By Dr Kenneth Taylor, Headteacher, St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh


The Herald’s Future of Education campaign should be congratulated for bringing forward the need to reassess and re-evaluate what we know is important for a rounded education in Scotland.

Indisputably, technology, coding and a focus on lasting skills for life and the workplace are critical to this and have been well covered. But let’s not forget the value of music education, which has come under such pressure over the past few months but is so desperately needed.

Last year, a report commissioned by the All-Parliamentary Group for Music Education, in collaboration with the Society of Musicians and University of Sussex, stated: “Studying music builds cultural knowledge and creative skills.

It improves children’s health, wellbeing and wider educational attainment... Music also enables young children to develop the sheer love of expressing themselves through music, discovering their own inner self and being able to develop emotional intelligence and empathy through music.”

As we recover from the trauma of the pandemic, that statement alone makes it hard to ignore the role that music has in supporting our young people over the coming months and years. Mental health and wellbeing are among the most pressing needs of our young people and the creative arts are fundamental to meeting them.

But the same report also takes a wider business perspective, and notes that the creative industries, which contribute more than £100bn to the UK economy, rely on a pipeline of creative talent emerging from our schools. Scotland would be a lesser place if it did not see the connection between our education policies, our children’s wellbeing and our reputation on the world’s stage for cultural excellence.

As the headteacher of a specialist music school I see daily how music can create a level playing field for talented young people, whatever their background or academic abilities.

To those who see learning to play an instrument as no more than a ‘nice to have’ when pitched against the drive for excellence across STEM subjects, I would counter that they are, in truth, complementary. In 2018/19, pupils at St Mary’s Music School achieved a pass rate of 99% with 73% at A. Bearing in mind that ours is  a school that requires no academic testing for entry, these are exceptional results and they are repeated year after year.

In line with the Curriculum for Excellence, our school delivers a broad education from P5 to S3 which becomes increasingly specialised from S4 to S6. In addition to the usual subjects offered in a Scottish school, our pupils engage in a wide range of musical studies and activities and all of them go on to conservatoires, music colleges or universities.

St Mary’s Music School is one of five government-supported music schools in the UK and the only one its kind in Scotland. Here, as in other specialist music schools, our pupils enjoy a close association with other young people who have an outstanding gift and passion for music. They have access to an extended teaching day and practice facilities, with around half of each day spent on music-related activities. Individual timetables allow for music lessons, coaching, performance classes and ensemble work to be integrated with academic teaching. Our young musicians benefit from being taught by talented and inspiring teachers, many of whom are professional performers in their own right.

Ultimately, a specialist music education is one where music is fully embedded and integrated into every pupil’s timetable and where every individual is supported to develop their music skills through a wide range of expert tuition. This is not achieved at the expense of their academic education, indeed the close integration of the two provides a sure foundation for later life, whatever career path is ultimately chosen.

But most of all, a specialist music education is democratic – it puts access to excellence above financial or social considerations and focuses on the passion and talent of each pupil, enabling them to flourish and excel, musically and academically, in a safe, supportive and inspiring environment.

If the value of creativity needs statistical validation beyond the economic input from music and arts festivals, concert performances and theatre productions, then perhaps the academic achievements of our pupils should also be taken into consideration.

For all that, Scotland could not produce the exceptional musicians we do, without a strong commitment to music across the education system and our society as a whole. Music is integral to our identities and lives and made to be shared.

We only have to think about the upcoming Christmas festivities and the loss many of us are feeling because traditional carol concerts and services are being cancelled to recognise this.  If the future of education is to take on a new and innovative form over the next few years, giving music equal status to literacy and science subjects should be non-negotiable.

More than 2,000 years ago, Plato said “music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything”. I couldn’t agree more.