A is for advocacy.
Back in 2005 I was on a mission to improve the quality of school dinners. Children were being fed nutritionally poor junk food that was NOT as described on menus sent home to parents. The local authority was not holding the contractor responsible for supplying school meals to account and as a result the kids were getting substandard food. The meat was of a shamefully low quality, (the cheap reformed variety that was sprayed off the animal carcass) and there was often no fruit or vegetables on offer. As well as tasting bad the food was exceedingly unhealthy.
Some of the people who campaigned alongside me argued that we should advocate for better school dinners for children on the grounds that if the children ate healthier school dinners they would be smarter/better behaved/easier to manage. This line of arguing left me completely unmoved. Whilst all those points might be true they were not the reason I was campaigning against poor quality school meals. I wanted the council to reject poor quality school meals because it is unethical for a school to give shamefully poor quality food to kids in their care. The parents had a right to expect the local authority would ensure that the children got the school food as promised on the published menus. It seems ludicrous to only offer decent food if you can prove it has an ‘improving’ effect on the kids.
So why am I digging up old history? Well my last blogpost on primary school music provoked a discussion on ‘advocacy’. It’s a bit of a bug bear for me. There seems to be an endless stream of organisations, celebrities and politicians who wax lyrical about the ‘power’ of music education to make kids smarter/happier/better. Some of it borders on the offensive – along the lines of “think of the poor empty children who don’t know any better”, whilst the majority is very well meaning but has no impact. Don’t get me wrong – I strongly believe that EVERY child is entitled to a rich, diverse music education and that learning a musical instrument is incredibly beneficial with its impacts going far beyond just competency at technical playing skills. But frankly, who doesn’t? Seriously, is there a single Headteacher, parent or local authority that HASN’T heard the advocacy argument?
Does anyone seriously think that yet another statement from a celebrity musician or national organisation advocating better music education will change anything? Certainly the powers that be will not be moved by it.
I think that John Finney puts it brilliantly, “They are singing our tune to their words”. Read his blog here, as he explains it more effectively than me!
I think advocacy is a waste of precious resources and avoids facing the main issues. We need to hold this government to account and to tell the truth about music education. Obsession with exam results and league tables is squeezing the life out of school music. Failure to fund hubs so that they can provide free instrument hire and tuition to all children who can’t afford it will mean that orchestral instruments remain the preserve of the rich.
Our school dinner war ended in decisive victory. The old contractor was kicked out, the council committed to building a proper kitchen in every single primary school, we devised a set of minimum nutrition standards that predated the government ones and school food became good enough for adults to eat. That didn’t happen because we persuaded the council that academic standards would rise and playground behaviour would improve. That happened because enough parents and governors cared enough to take action. They collected evidence, wrote letters, demonstrated until they persuaded the council it was easier to do the right thing and improve school dinners than it was to deal with disgruntled parents and bad press. If you are interested you can read more here
So in place of advocacy how about we try some of the following:
– All music orgs demanding that ALL school teachers get decent music education seminars.
– All professional musicians who benefitted from free school music lessons/tuition to read out statements of support for school music education at any concert with a politician in the audience.
– A moratorium on any music education ‘event’ that does NOT consist of at least 75% of the participants being current active music teachers.
– Music education TeachMeets funded by national music education organisations. Cheap but extremely effective.
– “Play First” scheme that see’s musicians from publicly funded music groups twinning with state schools to support music education.
Meanwhile, I shall keep on keeping on. It’s possible to light a candle whilst still cursing the darkness.