Music provision under threat?

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Image: iStock

Campaigners are worried that the focus on core subjects and government accountability priorities are hitting music provision in schools. Dorothy Lepkowska takes a look

The Christmas nativity play and end-of-year production has been a tradition of primary education for decades. Generations of musicians made their debut in their school choir or orchestra and every school had a teacher who could bang out a tune on the piano. But where future generations of musicians, composers and singers – and, indeed, music teachers – will come from remains a subject for debate and some concern.

Campaigners fears that music education has become, at worst, non-existent in many state schools. There is a national shortage of specialist teachers, and less and less time is being devoted to the subject on timetables. Where instrument learning remains, parents are usually expected to pick up to the tab, but at up to £36-an-hour, the costs can be prohibitive.

Meanwhile, some music hubs have placed orchestral instruments, such as the bassoon, French horn and tuba, on an “endangered” list, offering discounts in tuition fees, because they are either not deemed to be fashionable or because the funding for tuition is not available.

Henry Vann, head of external affairs at the Incorporated Society of Musicians, which promotes the importance of music and protects the rights of those working within music, said the organisation has been monitoring the state of music education in schools.

“We know that many primary schools no longer have access to a specialist music teacher, which means a lot of children have no music,” he said. “They may still do some singing but not the playing of instruments. In such schools, it can be an uphill struggle to give pupils any musical experience.”

Funding for music education has fluctuated and declined in the past three years, from £75 million in 2012/13 to £63 million in 2013/14. Ministers reversed a decision to reduce it to just £58 million in 2014/15 following pressure from the Protect Music Education campaign. This meant that funding returned to the 2012 levels for 2015/16 with the total amount allocated by the Department for Education (DfE) reaching £75 million.

In primary schools, the relentless focus on literacy and numeracy often comes at the expense of music. Some headteachers still make time for it, but many feel constrained because they know that the ministerial accountability focus is elsewhere.

The National Plan for Music Education (The Importance of Music), published by the DfE in 2011, promised a commitment to creating regional music hubs, which have now been set up, to coordinate and provide most of the music education to schools.

Mr Vann continued: “The National Plan said music should not become the preserve of those who can afford it, but this is exactly what is happening with instrument tuition. Furthermore, once we lose the musical infrastructure in schools it will be hard to get it back, and that ripple effect cascades through the education system.”

In research published earlier this year, Sue Hallam, professor of education and music psychology at the University College London Institute of Education, found “compelling evidence” for the benefits of music education that go beyond the joy of learning a musical instrument or singing in assembly.

Commissioned by the Music Education Council and published by the International Music Education Research Centre, The Power of Music recommended that every child and young person should have access to quality music opportunities. Prof Hallam said the benefits include “listening skills which support the development of language skills, awareness of phonics and enhanced literacy; spatial reasoning which supports the development of some mathematical skills; and where musical activities involve working in groups, a wide range of personal and social skills which also serve to enhance overall academic attainment even when measures of intelligence are taken into account”.

She added: “The benefits are greatest when musical activities start early and continue over a long period of time.”

But Ann Wright, of the VCM Foundation, which works on singing with hundreds of state schools via music hubs in London and Eastern England, said the decline in music education was becoming increasingly noticeable.

“It has become very apparent how many primary schools are in need of music teachers,” she said. “Often classroom teachers are doing their best but really they need specialists to take on this important work. Some primary schools have a music coordinator but this person is also a classroom teacher with all the responsibilities that brings, so the time they have to devote to music in the school is very limited.”

Ms Wright added that one-off day trips relating to music often don’t go ahead because school leaders are reluctant for pupils to miss other lessons.

Cuts to school budgets have also had an impact on music provision: “We run training days for teachers which are funded by us so schools don’t have to pay but they remain reluctant to take these up because heads still need to find money for supply cover,” she said. “The result of all of this is that music teachers feel very hard done by and find a school where arts are not supported a lonely place to be. They can only fight for their subject so much when it is low down as a priority.

“There is a very real risk now that talented children may never have the experience of playing an instrument and so go on to become musicians.”

Jackie Schneider, a primary school music teacher and area music co-ordinator from south London, said schools needed to be more creative about how they offered music lessons and instrument tuition. In her own school, in Merton, music lessons run by specialist staff are held after school until 6pm, with children being taught in small groups for £5 a session, making it affordable for families.

The sessions are subsidised by the music hub and the school, and it means children have to go home to come back to school again for their lesson. But the high take-up makes the outlay worthwhile, she said.

“There are ways of delivering quality music tuition and education but you have to develop new models, rather than trying to make the old system work. You can’t get these things for free any more like you used to, because the money just isn’t there. Social class remains the elephant in the room where music is concerned, but we are not all doomed. It is a challenge but our job as music teachers is to ensure that that culture of music-making and creativity remains accessible to all children.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

  • The Importance of Music: A national plan for music education, Department for Education, November 2011:
  • The Power of Music: A research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people, Professor Susan Hallam, January 2015:

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