Jayne Price

Acting Head of Department - Initial Teacher Education, and HudCRES

I’ve been struck by the power of music in the current Covid-19 situation.  From YouTube parodies to apartment block singalongs, people around the world have turned to music to help them through this period of isolation. The explosion of virtual choir and ensemble performances has kept music makers connected and encouraged thousands more to take part in something really special. It makes me proud that I have spent my whole career as a music educator, dedicated to facilitating opportunities for young people to experience the magical feeling that happens when we are connected to one another through musical performance, but I’m currently very worried about music in schools.

Concerning trends

Music provision in secondary schools in the UK typically consists of:

  • a core programme of class music teaching for all pupils in Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) which follows or is informed by the national curriculum for music;
  • optional examination programmes for pupils in Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16) and Key Stage 5 (ages 16-18);
  • an optional programme of vocal/instrumental tuition taught by visiting peripatetic teachers employed by a local Music Education Hub or by the school itself and often paid for by parent(s)/carer(s);
  • a programme of optional extra-curricular activities which may include vocal groups, choirs, various and all kinds of instrumental ensembles, music technology focused activities, composition workshops, student directed activities utilising school facilities and instruments, full scale musical productions in collaboration with other departments and a programme of performances and concerts throughout the year.

Participation in music outside of the Key Stage 3 compulsory curriculum is low.  In 2017/18, 5.95% of pupils studied music at GCSE level (Music Education: State of the Nation, APPG, 2019).  In 2015-16, music and music technology entries accounted for only 0.83% of the total number of A level entries (Whittaker, Fautley, Kinsella & Anderson 2019). The 2017 Key Data on Music Education Hubs (Fautley and Whittaker 2017) shows that 7.6% of primary and secondary pupils receive instrumental or vocal tuition (outside of whole class ensemble programmes) and 4.09% of KS3 pupils, 3.32% of KS4 pupils and 3.98% of KS5 pupils participate in Music Education Hub run ensembles and choirs.

The reduction of the Key Stage 3 curriculum from three years to two has been prevalent in many schools; in 2018/19, music was compulsory for all pupils in year 9 in only 47.5% of schools, compared with 84% in 2012/13.  There has also been an increase in the number of schools where music is only offered in the Key Stage 3 curriculum as part of an enrichment programme, or on a ‘carousel’, where music is taught for part of the year in rotation with other subjects; and overall, there has been a reduction in the time allocated to music across the secondary curriculum of 13.5% between 2010 and 2017 (Changes in secondary music curriculum provision over time 2016–18: Summary of the research, Daubney and Mackrill 2018). 

At Key Stage 4, GCSE entries fell 16.66% between 2014 and 2018 and at Key Stage 5, A level entries fell by 38% between 2010 and 2018 (Music Education: State of the Nation, APPG, 2019). 

Despite a number of Government, NGO and charitable body initiatives which articulate increasing access and diversity in music education as their primary purpose; there are also growing inequities in young people’s access to music provision.

A survey by the British Phonographic Industry in 2019 highlighted a 21% decrease in music provision in state schools over the previous 5 years, compared with a 7% increase in independent schools. The survey also found that almost a third of schools servicing the most disadvantaged communities in the UK do not facilitate any extra-curricular musical activities and a quarter offers no instrumental lessons to those who want them, compared with almost all independent schools and state funded schools servicing the most affluent communities. In 2017, 5.4% of pupils from high social deprivation groups elected to take GCSE music, compared with 8.3% of pupils from low deprivation groups (Music Education: State of the Nation, APPG 2019) and a disproportionate number of A level Music entries came from independent schools (Geographical and social demographic trends of A-level music students, Whittaker et al. 2019). There are also significant differences in pupils who access instrumental tuition, with 74% of children coming from AB NRS social grade backgrounds compared with 55% from C and DE backgrounds (Making music: Teaching, learning and playing in the UK, ABRSM 2014).

The ongoing decline of music in schools has been linked to the increase in the academisation of schools, where the national curriculum is not compulsory; ‘curriculum narrowing’ prompted by a focus on a knowledge based curriculum and an emphasis on the ‘core’ subjects at the expense of the wider curriculum; and most acutely, accountability measures such the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), a performance measure focused on the percentage of pupils being entered for and passing a suite of subjects at GCSE that excludes music as well as other arts and technical subjects (The declining place of music education in schools in England, Bath, Daubney, Mackrill & Spruce 2020). 

Music education in schools could lay the foundation for lifelong engagement and participation in musical experiences to the benefit of our physical and mental well-being.

In addition to considering how the education policies outlined above fail to value and protect the unique contribution that music provides to a full and purposeful education, I believe that as music educators, we also need to reconsider the provision we are offering to ensure that we make music more relevant, more meaningful and inclusive to more children.

In this period of disruption to the status quo, perhaps it’s time for a rethink about what’s important? 



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