What’s wrong with music education?

In 2019 the ISM ( Incorporated Society of Musicians ), the University of Sussex and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education published a report Music Education: State of the Nation which found that Government Policy had resulted in a significant negative impact on music education. None of the 18 recommendations made by the report have since been addressed.

Even before the further devastating consequences of COVID-19  there were ‘UK-wide issues including lack of funding, widening gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students  (particularly for instrumental tuition), falling music teacher training  and recruitment numbers and a continuing decrease in the uptake of music examination courses.

We asked Phil Castang, Director of Creative Learning and Engagement for his view on what was wrong with Music Education.

We know how important music education is for children, particularly from an early age. Music helps with so many aspects of a child’s early development supporting language skills, numeracy, and literacy. It helps to develop social skills like self-confidence (trust) and self-esteem (value). And many friendships are formed through children making music together. Music is a platform for creativity and play and ultimately, making music makes us more interesting people. It’s a wonderful thing when children understand that they can make music from anything, and out of nothing. When I say anything, and out of nothing, I mean a stick, a box and an idea. Or simply one’s own voice and some sounds.  
Although the government expects all schools to teach music as part of a ‘broad and balanced’ national curriculum, the reality is, music is not a statutory requirement and many schools can wriggle out of it through all-kinds of loopholes.  So, with cuts to funding and limited curriculum time, schools are under considerable pressure and music is often the first thing to be cut.
In addition to the decline of curriculum music, extra-curricular activities such as peripatetic music lessons, whole class ensemble tuition and school bands and choirs are also at a critical drop-off point. Whilst the Department for Education (DfE) statistics might show an increase in the total number of children participating in music, this is due to the continued watering down of lesson contact time and short-term projects. Many schools only provide children with a term of musical activity and instrumental music lessons can be as short as 10mins.  In some respect this might seem like a ‘better than nothing’ scenario, but music delivered in this way is more likely to end up discouraging children from continuing music, particularly children from poorer backgrounds that don’t have access to private resources. So, while many child-development experts believe all children are born with an innate musicality that just needs to be nurtured, the system is doing its best to tell children there’s not enough time for music and progress will be difficult.
The ambition of the 2011 Dfe’s ‘National Plan for Music Education’ was to ensure that every child in England has access to a high-quality music education for at least a term. Whilst there is some government funding for music education hubs to ensure this happens, the actual amount available to spend on a child each week is only a few pounds.
The National Plan for Music’s flagship programme, Whole Class Ensemble Teaching, can be an effective way to reach all children, but it doesn’t provide enough support for children from low-income families to develop musically and learn an instrument. In areas of high deprivation this problem is particularly evident and a deeper, sustained intervention is necessary to have any significant impact.
If we contrast the musical learning of children attending school in areas of high deprivation with those attending school in more affluent areas, the number that continue to learn an instrument after a term of whole class ensemble tuition, is about two-thirds less for poorer children. 
All this means doing something impactful, particularly for children in most need is not easy. It also means that, without intervention, the gift of music ends up going to children from affluent middle-class backgrounds. Inclusive excellence in music education requires an innovative approach and that is where Earthsong comes in. In Bristol, the Earthsong Music Programme is designed to wraparound existing core music education activities funded by government, increasing the musical opportunities for 4,500 children in 13 primary schools in areas of high deprivation. Through the programme children have access to high-quality singing, group and instrumental music lessons, and instruments. Importantly this all starts in upper key stage 1 and carries on until they leave primary school at the end of year 6.

– Phil Castang, Director of Creative Learning and Engagement