 3 years since the publication of that report – is the Welsh Government doing enough to prevent this ‘crisis’ from developing?

It was very troubling to hear people such as Owain Arwel Hughes, a renowned conductor, Tim Rhys-Evans, who conducts Only Men Allowed, say these things, because I don’t believe that they would use the word ‘crisis’ lightly.

The Committee received evidence from Tim Rhys-Evans, founder and director of Only Men Allowed
The Committee received evidence from Tim Rhys-Evans, founder and director of Only Men Allowed

It troubles me that Wales is associated with music and song, and they were saying we may not be the land of song anymore if we allow this, music services are being cut, and may even disappear in parts of Wales. In fact, we’ve seen with the national ensembles, less people have been auditioning for them this year so there is that worry.

Also with regard to the report that was commissioned, , I feel that once certain ministers had left – that it wasn’t a priority for some local authorities. I think that’s why we’ve said so clearly in the report that there needs to be a national guidance and national strategy, because you cannot simply rely on local authorities.

I think some people, to be fair, said ‘well perhaps that’s going a bit too far, we don’t want to scaremonger’. But again, sometimes using those types of phrases can actually say ‘well now is the time to make sure that we don’t get to the point where those services don’t exist anymore’. I hope that our support has allowed for that discussion to happen at the right time before more music services are cut or disappear altogether.

The report itself covers 16 recommendations but what’s the most important issue to take from the findings?

Well, we wanted to come up with solutions because, it’s been close to my heart for many, many years.  Perhaps there’s a lack of coming together in the past of people from different walks of life in the music service to say, ‘well actually, how can we make this happen and how can we improve on this?’

I welcomed the Welsh Government investment in relation to the endowment fund, in relation to the music amnesty and in relation to putting music on the political agenda again. But without structural change, things are not going to improve. So the most important recommendation for us has been to say that we need to establish a national arm’s length body for music services in Wales.  We simply cannot rely anymore on individual local authorities deciding whether they prioritise it or not. We would need to make sure that it was properly funded, and that there would be a regional element to its delivery on a ground level.

At the moment you’re seeing the national ensembles work in a different type of landscape to the work that’s happening on the ground in our communities. It’s called ‘the pyramid’, so you would have the school orchestras, then you would have the community orchestras, then you would have the national ensembles. If you had one national body – they would be identifying young people to come through the system, and that’s what we’re not seeing at the moment.

There was discussion about whether it could be done in a different way, but I think ultimately we came to the conclusion – especially as we were calling for a national music strategy – that one national body to deal with this particular element of the educational workforce would be integral to its future. I think as a committee we want it to be forward looking, we wanted to put a recommendation out there that would challenge people’s minds and that they would look outside the box somewhat to current funding and current structures.

We wouldn’t want to let any of those particular areas get left behind as well. We didn’t want to be too prescriptive but we wanted to put our marker down and say ‘this has to be a national system now’.

To download Hitting the Right Note: Inquiry Into Funding For and Access to Music Education, click here.

For the latest updates from the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee, follow @SeneddCWLC on Twitter.

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