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6 November 2017

There is a state school turning out world class musicians. The council wanted to shut it down

The City of Edinburgh Music School identifies talented musicians at a young age. 

By Julia Rampen

If you’re a state school pupil, which of the following do you have the least chance of getting into? Oxford, Cambridge – or the Royal Academy of Music?

In 2016, roughly six in ten students going to Oxford University came from state schools. At the Royal Academy of Music, a London college which commands much the same reputation in the musical world, the proportion was four in ten. 

Like Oxbridge, the elite music colleges argue that they invest in outreach, but it’s ultimately up to schools to train students to the standard necessary for admission. In the same report setting out the above figures, the Royal Academy added: “It is important to recognise that preparation for a music career and development of the skills required to undertake advanced musical training in a conservatoire setting begin at an early age… There is currently limited (or, at best, highly variable) provision of music education in state schools.”

There is, however, one state school which does exactly what the college requires – identifies exceptionally talented children at a young age and gives them the training to compete with the world’s best musicians. And it could be closed down if Edinburgh City Council gets its way.

The City of Edinburgh Music School has been running for more than three decades, and has produced musicians including the late Martyn Bennett, a pioneer in Celtic fusion, Shirley Manson, the lead singer of Garbage, and Tommy Smith, the founder of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Alumni of a younger generation include Sean Shibe, a rising star in the classical guitar world, and many classical musicians from working-class backgrounds now playing in the UK’s orchestras (full disclosure: my fiance is one of them). 

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The school operates within two comprehensive schools, a primary school and a high school. In a city notorious for its educational postcode lottery, the music school is open for anyone with enough talent. Those who make it receive rigorous training from specialist music teachers – the kind that would make them eligible for an institution like the Royal Academy of Music.

The school’s unique qualities mean that, surprise surprise, it is under threat from council cost-cutting. A plan to cut the school’s budget and redistribute it among four different sites was recently leaked. 

The campaign to save it has won cross-party support, including from former pupil and Scottish National Party depute leader Angus Robertson, and the campaigning Green MSP Andy Wightman. Of course, it is easier to take up the cause of children playing violins when you are not directly responsible for the council budget, but nevertheless the campaigners have a point.

“Music”, as taught in the school classroom, has very little relation to specialist music education, which focuses on mastering an instrument at a young age.

Careers also start young – Nicola Benedetti, one of Scotland’s classical music stars, first shot to prominence at the age of 16. Eleanor Williams, a former pupil who began learning double bass at age 11, told me she needed the intensive teaching to catch up with the standard of her peers. “Learning to play music to a high standard takes a lot of time and dedication,” she said, adding: “I could not have afforded to have private tuition during these years.”

There are private specialist music schools, which can offer scholarships, such as St Mary’s Music School, but the former City of Edinburgh Music School pupils I spoke to felt that the very word “private” was likely to put all but the pushiest ordinary parents off. 

Reuben Taylor, who now works in music production and plays in the band Storm the Palace, told me: “There’s no way on this earth that my parents would have been able to afford piano lessons.” Like other pupils, he felt that the school’s presence in a normal comprehensive kept pupils open minded. “While it was mostly classical-music-focused, we were encouraged to look at all kinds of music,” he added. “It was a real surprise for me how rigidly the music college I went on to afterwards enforced classical or art music as the only music.”

After a campaign by former pupils, Edinburgh council meets on Tuesday to make a final decision on the budget. Campaigners are hopeful that the music school can be saved – at time of writing the council’s leader tweeted that the cuts would be dropped from the budget – but nevertheless nervousness remains. Campaigners feel that nothing is certain until the budget meeting actually takes place.

Perhaps the council’s idea would hold more weight if free instrument tuition in Scottish state schools, widespread when I was a child, wasn’t disappearing.

While Oxford and Cambridge may be making slow progress on recruiting more state school pupils, access to the elite institutions of the music world will go the other way.