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Covid-19: Music Education

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on music education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Although I have spoken in many Westminster Hall debates before, this is my first as the instigator of the debate.

When schools teach music and other creative subjects properly, our whole society and economy benefit. Although by no means a musician myself, I hugely enjoyed my experiences of music at school, which helped me develop a deep love for classical music. My family have been Methodists for over 200 years, and as the preface to the celebrated 1933 Methodist hymn book says,

“We were born in song”.

Music has been part of the national curriculum for children aged five to 14 since it was first published in 1988-89, and has been recognised as an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum by successive Governments. Music education needs that recognition again from this Government—perhaps more so now than ever before.

There is a wealth of evidence indicating that studying music builds cultural knowledge, creative skills and improves children’s health, wellbeing and wider educational attainment. Through classroom music, children and young people develop their skills in making and creating music through performing, composing, improvising, and responding critically, in an informed way, to music from a wide range of genres and traditions.

While classroom music forms the foundation of children and young people’s music education, it is hugely enriched by the provision of a wide range of extracurricular opportunities for young people to develop their musical interests, such as school orchestras, choirs and other ensembles. Altogether, this is an essential talent pipeline for the music industry, which is worth a staggering £5.8 billion a year to the UK economy. Schools around the country are already trying their best to continue to provide excellent music education, despite adverse circumstances, and they are bolstered by several bodies that are adopting innovative approaches.

As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on independent education, I am aware that over 650 Independent School Council schools have music partnerships with state schools, and those partnerships allow students to attend music lessons at each other’s schools, host joint music events, and send teaching staff across to share their knowledge and expertise in both directions. This helps to foster strong working partnerships and connections that are increasingly important given the current circumstances.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the undisputed benefits of music within society are at greater risk now than at any time in history? Does he agree that the Government need to step into the breach? Covid-19 affects disposable income, which means fewer private music lessons, so we must offer music education involving various instruments in every school throughout this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to ensure that we hold on to music’s positive benefits for society?

The hon. Gentleman is right, because no one could have predicted the idea that someone could not blow through an instrument because that spreads particles and so on, and it means that so much new work now needs to be focused on this area.

The joint approach I am describing was also highlighted by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference chaired by Sally-Anne Huang, and the Music Teachers Association, which is the country’s largest association of music teachers. They have made a firm commitment to work together to advocate for music in all schools. The vast majority of HMC schools already partner with state colleagues in music, but this is a new national partnership, which will allow co-ordination at an enhanced level, drawing attention to the essential role played by schools in the musical life of our nation. This month they launched the “Bach to School” teaching and singing resource led by Gabrieli Roar, which I would encourage all colleagues to investigate further via its website.

I declare a former interest as a professional classical singer who, like many performers, also held down a peripatetic teaching job in several schools for many years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that music is essential to build children’s confidence? It benefits a wide range of other academic subjects. The initiative that he described to keep music education going can also be found in resources that schools have innovated, such as #CanDoMusic. There is more scope to support children whose music education has been adversely affected by covid-19.

I thank my hon. Friend not only for her point, but for my promotion to right honourable. I will reflect upon what she has said and how important it is that she said it, given that she is a voice of experience with a background in the subject, who has knowledge about the subject itself and its wider benefits. That is a key part of why I brought forward today’s debate.

In my own constituency, the Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Trust, led by Peter Smalley and comprised of over 300 staff, has worked with over 20,000 children and young people in the past year to deliver the promises of the national plan for music education. NMPAT employs a team of peripatetic staff who visit different schools to deliver teaching projects and musical experiences. Its headquarters is in my constituency; I have visited it and attended their concerts. I am looking forward to being able to go to those concerts again as a way of celebrating our re-emergence next year.

With limited experience in the delivery of online teaching, NMPAT reacted quickly to deliver a digital alternative, to ensure children continued to receive vital access to music education. NMPAT has asked me to specifically raise with the Minister its thanks for the job retention scheme, which has been a lifeline for the staff throughout the pandemic, ensuring children in Northampton and the county continue to receive the music education they deserve.

