Is There Really A Music Education Crisis?

For years there have been cries from national newspapers and educational bodies that an expulsion of compulsory music education would be inevitable, citing the decreases in uptake for music at GCSE level. Even primary schools are experiencing a lull in provision for the arts subjects to make way for additional numeracy and literacy lessons.

The plight of music in state education has always been a contentious issue with many concluding that there is a crisis in music education that additional funding cannot solely resolve. It is becoming increasingly clear that many of those who are arguing for more attention to be given to music in the curriculum do not have a clear plan for rectifying these issues.

Music education in schools

But the flurry of media headlines, stating the end of music in schools as we know it is somewhat misleading. In fact, not only is this narrative unhelpful – it’s also untrue. The doom and gloom story is in danger of drowning out the significant successes of the last decades. And it’s doing a disservice to the large number of individuals and organisations who are engaging and inspiring young people through music.

Amid talks of cuts, it can be easy to forget that the Department for Education invests £75m a year into music education hubs. Arts Council England’s national portfolio funding for music organisations, many of which deliver education work, exceeds £90m annually.

The charity organisation Youth Music invests around £9m a year in projects that foster a wide range of musical, personal and social outcomes.

Music education has faced criticism, often justified, for being the preserve of the wealthy, too focused on classical music, and of varying quality. But the emergence of exciting new groups and initiatives is rapidly changing this, and the field is now more creative, diverse, inclusive and relevant than ever.

Fresh ways of engaging in music

The Electric Youth Ensemble is encouraging traditional orchestral players to develop new performance skills and think about music differently. Last year Grime: An Opera performed in a disused bus shelter by professional grime musicians and music producers and Essex Youth Orchestra.

Watch the highlights from A Grime Opera below:

At a recent panel debate, several GCSE music awarding bodies confimed that newere forms of music-making like MCing and music production are legitimate pathways through the qualification.

Making music-making more accessible

Music education is also becoming more accessible. The charity Open Up Music has developed a musical instrument called the clarion that can be played with any part of the body. Along with other accessible instruments, it’s being used in 54 open orchestras that take place in special schools across the country.

The South West Open Youth Orchestra in Bristol is the country’s first regional disabled-led youth orchestra. And a range of other initiatives are supporting participation from under-represented groups, such as the large-scale Both Sides Now project for emerging female music creators in the north of England.

The sector is also being enhanced through digital resources like Charanga’s VIP Studio Suite, which enables young people to compose, record and produce popular music styles in the classroom, so teachers don’t have to be specialists in these forms of music. Charanga’s new music resource for people with special educational needs and disability is already being used by over 150 special schools across the country, supported by music hubs nationwide – including Tees Valley Music Service.

Glimmers of hope

With all this said, there have undeniably been significant cuts to music in some secondary schools, as music’s place in the curriculum has been downgraded due to the Ebacc and funding pressures. The scale is not fully known, but these cuts have probably affected at least one-third of state funded secondaries.

But this decline started long before the Ebacc even existed, and may well be counterbalanced to an extent by an increase in more vocational music qualifications. In some schools, music is positively thriving. At Manor Academy in York there were 146 expressions of interest to take GCSE Music last year, out of a year group of 220 pupils.

Ofsted recognise the value of music, stating in a recent announcement that a new inspection framework will assess schools on whether they offer a broad, deep and rich curriculum which is promising news for the arts subjects.

There are fantastic examples of music-making outside the classroom too. Projects are being set up all over the country, taking place in all kinds of spaces from youth centres and libraries, to hospitals and housing estates.

An uncertain future

Even with the optimistic outlook for music education in the UK, there are notably threats which do need consideration to plan and manage. The government has announced rises in pay and pension contributions for teachers, but it is still unclear if there will be enough funding for this to include those centrally employed by music services – 4,900 music teachers, working both in and outside schools.

Further down the line, there’s next year’s government spending review, as well as Brexit to consider and the declining investment from local authorities. Current funding for music education hubs ends in 2020 and a Department for Education announcement on their future is awaited.

But the crisis narrative doesn’t reflect the complexity of the current situation. Now, more than ever, music education providers should be looking at narratives that strengthen the need for music in education to benefit the young musicians of today and tomorrow.

Going forward, music practitioners will need to alter their perception of how music education should be delivered. The landscape is changing, and those in the music education sector need to change too. A recent report commissioned by Arts Council England warned that organisations will need to become more experimental, adopt new organisational practices and foster a sophisticated array of cross-sector partnerships.

Closing conclusion 

Music education in England (and the wider UK) is miles ahead of most other developed countries. But this doesn’t mean we should halt or hesitate. It’s time for greater cohesion, honest reflection and a dialogue that focuses not on rhetoric but on solutions.