- asks Ciaran O’Donnell, Head of the Music Service at Birmingham-based charity Services for Education
 
It is a question that has been posed by many – most recently in the leader column of The Guardian on the back of the recent opening of the now, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (8th September 2017).
 
As the opinion piece observes:  "Those studying music at university are vastly more likely to hail from private schools, or from abroad. 
 
“In 2016 the Royal Academy of Music, which produced Annie Lennox and Sir Simon Rattle, took in the lowest proportion of state school pupils of universities in the UK. The Royal College of Music took in the sixth-lowest. 
 
“Almost a quarter of the rest of their students come from abroad: both institutions are among the UK’s 10 universities with the highest proportion of international students," the opinion piece says.
 
So what is happening here in Europe's largest local authority, Birmingham? 
 
Birmingham has always been synonymous with manufacturing – but it is also well-known as a creative and artistic city. The CBSO, Symphony Hall and most recently the opening of Birmingham Conservatoire are all evidence of our love of music.
 
Historically, this creativity is also epitomised in the city's coat of arms. To the right stands a manufacturer with hammer and anvil; to the left, an artist with painter’s palette and holding a book. Underneath, the city's motto – Forward.
 
And I for one am looking forward - endeavouring to give as many children in the city as possible the opportunity to enjoy and learn to play music. 
 
Last year alone, the Music Service - which I'm proud to lead as part of our charity Services for Education - taught music to 38,000 children, an increase on the previous year representing 19% of Birmingham's total school population.
 
We fund tickets for every year seven child in the city to see the CBSO at one of the KS3 school concerts.
 
We provide 27,000 musical instruments free of charge to schools.
 
We offer over 70 bands and orchestras free to children who are playing music in school so as to extend their progress.
 
Leading the Music Education Hub with strategic partners in the city enables a breadth of opportunity that is entirely inclusive, in part, because we offer large chunks of opportunity for free to the city's schools. We’re running these offers on a not-for-profit basis with the support of the Arts Council but with funding which has been at standstill for the last five years.
 
We do more with less but the problem remains. As Julian Lloyd Webber, principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, says – there is a huge problem in the system now, particularly at secondary school level.
 
The English Baccalaureate (EBacc), schools funding and a focus on the STEM subjects all do their part to divert resources away from music and the arts and into these subjects where schools are 'measured' the most.
 
We are presiding over an era where most children get something, but few children can progress to the highest levels without having to pay for it. 
 
Birmingham schools are largely supportive of music in the curriculum. 
 
Eighty four per cent work with the Music Service. Ninety two per cent engage with the free Music Hub offers we curate for them. 
 
The school bands and orchestras are described as the city's 'best kept secret' – a secret that is unlocked at the sell-out week-long public concerts held each year at Symphony Hall and performed by more than 4,000 Birmingham schoolchildren. Over 10,000 parents and audience members flow through the doors in July and leave in awe simultaneously muttering “If you close your eyes you wouldn’t believe it was children performing”.
 
Participation in learning music is a win-win scenario. Our own research has revealed that three-quarters of Birmingham school children say they feel happier as a result of learning to play a musical instrument.
 
It is tragic to think that through our work schools, we are able to light the flame of music in a child, but financial pressures can quickly extinguish it. That is a situation of which none of us can feel proud.
 
To tweak a familiar saying: Are you better to have "played and stopped than never to have played at all?"
 
 
 
 

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