The main purpose of our education system seems to be academic achievement. Although we do wish for children to do well at all subjects in the curriculum, there is undoubtedly an academic hierarchy – maths, English and science being at the top, and other languages, the humanities and the arts at the bottom. So primarily, success in education is judged by how well one does in the top-end subjects.
In the UK we are currently placing a large emphasis on exam results; we make schools compete against one another and publish league tables. In the schools that are deemed to be failing, emphasis is always put on getting children to do well in English and maths, with all other subjects being regarded as less important. To me this is a big issue. Not only does it remove the chances (in some cases) of children from poor backgrounds getting a properly well-rounded education – I argued in my first piece that this is what exam based education does anyway – but if all the emphasis falls on these two subjects, then the likelihood of this happening increases.
So where do music and sport come into this? Well, I think that if you wish for children to succeed academically in English and maths – but also in science and all the other subjects as well – you must make sure that they are able and greatly encouraged to regularly participate in sport and music. Over two thousand years ago, Plato noted in his great work The Republic, that for someone to live a fulfilled life they must partake in gymnastics, music and philosophy. I believe his point is still relevant today – we cannot isolate academic success from these two very important disciplines.
In the private school sector these provisions are a given; children are able to pursue a wide range of extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, this is not true for state schools. Whilst regular sport is mandatory up to the age of sixteen, it is in many cases vastly underfunded and music is even further behind: while music lessons are attended by all students up to fourteen, there is no requirement to learn an instrument.
Furthermore, these activities are becoming increasingly seen as an added extra for schools that achieve good exam results, and not important in their own right, independent of academic success. This is where I think we have a huge issue, in that experience in these disciplines is extremely important, and can in many cases go hand-in-hand with academic success.
Speaking from experience, I never really achieved particularly well academically until I took up sport and music. Now I know that this personal experience is not solid proof of anything, but this is not just a one-off experience of my own. Indeed, there has been evidence given that has shown that participation in sport and learning a musical instrument can be linked to academic success.
An example of music improving education in this country is the ‘In Harmony’ scheme. Inspired by the El Sistema scheme in Venezuela, local orchestras are used to teach children in schools how to play orchestral instruments and also forming youth orchestras. This scheme has seen rises in attendance at the schools that take part and also a massive rise in results – so why is it that funding for music in schools is not being protected by the government? It seems obvious that participation improves results, but we fail to see any innovative action taken.
I also believe mass participation in sport would improve results. In many schools (including the one I attended) there are poor facilities, and the only sports that are particularly encouraged are athletics and football. In most cases the funding is just not there to provide the opportunity for children to be able to learn a sport from a wide range of options. This is a serious issue, not just for academic achievement, but for the health of our nation as well: there is a vast difference between four hours of non-committal sport a week and a child committing to, and becoming passionate about, a sport. The skills that one gains from this are invaluable: focus, self-discipline, self-confidence and plenty more I could mention. Instead of taking a short-sighted view and attempting to improve English and maths results by cutting off a great deal of access to other areas of the curriculum, we should be investing in sport and music; the skills that not only improve results, but also equip students with skills that will be important for later life as well.