The recent fiery campaign by parents, students and supporters of the City of Edinburgh Music School (CoEMS) to save the school from closure by Edinburgh City Council brought it to the forefront of debate in Scotland.
Front page headlines in the Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening News, comment pieces and articles in The Times and The Herald, news items on the BBC and STV and a veritable Twitter storm of comment … it was hard to miss.
International voices like Ewen Bremner and Nicola Benedetti spoke out strongly against the proposed budget cuts, and the First Minister, in response to a question at FMQ, remarked that she was sure that the Council would be reflecting very carefully on the valuable role that centres of national excellence like CoEMS play in allowing young people the opportunity to receive expert tuition in their music specialism.
On one level, the proposal (to save £363,000) was a financial nonsense: it emerged very quickly that the funding for the Music School originated from the Scottish Government, who made it clear that they thought this money should remain specifically for CoEMS, and not for a general music service (across four sites as the council suggested). Moreover, it also emerged that the grant the Government was allocating to the school exceeded the actual amount spent by the Council on the school, so its withdrawal by the Government would have resulted in a net budget loss to the Council rather than a gain.
The intended purpose of the money seems to have been overlooked by the Council officers responsible for the proposal; more worryingly, the apparent thought process by which this proposal was due to be slipped, unobtrusively, into the budget, gives a deeply concerning insight into the prevailing understanding of education and its purpose in the country – and one worth unpicking.
Unpicking the libretto
The plan to close the music school was disguised as a single line item in a list of over 50 proposals presented to the Council’s Finance and Resources Committee; described – in terms that are at best economical with the truth – as the ‘Creation of a Citywide Equity and Excellence Music Service’, it was a soothing soundbite with resonances of social justice that would have been sufficient to pass the test of high-level scrutiny by most Councillors, had they not begun to understand what lay behind it. In reality, the proposal hid an intensely worrying subliminal ideology that is potentially more damaging to the prospects of Scotland’s young people today than almost anything else they might encounter: namely, a deep-rooted distrust of individual aspiration and striving for distinction.
CoEMS is already a shining example of equity and excellence in action. It was founded in 1980 on firmly-held beliefs in both values, in response to the 1976 Cameron report, which recommended provision of specialist facilities for gifted pupils in association with comprehensive schools, “To ensure that they are given appropriate encouragement, skilled tuition and more time within the school day for tuition and practice.” The Music School is open to all, regardless of family income, and has launched the musical careers – the livelihoods – of young musicians in Scotland, as well as, therefore, having a major impact on the creative arts in the country: former students include Martyn Bennett, Tommy Smith, Gavin Read, Lisa Kerr, Morgan Szymanski, Maeve Gilchrist, Anna McLuckie, Ben Duncan, Rachel Newton and Helen Grime, to name but a few. Pupils come from far and wide, often relocating in order to attend the school; they almost always come from schools within the state sector, and from across the demographic spread of Scotland’s households. They have only one thing in common – musical potential – and the school is proud of its meritocratic approach to entry.
All four of this year’s S6 students have earned a place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which is ranked in the top three performing arts institutions in the world, and is the top-ranked Higher Education Institution in Scotland for graduate employability. CoEMS is enormously successful – and entry is purely based on merit, not ability to pay for private lessons, which is the route that many students are forced to take in order to pursue their musical development.
What the school is not, however, is a school for just anyone. Musical potential is an absolute prerequisite for acceptance into the school – the potential not just to scratch out a few notes on the violin, or enjoy the latest K-Pop album, each of which has its own value, but is not a sign that music is central to a young person’s life. Musical potential in CoEMS language is the potential to live, breathe, and make a difference in the world through music. The rigorous programmes of the School stretch and challenge children and young people to become more than they ever believe they can in the musical world, and they help them become truly themselves.
An education system which does not admire and enable such excellence and equity in action is, quite frankly, not worth its salt in today’s world, where the unique and the individual are in utmost demand, not to mention their concomitant creativity and innovation. And that is the hidden danger in the system, where mediocrity for all is preferred to investing in individual excellence – in every sphere of human activity, including music. The battle to save CoEMS has laid this bare; now we need to fight to rid ourselves of it altogether.