An issue that has been raised with me in numerous calls and in meetings, prior to securing this debate, is funding for the adjustments that NMPAT and others have had to make for the digital age and the creation of covid-secure environments. I hope the Minister will consider that in her remarks. Funding for 2019-20 has not been adequate to cover the costs of the current situation and there is a need for an uplift in 2020-21, back to parity to at least 2011 levels. That is even more pressing now we find ourselves where we are.

Even prior to covid-19, music education was facing significant challenges, including cuts to funding and widening gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, particularly when it came to instrumental tuition, as we have already heard. There have been falling teacher training and recruitment numbers, and a continuing decrease in the uptake of music examination courses.

The pressure of accountability measures, such as year 6 SATs in primary schools and the English baccalaureate, or EBacc, in secondary schools, has meant that access to music education has been significantly reduced. For example, “Music Education: State of the Nation,” published in 2019 by the all-party parliamentary group for music education, found that more than 50% of responding schools were not meeting the curriculum requirements in year 6, citing the pressure of statutory tests as a contributory factor. Interestingly, those findings were supported by observations by Ofsted.

Since the introduction of the EBacc in 2010, there has been a significant decrease in the uptake of GCSE and A-level music. The figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications show a 25% decline in pupils taking GCSE music and roughly a 43% decline in those taking A-level music over the past decade. Ofsted’s annual report, which is hot off the press and was published on 1 December 2020, found that

“not all children were receiving a full and appropriate curriculum”

and identified “curriculum narrowing” as a concern. Where the full curriculum is not offered, that often results in inequalities of opportunity for the pupils affected.

The Department for Education’s own figures show that only 82% of the recruitment target for music teachers was reached in England in 2019-20, and the number of music teachers recruited into teaching music since 2010 has decreased by 53%. In the context of the delivery reductions due to covid-19, those trends are likely to deepen. I know that that will be a concern to colleagues here and to those in the teaching sector.

Some of these statistics are worrying and make the national plan for music education even more important. Can the Minister commit to a date for a revised national plan? My hon. Friend also raised funding issues. Can the Minister give a date to agree future funding for music hubs, which face significant challenges over the next few years?

I am sure the Minister has heard that.

The coronavirus pandemic has had and will continue to have an impact on all aspects of music education: curriculum entitlement, singing in schools, music making, and especially extracurricular activities, learning instruments and examinations. That has been captured by a report published on 6 December by the Incorporated Society of Musicians, titled “The heart of the school is missing”, which I strongly suggest that colleagues and the Minister read.

To measure the impact of covid-19, the ISM collated 1,300 responses from members of the music-teaching profession who work in schools across the UK. It reveals the detrimental impact that covid has had on music education. I will set out the headline figures. Ten per cent. of primary and secondary schools do not teach class music at all, even though it is a requirement in the curriculum. That is on top of schools reporting that, as a result of their lack of access to technology and the resources they need to adapt, many children were not given any music lessons throughout the closure of schools. Sixty-eight per cent. of primary school teachers and 39% of secondary school teachers stated that music provision had to be significantly reduced to ensure that key parts of the curriculum, such as those for exams, are covered due to time pressure as a result of corona restrictions. Extracurricular activities are no longer taking place in 72% of primary schools and 66% of secondary schools this year. That is partly due to the fact that it took time to get guidance on singing, brass and woodwind playing from the Government before schools resumed, and—much more difficult—a lack of access to well-ventilated spaces.

Singing and practical music making have all been affected. Teachers report that face-to-face instrument lessons are not continuing in 35% of primaries and 28% of secondary schools. Eighty-six per cent. of secondary music teachers report that they have had to rewrite schemes of work completely due to coronavirus. Sixteen per cent. of music teachers have had no access to specialist classrooms, and 43% have to move between non-specialist classrooms to teach some or all of their music. One teacher was even quoted as saying that they had been given 15 B&Q buckets to use as drums in their classrooms.

An important issue that has become evident because of that is the mental health of staff and the impact that covid has had on them. Many of the organisations that I mentioned highlighted music teachers’ mental health and wellbeing and the damage that has happened as a result of these disruptions and changes. Many of us are very aware of the mental health implications for virtually everybody involved in trying to keep life going as a result of the impact of the pandemic.

