©Lisa Stirling/gettyimages
©Lisa Stirling/gettyimages

Music education in England: a love-hate relationship

"We are in a paradoxical situation: music education in schools is a national issue, we have the facilities to put it into effect, but at the same time, we must struggle for its survival”. Analysis by Richard Hallam, president of the Music Education Council.

“The government is committed to ensuring that high-quality music education is not the preserve of a social elite, but is the entitlement of every single child” declared Nick Gibb, Minister of State at the Department for Education, in March 2016. “That is why funding for our highly successful music hubs, in which I am sure many here today are involved, is remaining at £75 million in 2016 to 2017”.

When in November 2011 the Department for Education publishes its plan for music education called The Importance of Music, A National Plan for Music Education, it is welcomed with enthusiasm by educational professionals and particularly by professionals in the field of music. The plan specifies that “All schools should provide high-quality music education as part of a broad and balanced curriculum”. It is full of good intentions: it envisages 77 million pounds in 2013, 65 in 2014 and 60 in 2015 funded by the Department for Education.

Since September 2012, the reform has been based on a network of private entities, called Music Hubs, whose main purpose is to ensure equal access, opportunities and excellence in musical education to all children and young people.

Today, there are a total of 123 music education hubs across the UK; these centres operate locally in order to gather and coordinate partnerships between schools, local authorities, community-based or professional structures in the artistic field, to meet the needs of a territory or a community. Children who learn to play an instrument can, thanks to Music education hubs, benefit from individual courses, they can learn with local professional musicians, practice music together, receive musical instrument loans or funding instalments to have access to music, even in the most disadvantaged areas.

Equal access and quality for all

According to the National Plan for Music Education, pupils aged 5-14 years must have access to music education: learning to play an instrument and also enjoying collective musical practice in a musical ensemble as well as in choirs. Each centre is expected to assess local needs in each area and establish a music education plan with schools and partners according to the local specifics. Each hub must justify its strategy in relation to the funding received from the government, which is 15 to 35% depending on the geographic, cultural and social context of each centre.

Before Music Education Hubs, Music Services had this responsibility, following the government initiative on promoting partnerships with professionals, so that music education could be achieved outside schools and also at a higher level. “We have National Youth Music Organisations providing an outstanding level of education, such as the National Youth Orchestra, the National Brass Band and the National Youth Choir. They allow talented young people to improve, but they are not accessible to everyone. With the National Plan for Music Education, equal and quality access is at the heart of the programme, to help ensure that no one is turned away because their parents cannot pay” explains Richard Hallam, former president of the Music Education Council and government music education adviser.

The idea is not new: our neighbours across the Channel have been reflecting on the future of music and education for over 25 years. After the black years of the Thatcher period, during which music simply disappeared from school curricula, awareness of the importance of arts education in schools started gaining ground.

The Arts Council England participates in the financing and promoting of professional structures developing renewal programmes. The successive British governments start pioneering initiatives targeted at students provided by major orchestras - the LSO Discovery programme is a brilliant example of that - and they are also concerned about defending the position of music education in schools. “We’ve been lucky: since 2000, all the successive governments were in favour of music education, and it has been a kind of political issue for a long time. A relative political issue, because there is a wedge between what is desired for music education in schools, and what is desired for education in general” states Hallam.

Music for all? Not everywhere

That is where the problem lies. Since the establishment of Music Education Hubs in 2012,  there is great disparity at a national level. According to the survey report published in late 2013 by the Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills), responsible for inspecting a range of educational institutions in England and Wales, quality music education reaches only a minority of pupils. The report states that Music Education Hubs brought new energy, collaborative approaches and vitality to working musically with young people. However, it also found that music is often poorly taught in schools, with a superficial approach: “The root of the problem lay in a lack of understanding, and low expectations in music, among the schools’ senior leaders and their consequent inability to challenge their own staff, and visiting teachers, to bring about improvement”.

Four years later, the disparities between the different regions are still there and, in some schools, music education is completely missing from the curriculum, whereas in other institutions Music Hubs work wonders. Richard Hallam explains: “There's the framework laid down by the law on one side, and the actual situation on the other. In England, the Education Act defines mandatory access to music for all pupils between the ages of 5 and 14. When children are aged between 5 and 11, they are taught music by their teachers in addition to the other subjects, and they only receive poor music education. After that, until the age of 16, those students who wish to continue their music studies must be able to choose an arts subject. Music is taught by specialised and university-trained professors, but no institution is obliged to offer music in its curriculum. In this sense, this autonomy of the different schools is problematic, since it is the director who has the full responsibility when it comes to distributing the funds from the Department on the curriculum. As a consequence, there is no guarantee that music will be part of the education offered by the school. The situation in the field is as follows: in primary education, if a teacher with a particular affinity for music starts working with pupils and suddenly leaves the school, the director is not necessarily obliged to find a replacement with the same qualifications, even if they are required by law. They will not be sanctioned: the focus of inspections is always on the “core” subjects of the curriculum: English, Mathematics and Sciences”.

The more the pupil progresses along the school curriculum, the more “core” subjects threaten music: “In secondary education, the results achieved in core subjects allow the school to be better ranked at a national level, like in the EBacc, which does not take into consideration arts subjects… at all. That is why schools are focused on these disciplines at the expense of artistic disciplines, which are becoming optional at best, either they are taught semi-annually, or they disappear completely. It is a snake biting its own tail: the fewer the number of music hours, the more difficult it will be to hire competent teachers, and there will also be fewer projects. This has made the Hubs’ job quite difficult since, in certain regions, only 10% of schools respond to the call for collaboration”.

Music is not enjoying very good press

The same thing is happening in families, as evidenced by this recent study by the University College London. Andrea Creech, Jo Saunders and Graham Welch analysed the situation in three cities: Leicester, Luton and Slough, three cities that are part of the Music Education Hubs programme. They found that the obstacles when it comes to music education depend on the competitiveness of the school environment, on the value attached to music education by parents and teachers, on busy schedules and financial difficulties. Compared with other subjects, music does not enjoy very good press.

“Generally, it was acknowledged that music was not valued as highly as more academic subjects and therefore students were often directed to other option choices. Families are sometimes ambivalent about the value of music in terms of supporting career pathways, and therefore do not always encourage their children to participate in music. Students also had to make difficult choices between extra-curricular music and other activities such as sport. [...] As a consequence, musicians do not receive enough support neither from teachers nor from parents”.

Not surprisingly, researchers found that children in more affluent families, which can afford to buy instruments or to pay for lessons and in which music is a family tradition, enjoy easier access to music education.

Even if we have the National Plan for Music Education with all the necessary infrastructure to achieve it and the willingness to transform music education into a priority, paradoxically, music in schools is threatened. This is why after-school facilities are so important. School is the only true place where every child can have access to music education. We have to convince teachers of its necessity and value in the curriculum as we understand it”. A first step: The Power of Music, an awareness-raising campaign on the benefits of music, based on different research studies and addressed to teaching teams in schools.

As stated by Richard Hallam, education in the UK is managed by the specific legislation of its different countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The same applies to music education, although the same principles, especially the need to ensure equitable access to quality music education, are shared by all the different education policies. Our analysis focuses more on the situation in England.

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