Music provision in a perilous state


Authors of The State of Play, a report by the Musicians’ Union and supported by UK Music and the Music Industries Association, describe music education as being in ‘a perilous state’.

Eight years after ministers published a national plan for music with the aim of ensuring every child had the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, and the establishment of government-funded music hubs – partnerships between schools and arts organisations in their areas – confidence in the government’s handling of music education appears to have collapsed in many places.

A poll of more than 1,000 heads, teachers, music service managers and instrumental teachers suggests that while music education has improved in some areas, there is patchy provision nationwide. Some 97% of classroom music teachers lacked confidence in the government’s handling of it.

The report paints a picture of creeping cuts to music education, a demoralised workforce with poor employment conditions and huge inequality in instrumental provision, with children from families earning under £28,000 a year half as likely to learn a musical instrument as those with a family income above £48,000. And 89% of parents are making a financial contribution towards instrumental lessons.
Curriculum changes and freedoms introduced through widespread academisation, aligned to new accountability measures such as the Ebacc suite of subjects (which do not include music) and an increase in GCSE courses starting in year 9, mean that music is being squeezed out of the curriculum, while the number of postgraduate students choosing to train as music teachers has shrunk by over two-thirds in the past decade.

Of those surveyed, 60% said the Ebacc introduction had directly affected music provision in their schools, which confirms recent findings from the Education Policy Institute that arts entries at GCSE were declining, with a marked north-south and gender divide.
Jonathan Savage, one of the report’s authors and a reader in education at Manchester Metropolitan University, acknowledges that many schools have fantastic music provision. ‘But for every one that is fantastic, you will find another school in which next to nothing is going on,’ he says.

‘One of the reasons is that autonomy has taken priority over so much else and headteacher decisions about a subject that is part of the national curriculum are not being challenged robustly enough by the government.’

The report includes examples from practitioners around the country about the pressure they are under from accountability measures, funding and school leaders’ commitment to music education.

One respondent quoted a letter written by a head to parents, which stated: ‘Music is a hobby, it is not a career. It will not be supported by the school. I will not allow children to leave school to take graded exams. We are only supporting children’s learning.’

Savage, who is also chair of a music hub in the north-west of England, says the hubs can do exceptional work—in some areas developing a local primary music curriculum, for example —but believes without a refocus on music as an entitlement for all children at school, they may only benefit a minority of children.

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