The teaching of music has been a casualty of school cuts and policy neglect in recent years, but some music teachers are taking matters into their own hands, by forming music co-operatives in response.
Jane Parsons teaches strings and she was one of the many dedicated and passionate music teachers in Wiltshire to be told in February this year that they faced the sack.
Jane tuned for support from the Musicians Union, who sent across one of the founding members of a music co-operative in Swindon, David Barnard. Jane and fifteen others were inspired to do the same, forming a co-operative to support each other and sell their services. The Salisbury Area Music Co-operative incorporated on August 1st and I met Jane, and colleague Anna, yesterday, in their first trading week. It has been quite a year.
Over the last six years, up to a third of our 12,000 strong workforce of musical instrument teachers in schools have lost their jobs – a joyless spreadsheet austerity in a UK economy in which creativity matters more than ever. Alongside funding cuts, the imposition of zero hours contracts and reductions in pay are all having a devastating impact according to the Musicians Union, which represents more than 30,000 musicians, and is now encouraging teachers to band together in a bid to save the profession.
The union sees that co-operatives – businesses owned and controlled by their members who each have an equal share – can help maintain the provision and quality of teaching for pupils while also protecting the livelihoods of teachers.
The first music co-operative was in Newcastle, and has been operating since 1995. Sue Belshaw from the coop tells me that they have succeeded by building up an independent business, serving all ages and music ensembles across the Tyne and Wear, giving them a degree of protection from ever-changing national and local policy rhetoric and commissioning practice. They have taken matters into their own hands.
The Chair of Swindon Music Co-operative is Janet Hodgson, a piano teacher. The coop has fifty members now, up from twenty when it started. Music teachers in the education sector, she tells me, have always had a mix of income, including private tuition. The interest in music has never gone away, but the ability to pay for it has changed. Janet acts as the marketing arm of the coop, following up on suggestions from members and visiting schools.
“It is hard to be Chair, when you are not trained in business” she says. “But I know music and have become very good at asking for advice.”
In Gloucestershire, the Cotswold Music Tutors formed in June 2012 after the closure of the (peripatetic) music tutor service in Gloucestershire. Phil Storer and Cathy Hill set up Cotswold Music Tutors after consulting other tutors and agreeing that a co-operative model would be the best fit. From an initial group of 30 tutors, the group has expanded and report a steady stream of tuition requests from both schools and private enquirers. In 2013, they started to offer holiday music courses and, in March 2015, the first residential chamber music course, taking over St Briavels Castle in the Forest of Dean for a heady, busy and exhilarating few days.
The Milton Keynes Music Co-operative, formed by tutors such as Sarah Tomlinson, likewise offers both individual teaching and support for music groups, and aims to wrap training into the mix, so that it can assure continuing professional development for its members.
On the Isle of White, in a similar story to Jane and colleagues in Wiltshire, music teachers are looking to organise a co-operative in the face of redundancy. Marja is the backbone, someone who has been teaching music since 1967 and the kind of entrepreneur that every group needs – someone who gets things done quickly and affordably. At one time, she was running festivals, now, aided by a walking stick and fellow member Phil, taking on the billing, she is setting up the coop.
The experience of the longer-standing music coops, such as Swindon, Newcastle and North East Lincolnshire, is being put to good use to help newer co-ops form. David Barnard, a quiet and inspirational teacher himself, has prepared a new resource, published by the Musicians Union in concert with Co-operatives UK: Altogether Now – A Guide To Forming Music Teacher Co-operatives which is launched this week.
The numbers of people who are freelancers has risen to new heights in recent years and now account, on some estimates, for up to half of all new jobs. Good news for some, the downside for others is that that they risk isolation and lack the social protection of those in traditional employment.
There is a larger question about whether we individually or as a society value music and those with the skills and patience to nurture the ability of others. But part of the answer to that has to be a better voice for those who make a living in music, and for the music co-ops that allow them to find strength, voice and dignity by coming altogether.