The Dragon, the Phoenix and Julie Andrews….
Rhiannon Passmore MS
Throughout the world, Wales is rightly celebrated as a land of song. However in 2022 this reputation has been ringing as an empty bell to many in our music industry sectors but most worryingly across the Welsh music education arena. Unless we ensure that music is accessible to all, irrespective of wealth our international reputation is still under threat.
The reality today, in Wales is that children and young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are not accessing musical opportunities. Opportunities that were once available. Of all the the devolved nations — Wales IS the land of Eisteddfodau, the green grass of community music, home of historic heroic brass bands and working class community choral societies. We are home to the shuddering magnificence and cwtch, of the male voice choir and the hottest bed of performers from across the genres, popular and classical and all that is between. And that valley place, to which the great Socialist Paul Robeson gravitated when he came to sing. Historically — socially, culturally music should and must be the birth right — of all our children and young people. And access to its value, wellbeing and yes opportunity should certainly never be dependent on your family’s ability to pay.
Since elected in 2016, I have emphasised, that music contributes hugely — to who we are as a diverse people and also what we are as a nation.
And I am extremely grateful, that the Welsh Labour manifesto has now committed to creating a National Music Service.
However whilst greatly valuing the genuine cross-party support for creating such a service, we must absolutely acknowledge the terrible impact that ‘austerity’ or cuts to the Welsh Budget — has had and is having.
I argue, that being deprived of access to an educational pathway is both cultural exclusion and economic exclusion. The silent evaporation of our music teaching services is in itself a quiet dissolution. The engines of instrumental and talent skills building and practice and progression across Wales have mostly dissolved into the night. Despite the Welsh Government’s well-considered mitigation, instrumental and vocal access for students is increasingly the right of the well-off.
EU exit, the lack of UK shared prosperity community renewal funding and the consequent cut backs to Local Government have taken casualties despite WG mitigations. And as Wales continues to deal with the same funding levels as a decade earlier, escalating living costs and depressed wages many valued services have floundered or gone.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that the old model of funding Music teaching services across Wales has just broken.
But how do we mend it? WLG attempts to keep non statutory services has left real casualties and it is young people and culture and music that are the fallen., despite truly valiant efforts by some local authorities. A socialist Wales fully red blooded should not be reliant — on the migrating English market of companies and models already moving into the affluent school catchments. They extract the bang for the buck, but such education sales often devoid and irrelevant of potential, of the talent is totally predicated on parental ability to pay. This is not the way.
Any model predicated on ‘paying to play’ without effective safeguard — both for the teaching staff pay and conditions, safeguarding or relevance to pupil benefit — dooms Wales musical reputation and cultural future to certain failure.
The current PDG allocation is not the solution either. Rarely has this been utilised to offset or fund FSM pupils to learn an instrument — even where, the head deems it of value pitted against literacy and other shortage and where there is geographically actually a music service to buy into anymore. A fundamental issue of consideration currently ignored, is the inclination (or otherwise) for individual headteachers — to use or buy in a service in the first place. A right to play is also needed. A statutory ability for schools to access music support services. Or model.
It is no surprise that the current state of play in 2022 mid Covid — is that access to music tuition in school is the right of the well off and privileged. The lost opportunities to our talent pipeline — to jobs and to Welsh economic productivity is uncounted. Creative Wales means many things and many await its refreshed iteration but it also means jobs and creative and economic opportunity both in — and for Wales.
But there is a real cause for optimism. As we await the Anthem endowment potential for Wales, there is further movement. A new Welsh Culture deputy ministerial role, a top down WG desire to deliver on a long called for music strategy and a music education plan for Wales, and a new commitment to a funded national music model.
Welsh bands, singers and musicians are still popular across the world, we continue to punch well above our weight. We have thriving music scenes, in both languages and more, and community brass bands and choirs continue to flourish.
On December 1st, I held yet another debate on the Senedd floor ‘Creating a musical Wales for the 21st century: Access, well-being and opportunity’. Contributions supporting these actions, came from across the chamber and Members detailed the importance of music in their lives.
In response, I welcomed our Welsh Government Minister for Art and Sport, Dawn Bowden MS, setting out more detail — on the support that will be coming to music education in Wales. Engagement with stakeholders is taking place to begin setting out a model for the National Music Service, the foundation of which will be strengthened by the curriculum for Wales to ensure access for all, providing enhanced music opportunities for music tuition and experience for learners. There will be additional funds for musical instruments (although most music services will tell you cupboards full of unsexy instruments have always existed and that it is getting the model of tuition right which is key).
Because this issue is not just about music. It is actually about Wales and the kind of Wales we want. Under Welsh Labour, it is also about walking the walk. Carrying out our intrinsic value base in policy. It is about access to opportunity; to social justice and to a good education — and that this must be a right for all. That such access to music can only be the option for the few where we are in charge — and not the many — must be eradicated. Access to opportunity and to music — must be on ability to play, and not merely — on ability to pay.
The music sectors and musicians of Wales — have shown resolve, resilience and a stoic bravery throughout this devastating pandemic.
Today in Wales our strong focus as a Welsh Labour Socialist government is to secure a brighter stronger future and this must be the same for music in Wales, to ensure that we remain a land of song for future generations.
We do that — through our policy design and our steadfast implementation.
There is a very strong and deep desire for positive change. And in the words of Welsh composer and conductor Owain Arwel Hughes CBE when the songbird sings — Wales sings.
It is now time for the phoenix and the dragon to rise and for Wales to sing once more.
Rhiannon Passmore MS for Islwyn