Denise Robertson: Are we listening to the sound of music excellence declining?

A meeting with the parents of an autistic child has highlighted the problems those with learning disabilities face

Chris Ison/PA Wire Children playing a piano
Children playing a piano

In the week that we mourned the death of Dr Lorna Wing, a pioneer in the understanding of autism, I met with the parents of one autistic child.

Their world changed forever when they were told that their son, Josh, had severe autism and learning disabilities. Sarah accepted the diagnosis. Phil found it harder: “I’m ashamed to say it but I just thought ‘Oh he’ll snap out of it’.

“Then I started filming him enjoying his life and putting it on Facebook. I wanted other parents of autistic children to see that it’s not all bad”.

Eventually, unable to get the support they needed locally, the decision was made to send Josh to a care centre 260 miles away from the family’s home. It was supposed to be for 12 weeks but for 18 months now his father and mother have had to make the 500-mile round trip, every other week, just to give their son a hug; and because of the effects of separation, Josh’s condition has deteriorated.

Now they want to bring their son home and raise awareness of other families torn apart through lack of local care.

Sarah says “I can’t be there to hug him when he’s upset. I cry myself to sleep about it. Josh is a child who needs security and familiarity. The centre are doing their best for him but he’s incredibly home-sick and cries for us all the time.”

Josh misses his siblings too. “When his sister went to visit him his face lit up. His brother just kept kissing his face. He looks at me and I can see how torn he is between loving me and hating me for leaving him there.

“The staff caring for Josh do a great job, but we need him closer to home. I’ve travelled 40,000 miles just so I can give my son a hug.”

Sadly, Josh is not the only one. More than 150 children and young people are reportedly in similar situations according to the national Learning Disability Census, stuck in assessment and treatment centres far from home. Josh’s parents are campaigning to bring treatment centres nearer for all children who need them. Their petition has over 177,000 signatures.

Why not google ‘bring josh home’ and add yours.

:: I’m sure Michael Gove wants music in schools.

According to his Department “It is important that music education of high quality is available to as many children as possible: it must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music education. While music touches the lives of all young people, the disadvantaged can benefit most.”

Once upon a time peripatetic teachers provided instrumental and singing skills which created a network of youth choirs, bands and orchestras in Britain’s schools. Alas, the picture is very different now.

In 2011/12 the grant from the Education Department for extra-curricular musical activities was around £110m. This year it’s a reported £60m.

Funding is now meant to come from 123 Music Hubs, set up in 2011 to put the National Plan for Music Education into effect. Schools and parents together contribute more than central government. But when lesson fees are raised or an area suffers redundancies, many pupils are forced to drop out.

According to reports, one hub says that the subsidy it offers for lessons for children claiming school meals and for children in care will cease. Nor is lack of funds the only problem.

One peripatetic teacher tells me that harassed teachers, desperate to reach targets, are reluctant to release children for music lessons, even when their parents have paid towards the cost.

They want them to concentrate on their subject and music can go hang. If someone doesn’t get a grip Britain’s reputation for musical excellence, earned all those years ago and benefitting children rich or poor, will be a thing of the past.

:: It seems only yesterday that we were operating a no-fly zone to protect defenceless Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s Suni, who were also oppressing the Shias.

Then it all changed, Saddam was gone and Shia were in control. Now it’s changed again.

Suni are terrorising Shia and the Kurdish peshmerga are pulverising anything in their path. In the 7th Century a battle over succession to the prophet Mohammed created the rival camps, Shia and Suni. It’s a hundred years since the League of Nations took three disparate areas of the collapsed Ottoman Empire and created modern Iraq. Now it’s coming apart at the seams, perhaps offspin of the turmoil in Syria.

It’s tempting to say it’s all happening a long way away and why should we worry. Except that, in September 1938, prime minister Neville Chamberlain spoke about the German invasion of Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”.

That ‘faraway quarrel’ took Britain into World War Two.


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