MU Column: Fears for tiers

Chris Walters
Friday, January 1, 2021

The MU's incoming national organiser for education and health & wellbeing, Chris Walters, highlights a crucial gap in government guidance.

Daisy Daisy/AdobeStock

Because government guidelines have been subject to change at a moment's notice during the pandemic, advising music teachers has been extremely challenging.

England's November lockdown was brought in with such haste that the various governmental departments had just days to produce official guidance, and MPs were asked to vote on new laws as the ink was barely drying. Unfortunately, chaos ensued. The new laws decreed that education and training were valid reasons for pupils to leave their homes under lockdown, but Cabinet Office guidance stated that this did not include ‘extracurricular classes such as music or drama tuition’. Meanwhile, the Department for Education updated its own guidance to confirm that music lessons in private homes could resume if there was no viable alternative. Were teachers supposed to follow the law or the guidance? Which department's guidance were they meant to follow? Nobody knew.

When we advise our members at the Musicians’ Union (MU), we want their MU insurances to remain valid, so we usually advise that all government guidance is followed as well as the law to ensure members are protected. But we also state that members are responsible for making their own decisions, and to that end we try to provide as much comprehensive information as possible. All our advice is available free of charge on our website, whether you are a member or not.

We also try to keep our advice updated to reflect new developments or to answer members’ particular questions if these might be relevant to our broader membership. Part of this is staying in close contact with officials in the relevant government departments to ask important questions on members’ behalf. As a result of doing this, on 6 November we were able to advise members that they could teach in their pupils’ homes (but not their own homes) if there was no viable alternative – a clarification that was issued after we gave feedback that the initial guidance was confusing.

Towards the end of November, we wrote an open letter to ministers (you can read this on our website). We felt this was necessary because the lockdown guidance overlooked some important facts about music education and failed to make accommodations for these. For example, music tuition was described by the Cabinet Office as ‘extracurricular’, but we know that it supports GCSEs, A levels, graded exams, preparation for musical careers and many other things that make it part of formal education. Just like regular schooling, many of these activities are better delivered in person, so we asked for reasonable exceptions where online teaching is not possible.

Our letter also pointed out that the move to online teaching has excluded those with limited or no access to broadband and technology; that it jeopardises the mental health of pupils who rely on out-of-school music for wellbeing and social interaction; and that it puts up barriers for pupils with additional needs who may not be able to learn through a digital interface. In addition, the letter highlighted the incoherence of allowing teaching to take place in pupils’ homes when teachers’ homes, studios and private music schools are likely to be more Covid-secure.

I sincerely hope that ministers are able to recognise that music education isn't just extracurricular, and that they need to work with our sector to ensure that important music education provision can be kept going in appropriate ways. We will keep pushing these issues as needed for the remainder of the pandemic.

The above relates to England's education, but things aren't any more straightforward in Scotland. At the time of writing Scotland had five tiers of restrictions, and private teaching in homes was only allowed at tier zero – and no parts of Scotland were in tier zero as of late November. Scottish government officials have suggested to the MU that private teaching can still take place in homes if it is entirely separate from school provision, but nowhere is this clearly spelled out. The situation in Wales and Northern Ireland is changeable as these nations come in and out of different restrictions.

Out-of-school music education encompasses private teaching, music schools and centres, ensembles, social projects, health and wellbeing initiatives and more besides. It is vital that we protect this important work for as long as the pandemic lasts, and that we do not allow the government to dismiss it as extracurricular and inessential.