The prospect of East Sussex Music (ESM) ending its instrumental teaching provision in the county’s schools by reason of a proposed withdrawal of funding by the Council (ESCC) has stimulated a furious campaign of opposition. A petition for these proposals to be reversed had attracted nearly 12,000 signatories by last Friday, and a Trades Council Mayday parade in Eastbourne was joined, along with local Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd, by parents and children promoting their cause with musical accompaniment. A full council debate has been scheduled for hearing on 10 July.

The issue then is likely to be concentrated not on how much money should be made available overall – everyone understands that the Council has a legal duty to balance its books. Rather, there are serious questions to be addressed about how a £650,000 grant from the Department of Education (DoE) could and should be allocated. Will any viable music education be left within the public sector if the current progression through individual and small group learning is abandoned? Are there not alternative choices for savings?

Under the 2011 National Plan for Music Education, schools are directed to ensure that every child aged 5-18 has the opportunity to learn a musical instrument through whole-class ensemble teaching programmes for at least a term, and ideally a year, of weekly tuition on the same instrument; to perform with that instrument individually or in ensembles from an early stage; and to have a “clear progression route” which is available and affordable to all.

Under the current proposals the initial whole-class stage will be retained,though in practice with very little choice of instrument beyond recorders or percussion. Hitherto ESM has been able to offer progression by applying a proportion of the DoE grant towards subsidy of lessons paid for by parents at a rate generally discounted below the private market rate and with generous remissions for low income families. But it also allocates funding to other organisations that come within its umbrella, including Glyndebourne Opera House, which is represented on its board and received several thousand pounds last year out of the same grant despite making a £1.2 million surplus, according to Jane Humberstone, workplace representative for the National Education Union as well as the ESM Curriculum Development Manager.

This may fulfil ESM’s extended role under the National Plan to “provide access to large scale and/or high quality music experiences for pupils, working with professional musicians and/or venues.” But from a populist perspective it looks like a preference to serve the interests of a professional elite at the expense of participatory musical education.

Ms Humberstone says that the DoE grant constitutes 25% of ESM’s income; 73% is received from parents and services sold to schools; the projected overspend which ESCC needs to cover is a mere 1.7% . Furthermore ESM holds £77,000 as a reserve fund – “not income from ESCC but reserves left from a grant given to us about four years ago. ESCC has not itself given any money to ESM for over a year”.

She is sure that East Sussex contributes a higher proportion of musicians to the profession than many other counties. “This is because the music service, acclaimed as one of the best in the country, has provided instrumental lessons for children for over 80 years. Children from families on a low income, children who for some reason or other had a difficult start in life but for whom music was the key to helping them overcome their difficulties”.

MP Stephen Lloyd has confirmed on Facebook that he has written to the council leader urging him to consult fully with the teaching staff at ESM. “Many of them have contacted me confidentially (there’s quite a lot of fear out there of the threat of reprisals by senior management) to say that, if the powers-that-be were to ask them how to keep the service and still make the necessary adjustments to the budget, they know how it can be done. So I repeat my request to the Conservative ruling group at the Council: listen to your staff, listen to your local residents and – most of all – listen to the quiet voices of the thousands of children, the tens of thousands over the years, who acquired their passion for music, and their musical skills, through the fantastic work done by ESM.”

PITCURE: Gabrielle Lake Mitchell

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