Music education: In conversation with Andrew Webster

Andrew Webster is Headteacher at Park View School, and he has ensured music is valued at the heart of the school. Here, he speaks with Dr Craig Robertson, Nordoff Robbins Head of Research, about the current state of music education.

Andrew Webster is Headteacher at Park View School, and as a musician and a former Head of Music, he has ensured music is valued at the heart of the school. Here, he speaks with Dr Craig Robertson, Nordoff Robbins Head of Research, about the current state of music education.

Craig: How do you think that music affects the overall working of the school, in terms of benefits to kids, and why do you believe it’s important to keep it?

As a headteacher, I think it’s an advantage for me having a music background, because I understand what music does for you as an individual, and I think in terms of how it supports so many different ways of working and processing, and the ability to apply knowledge and skills within school and then throughout life.

I think music is undervalued, it’s misunderstood in schools now. And you know, music lessons when they’re taught well, the kids enjoy it. Even the kids who aren’t that into music, because it’s not just about the music – when you’re doing really good group work, really good team work, and the experience you get from performance, and the thrill of standing in front of your peers and showing something which is not from a whiteboard, that you have produced, and then taking criticism and applause for that, that’s a great thing.

I think we are doing a disservice to young people from a poverty background if we don’t expose them to music. Because it’s an alien thing for them, yet another hurdle that they have to jump over to access the same opportunities as people who’ve had that exposure throughout their early life, because their parents value it. And if we don’t do that in school, it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen ever.

I think the ability to work with other people as musicians to create something, is a skill you can learn and take into any industry. I could sit down with you, we could start with nothing, and we could create something, it’s an amazing thing. And it’s incredible actually when you look at successful individuals, how many of them have played an instrument at some point, because of all the skills it teaches.

Craig: I’m from a music background, but I don’t actually do a whole lot of music anymore, but it’s influenced how I do everything.

Andy: And that’s it, it’s already done its work. Because of the years and thousands of hours that you’ve put into it, those synapses, they’ve been built. So that skill, you know, the team work and the ability to problem solve quickly and the ability to decode quickly it’s already there, it’s done! But it took thousands of hours over many years to make that happen.

Subjects like music, where you have to apply, and work, and fail, and learn to fail, that’s a skill that kids aren’t learning, and they can’t handle it. I think it teaches resilience, it teaches so many skills. The impact scientifically on your brain that studying music has, that being exposed to music has.

Craig: What do you think the current approach is to music and music education in schools?

Andy: I think where schools don’t understand the importance of music, it’s being devalued more and more because it is an expensive subject to run in your school. Regardless of whether or not you can afford to offer instrumental lessons, which you hope they can, even just equipping music classrooms is really expensive, and at a time where budgets are so stretched in schools. And over time, music has been devalued in schools as a curriculum subject, because of the way the performance tables have shifted and the impact of the EBacc.

This disadvantages kids, because they’re not picking up the skills that you learn as a musician. Things like practicing, the ability to practice, to focus on something for more than 15 seconds, that you can’t do, and apply and apply and apply, that is a skill which you can take into any profession, schools don’t understand that.

I think school leaders in general don’t understand what being exposed to music can bring to you. And if you look at where the UK is really brilliant, it’s in the creative areas – I mean, it’s billions and billions of pounds worth of industry – and I think we’re setting ourselves up for a perfect storm there, where later on we’re suddenly going to realise, oh we haven’t got any people to fill this industry.

Craig: Are you coming under pressure to cut music in your school?

Andy: I’m not, I’m lucky, because my governors would be upset with me – and that’s one of the things that attracted me to my school, because of how important the arts were to the school. That was one of the big things where I thought, yeah that’s a place I’d like to work. But I think more and more heads are having to be prepared to make those types of decisions, especially in the big multi-academy chains, because they have their way of teaching and their way of delivering.

Craig: What changes do you believe need to be made to make music more accessible for young people?

Andy: I think music needs to be recognised as important as the core subjects, and it needs to be seen as an important subject. It needs to be properly funded. School leaders should be trained in the importance of not just music but of the arts, and how that can impact – especially in deprived areas – and leaders need to understand how that can help, because I think many of them don’t, because they don’t have a music background.

I think the government and Ofsted, valuing music, is going to make a difference. I think the government acknowledging how important the creative industries are to the UK economy and realising, ‘This is something that we as a country do really well, maybe we need to invest in that’ would make a huge difference. It’s true though, isn’t it? We’re good at this as a country, we’re recognised internationally for this.

And it’s not just in the school, you want kids experiencing this outside of school – some of the best times of my life were in music service courses, and residentials, and for many kids that’s the only opportunity they’ll get to be away from home and doing other things, so fund it. Invest in that. Put the money in the youth services, in the music services, give them this stuff to do and then your crime will fall, your social disharmony will fall. People will develop skills which then make them employable, your unemployment will fall, it’s a no brainer.

Andrew Webster is contributing to the Nordoff Robbins Music Education and Prevention: Seminar Event on 13 January at Derby University. Find out more and book your free place here.