County proposals for school music cuts go forward despite petition backlash

East Sussex Music Service (ESMS), which provides the major proportion of music tuition across the county, is in crisis after the County Council (ESCC) voted on Monday to consult on a proposal to withdraw all funds from its instrumental teaching service. The vote for the potential closure from next year of this part of the ESMS, which teaches the playing of musical instruments to schoolchildren individually and in small groups, went ahead despite swiftly gathering opposition from teachers, administrators, parents, children and the wider public.

According to figures put forward by the Council’s Director of Children’s Services, Stuart Gallimore, there are 3,221 pupils across the county currently receiving instrumental tuition from ESMS, of whom 27.4 % (that’s nearly 900) are in Hastings and Rother. In most cases their parents already pay a substantial proportion of the hourly costs on an individual basis. However, the Service is able to provide heavily subsidised tuition where the costs would be otherwise unaffordable.

The proposals would leave in place some basic ensemble classes in primary schools and maintain existing music centres for both children and adults to play in bands and orchestra groups, sing in choirs, and attend summer schools. Sixth form music education for “advanced” players would still be available through the East Sussex Academy of Music. But how will they make that advance in future? It’s pretty hard to progress in playing the trumpet or French horn or viola, indeed any instrument, without some regular individual attention and professional feedback, and the proposed future teaching framework would not appear to cater for the transitional progression from novice to competent performer. So, within very few years, the composition of youth orchestras would inevitably become limited to pupils educated privately (music is usually brandished as a thriving activity in prospectuses promoting private schools) or those able at least to afford unsubsidised private lessons over extended periods.

From the point of view of music teachers, it is difficult to see what would be left of ESMS. Mr Gallimore has stated that instrumental teaching constitutes on average 80-90% of contracted teachers’ hours. He admits that closing this part of the service would result in the redundancy of most of the 75 teaching staff and therefore a smaller management and administrative team. Thus although the shortfall between the cost of delivery of the teaching service and income received from fees is, according to his figures, only £50,000 per annum, the overall annual savings from adopting the proposals would be “in the region of £250-300,000”. He goes on to calculate one-off redundancy costs at “circa £350,000”.

Lucy Morgan-Jones, head of ESMS, puts the proposals in the context of cuts to wider frontline Council services. Seven libraries have been closed. Consultation is currently taking place, she says, on £10m cuts to Adult Social Care and savings of £2.6m to Early Help Services for vulnerable families. Why should music be exempt from the across-the-board decimation of community provision?

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” So said nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche. A swathe of local popular opinion is with him. A petition started only on 23 April had garnered over 6,000 signatures within a week. Last Saturday BBC Symphony Orchestra principal trumpeter Alan Thomas travelled down from his midlands base to Eastbourne to lead a protest at the bandstand. “I am a product of the East Sussex Music Service”, he told the Eastbourne Herald newspaper. “I’m totally appalled at the thought the music service could be cut by the Council”. 

Among the music centres at risk is the one at St Leonards Academy. Jenny Miller of Barefoot Opera has written to Lead Councillor Bob Standley: “As a local arts practitioner I have witnessed the outstanding work of professional musicians training youngsters to AFFORDABLY study musical instruments and develop musical skills at this centre. There is a wealth of evidence that demonstrates that these young people will do better across the board academically because of this music study and will benefit in all their future studies. This is the kind of education that is increasingly becoming class divided – and only available to those who can afford it. Please do not allow the County to make this terrible mistake.”

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