Only 41 per cent of elementary schools have music teachers, rural students least likely to learn band or choir
For many elementary school kids, music class will be the only chance to fall in love with the tuba, discover they love singing alto in a choir, or to experience the rewards of learning and performing as a group.
But those opportunities are continuing to decline in Ontario classrooms because fewer schools have the trained teachers, instruments or spaces to teach music, says a new report released Monday.
A survey of 1,000 schools by People for Education found that only 41 per cent of elementary schools have a full-time or part-time specialist music teacher this year.
Ten years ago, 48 per cent of schools had a music teacher, the research and advocacy group said. And it’s down from 58 per cent in 1998.
Longtime arts advocate Holly Nimmo calls the decline “criminal” because not having access to music robs kids of vital opportunities in the name of short-term budgets.
“Music education is endangered and this is a wake-up call,” says Nimmo, executive director of the Coalition for Music Education.
Among other findings, the report said children in smaller and rural schools are the least likely to get a chance to try the violin or rehearse the melody for a choral piece, as a result of too few teachers and funds to hire them.
Schools in the GTA are more than twice as likely to have music teachers than those in eastern and northern Ontario.
Budget cuts have had a negative impact on teaching other arts as well, including dance, drama and visual arts, the report says, despite the Ministry of Education’s recognition that the arts play a vital role in creativity, academic achievement, leadership and problem-solving.
Of schools with Grade 7 and Grade 8 students, only 15 per cent have a visual arts teacher and 8 per cent have specialist drama teachers.
The report cites lack of space, instruments and arts supplies as roadblocks, on top of “an underlying perception that other curriculum areas take priority over the arts.”
Eastern Ontario music teacher Jim Palmer said he fears the decline is more grim than the numbers show, because it was up to principals to determine who are “specialist teachers” and in many cases they may not even have qualifications outlined by the ministry and the Ontario College of Teachers.
Palmer, also director of advocacy with the Ontario Music Educators’ Association, said his group wants the province to require anyone providing music instruction in the public system to a become properly certified music teacher.
Without music classes, kids lose “an organized opportunity” they may not otherwise get to learn an instrument, create and perform with others, and be exposed to a creative and critical processes that are key to “21st-century skills,” said Palmer.
Few are actually against music and the arts, he added, but those subjects have been allowed to languish over the years because of other academic priorities taking the spotlight, such as math and literacy.
The decline of music education is “an unintended consequence,” said Palmer, who teaches at Athens District High School near Brockville, where students have an instrumental and band program, and an extracurricular blues band.
The association has been lobbying for a meeting between the ministry, teachers, school boards and other supporters of the arts to come up with a solution.
Advocates also stress that when exposure and learning about the arts aren’t provided in the classroom, it creates have and have-not schools, with students in more affluent communities benefitting from outside fundraising while other kids miss out.
That issue was highlighted in a 2013 report from People for Education, which noted that elementary and high schools able to fundraise were filling the gaps by using those dollars to supplement costs of instruments and supplies, and pay for kids to see live performances or exhibits.
The report calls on the province to put in place policy and funds that ensure all elementary students have the opportunity to learn and instrument and perform in a choir, band or orchestra. It also wants all students regardless of where they live or their family income to receive arts instruction during school hours.