The disparity between music education in State and Private schools.
Updated: Aug 20, 2020
I have been teaching piano privately for around 4 years. During these years I have taught children from both low and high income backgrounds. Some of the children I have taught have gone to state schools and some have gone to private schools. Through teaching and talking to my students and their parents, I have seen a vast contrast in the way music is taught in schools in Britain.
The first difference I noticed between the two types of school is the type of cultural references, and awareness of Classical and Pop music. Usually after finishing a book or a grade, I will treat my students to learn a piece of their choice. There is a stark contrast between what children at state and private schools ask to learn. Children from state schools might request 'Wings' by Little Mix or 'Castle on the hill' by Ed Sheeran; children from Private schools are more likely to request 'The hall of the mountain King' by Grieg or Pachelbel's 'Canon in D'. Of course there are exceptions, but these exceptions are few and far between.
Privately educated children already tend to have famous composers as a reference point. But state educated children often need to be introduced to those same composers. I don't mind doing this at all (it is actually quite pleasurable!) but the fact is that if I have an hour with a state educated child, and an hour with a privately educated child, the latter will be further ahead. This means they can spend more time developing in other areas, as opposed to spending time being introduced to famous composers
Orchestra or Pop Band?
There is also a gulf in the quantity and quality of extracurricular musical activities at the two types of schools. This starts at primary school. When teaching privately educated pupils, I often find that I am either supplementing one-on-one piano lessons at school, or that they are also learning another instrument. Others are partaking in their school orchestra or choir. Now I know there are some state schools that have choirs, but there is a vast difference between how private and state primary school choirs are conducted. Private school choirs are taught breathing techniques, classical music pieces and solfège (although, shockingly, I recently met a university music professor who didn’t know what solfège was!). State school pupils, on the other hand, are given Pop pieces to perform for their parents.
The difference at high school level is just as bleak. From year 7, privately educated high school students learn how to compose in different styles and about key signatures. Meanwhile, state educated year 7s are left to mess around with their friends and are expected to create pieces, often without any prior musical knowledge. That is laughable.
In light of this, it is no wonder that classical music can be viewed as elitist. It is not. It is just not properly taught at state schools.
There are of course Music scholarships for universities. But whilst these are designed to help children from lower income families, they are often given to middle class children, whose parents have strategically saved money on private education. This does not seem like a fair system.
How can you be a doctor if you can’t play piano?
What makes this worse, is that this disparity continues to affect children after they leave high school. It doesn't matter if you want to study dentistry or psychology - if you have a grade in music, it is easier to compete for university places. Every parent who's aware of this, and can afford lessons, will push their child to complete grades in music, regardless of aptitude or interest. How does this make sense?
It is clear to me that privately educated children are taught a great deal better than their contemporaries in state schools, both musically and otherwise. The contrast is so vast it saddens me to think about. There are so many children who do not enjoy these privileges, and who might feel they can never catch up. The way music is taught makes a huge difference, not just for a child's prospects in music, but in any form of further education. That’s crazy but true!
I hope that this gap narrows one day, and that more children from underprivileged backgrounds get the opportunity to learn music.
Naomi Leila Xx