Following revelations of elitism in music education, Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Professor Jeffrey Sharkey, says it’s time to put the arts back in the heart of primary and secondary schools.

Securing a top ten placing in a highly-respected academic ranking would normally be cause for celebration for the Principal of a higher education institution. Less so, when your institution (The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) makes the headlines as one of the most ‘elite’ specialist institutions in the country, accepting fewer than 90% of new students from state schools in 2016/17 (AP, 9 Feb 2018).

Yet, revelations that top performing art institutions can be as hard – if not harder – to get into than Oxford and Cambridge should come as no surprise at all to those of us working in the specialist arts HE sector. At a time when, across the UK, fewer local authorities than ever offer free music tuition in schools it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that instrumental progression becomes the exclusive domain of families who can afford to pay for it.

However, it is not just access to music learning and teaching that is at risk but access to any arts education at all. A recent Guardian survey found one in ten teachers claimed art, music or drama had been dropped from their schools due to funding cuts. Nine percent of those responding reported that their schools had already scrapped art, music or drama, with a fifth claiming that one or more of these subjects had been given reduced timetable space. These worrying indicators come hard on the heels of Department for Education statistics, which showed that the percentage of pupils taking at least one arts subject decreased from 49.6% in 2015 to 47.9% in 2016.

Different parts of the UK, of course, will have a variance in statistics and differing stories to tell. The big picture, however, is not one of increased investment or improved focus on the importance of music, or indeed arts generally, within the primary or secondary curricula and no sign of change in that any time soon.

Against this challenging environment, the fact that Scotland’s national conservatoire takes 84% of its students from state schools is not an insignificant achievement, albeit one which we work constantly to enhance and improve. Here at RCS tackling inequality and promoting fair access is fundamental to and embedded throughout our mission. We lead the Scottish HE sector with our widening access programmes, which enable and empower the nation’s most disadvantaged young people to access higher education. They are multi-award-winning and, more importantly, effective at transforming the lives and opportunities of young people who have potential. It is to the great credit of our funders – the Scottish Funding Council – that this work is recognised as important and is supported.

Yet, such interventions, essential as they are, will only ever deliver successes at the margin. The fundamental challenge remains of who can access the UK’s world-class HE arts provision and the answer remains, I’m afraid, blindingly obvious and stark: deny or constrain access to arts education in state schools and state school pupils may simply not make the grade. This really is a matter of deepest regret, not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

As we edge towards an era when robots and machines will increasingly be able to deliver all things, bar emotional intelligence, the creative thinkers and doers will be required increasingly to re-define, create and deliver social and economic purpose. In this changing world, it is in no one’s interest for access to arts education to be elitist in any sense. Yet, opening the doors of the arts and music schools requires first putting the arts firmly back in the heart of primary and secondary schools, and back in individual lives, where they can enrich beyond measure and where, without question, they belong.

Professor Jeffrey Sharkey
Principal, The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

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