During the latter period of John Ridgeon's advisory role in Leicestershire schools music, Kenneth Baker, Secretary of State for Education and Science in Margaret Thatcher's government, introduced the 1988 Education Reform Act. The inclusion of a music entitlement within the act would have a major influence upon music teaching in the classroom. Teachers were already struggling to engage 13-14 year olds in classroom music. "The thought of extending this provision to 16, as an entitlement, filled most secondary teachers with dread," says Ridgeon, for whom the act was to have a life-changing effect.
Typically, Ridgeon doesn't prevaricate or pretend: "I have never listened to any popular music whatsoever; I still don't; it's not my interest," he says. "I'm an educator. An educator's job is not to make any decisions about what is of value to the students. We give them the skills and the maturity so that they can make the decisions for themselves. But you don't determine that at an early stage. You'd create a barrier."
Ridgeon's believes that his mission is to open minds. "At the British Academy of New Music - which is Access to Music's London flagship centre - for the students who have achieved most highly this year their reward is to go to the Barbican to hear the London Symphony Orchestra play Stravinsky and Prokofiev. These students are urban dance musicians, black kids who rap. But their reward is to go and hear a live orchestra. Their compositions will start to embrace some of these ideas. That's what we're about, as an organisation.
"In Leicestershire I would go into the schools and see music teachers who were incapable of relating to the students that they had in front of them. By and large, the teachers were averagely good musicians, good enough to get a music degree, good enough to get into one of the conservatoires. But they came out not good enough to do the music that they wanted to do. They went into teaching as a second-best. Suddenly they were put in front of 30 kids who were not interested.
"Kenneth Baker came along with the Education Reform Act and introduced the National Curriculum. Music became a compulsory element - though they didn't call it that, they called it an 'entitlement' - from five to 16. The Butler Act before that didn't make music at all compulsory. But suddenly, in 1988, everyone had to do music." Ridgeon says that he knew then that music teachers were in trouble, because of the discipline problems in the classroom. "When Baker made it compulsory that pupils stay on for music for two years more, that was going to be the death of the teachers. I knew we had to do something."
Initially, Ridgeon wanted to appoint a rock band to work in partnership with teachers. The group would later be extended to a bhangra band, bhangra being a lively form of dance that originated in the Punjab region in South Asia.
"I went to the Director of Education. I found a band of good musicians and people in Leicester. Their image was such that I knew head teachers would feel comfortable, and that the kids would empathise with them. I said to the Director of Education: 'I want to employ these people, and I want to sack four duff peripatetic teachers.' " Permission was refused.
"So I went to the Musical Industries Association (MIA), who lent me instruments. I then went to one of my colleagues in the county and asked for money from Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI). I employed these guys to go into four schools, over a two-year pilot period, to work with the music teachers delivering GCSE, by doing song writing and playing in bands."
Over that period, a typical cohort of students doing GCSE Music went up in numbers from 15 to 150, passing with A to C grades. "It did the trick," he says, "Proving to me that if teachers start from where their pupils' interests lie - giving them the skills they want to develop, providing them with performing opportunities or the chance to have their compositions heard, thus removing all barriers to learning - then many more musicians would be engaged with school music.
"I organised a gig to showcase the work. I invited the Director of Education, gave him earplugs, and sat him down. He got up after five minutes and said: 'See me in my office on Monday morning!' " Ridgeon was told to stop. Then he was promoted to be a General Advisor. "There was no debate. I was 'lowering the quality of music in Leicestershire'. The head teachers didn't think it; the kids didn't think it. But the Director of Education did. I was then left high and dry."
After 27 years working in three LEAs, Ridgeon decided to take voluntary redundancy. His intention was to establish his own music service, to address the issues and challenges highlighted by the 'entitlement' curriculum. Access to Music (ATM) was born.
Ridgeon's primary goal was to establish a teaching force in Leicestershire which would supplement the work of the music teachers in the classroom and increase the capacity of the peripatetic instrumental team to meet the needs of the community. "The first challenge for me was to secure the funding by which I could identify and train a variety of musicians from the local area, who, after training, could provide the skills across a wide spectrum of music genres and across cultures."
Ridgeon's initial success came when he persuaded a doubtful Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) that unemployed musicians could obtain work as teachers - after suitable training. Today, as a direct result of that decision from Leicestershire TEC, many hundreds of musicians have been trained by Access to Music. They have found employment in schools, colleges, universities, social services and prison services.
"Access to Music is now the only FE training organisation in the country to have a national contract with the Learning and Skills Council," he says. "The organisation has centres (their own and partner colleges) throughout England. ATM is credited by the inspectorate as being one of the best training organisations in the country, and works with thousands of pupils in schools, FE colleges and HE institutions on qualifications planned and designed by Access to Music."
"We do a performing musician programme - which is largely about bands, and attracts mostly white young men. We do a course called 'creative music producer' which, if the course is in a black community, will be filled largely with black young men. If you do a vocal artists' programme, that will be filled mostly with women. If it's in a mixed community you'll get a blend of black and white women doing that. So it's not a course in popular music. People come in knowing what they want to do. They don't want to be 'musicians'. To an urban dance musician, the Rolling Stones are as alien to them as is Mozart."
Ridgeon - who is keen to credit the support of his wife Linda, and to praise the commitment of a large team of loyal and dedicated colleagues - intends to broaden the ATM curriculum. "Now we are adding a jazz pathway, new from September. The following year we'll have music theatre as well. All of these courses are offered as an Award, Certificate and Diploma. For progression we are running a two-year foundation degree with the University of Westminster at the British Academy of New Music in London. That is for people who want to exploit their own compositions, and for singer/songwriters. We're in the middle of working with the RNCM on developing a free-lance musician foundation degree. And we're going to be working with East London University on the jazz foundation degree and the music theatre programme, and a teaching course in popular music and music theatre. So there will be progression right through, from the absolute beginner to post-graduate, including teacher training. When that's all done (we can't go any higher), we'll go back down into schools, where I started from. This year, 18 schools across the country have taken on our programmes as an alternative to GCSE. 100 schools have applied this year to do it from September. That's really exciting, to get our programmes into schools, which will achieve what I wanted to do in Leicestershire.
"We work in partnership. We are very good at that. We have a national network. We've got centres all over the country: Scarborough, York, Lincoln, Warrington, Blackburn, Manchester, Leicester, Worcester, Norwich, Brighton Bristol and Plymouth. That's a big spread. I spend a lot of time on the road, permanently. I see all of my places once or twice a year. Very exciting. The school area is huge, it's a new specialised diploma, and really important for the future, because schools are now being required by the government to offer specialised diplomas in 14 areas of vocational activity. One of them is creative and cultural skills. Our units from our qualifications will be embedded in that new diploma. So kids will be able to do those units at school. We'll be working with schools on that. Leicestershire wouldn't allow me to do it - so I've done it on my own!
"I shall feel that my mission has been accomplished when young people in schools, colleges and HE consider that they have access to their kind of music which is as rigorous and as satisfying as the provision traditionally offered through the statutory sector in classical music."