Although we face an unprecedented crisis, coronavirus also provides us with a pivotal moment for reflection and an opportunity to reset education policy. We need to begin to implement a strategy that will future-proof music education for future students and reverse the trend of music education being sidelined. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) said, the national plan for music education was first published in 2011. It established music education hubs, which provide opportunities to sing and learn instruments in addition to classroom music. Following a consultation in March 2020, a refreshed plan was due to be published this autumn, with the aim of levelling up musical opportunities for children from all backgrounds.

The Government are due to publish the new national plan for music education, and when that document is released, schools need to be informed of their role so that they are fully engaged as part of their own local music education hubs. I hope the Minister will consider that. The need for the joy of music to herald our emergence from this terrible time only serves to underline the need for particular departmental focus on it in the way I have suggested.

The pandemic also offers the opportunity to revisit the nature and purpose of assessments in ensuring that young people are equipped for the future. In the short term, the Department for Education needs to guarantee that pupils sitting music assessments in summer 2021 are not disadvantaged by the pandemic but are rewarded for their achievements.

That steady progress, which takes a number of months or years, is an essential element of learning an instrument or taking singing lessons, and I am very concerned about the mental health of students who, no doubt, will feel deflated at not being able to make the progress that they have worked so hard to achieve. I seek reassurance from the Minister on behalf of those children who will sit practical music exams over the coming year and possibly next year. Will the grading process take into account the significant interruption to the progress of those many music students?

My hon. Friend makes a key point about an area in which practical and helpful steps can be taken relatively easily. Concessions such as scaling down the requirements of the practical elements of exam courses have been put in place for music qualifications. However, the content and assessment requirements for many EBacc subjects have not yet been changed. That puts pressure on schools to focus their available time on prioritising those subjects, which can create an unnecessary and unhelpful hierarchy of subjects—and a questionable hierarchy at that.

I know that the ISM is concerned that Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools told the Education Committee on 10 November that, in 2021, exams could take place for core subjects, with centre-assessed grades for other subjects. If that happens, it would lead to a further devaluing of arts subjects, which in turn would cause severe damage to music departments that already feel under threat.

Furthermore, the Government must address the ongoing narrowing of the curriculum, which is happening as a result of reducing accountability measures both in primary and in secondary schools. We have an opportunity after covid-19 to build a curriculum that puts young people’s needs first and that champions creative learning as well as science, technology, English and maths. We need to capitalise on that opportunity.

In conclusion, the purpose of securing this debate was to raise awareness of a sector that in some instances gets overlooked. As I am sure the Minister would expect, I also have some general asks. As I mentioned earlier, funding for 2019-20 has not been adequate in the current situation and there is a need for an uplift in 2020-21, to attain parity with 2011 levels. This is not just a general request for funding, but a specific one because of the particular circumstances faced by this sector as a result of the restrictions that have been placed on it and the subsequent costs it has incurred. I ask the Minister to look at funding levels in the light of that experience.

School and music organisations need clarity on the national music grant funding from March 2021, and these additional costs need to be borne in mind. Music is a key entitlement for young people, and it contributes positively to the health and wellbeing agenda for the current generation.

I ask the Minister and the Department to remind schools of their obligations to provide a broad and balanced curriculum under the Education Act 2002 and the Academies Act 2010, of which music is a vital part. I also ask them to reinforce the scientific findings on, and the subsequent recommendations for, the safe delivery of curriculum and extracurricular music, and to look to a day—it will be a day on which we will all celebrate—when all of the restrictions will be stopped and we will abolish forever the expression “the new normal” and get back to a proper normal in which we can all live and flourish.

Finally, I am concerned that the Government have removed music from the list of the initial teacher training bursaries on offer for 2021 and 2022. The need to attract the finest musicians into teaching is the greatest that it has ever been, and schools are the only place where young people are guaranteed to receive music education. The surest way of achieving that is through the continuing recruitment of outstanding music teachers.

How important is all of this? It could not be more important. As Beethoven himself put it:

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) on securing this debate on such an important topic. I stress that the Government remain committed to music education during this very challenging time, for the reasons that he himself outlined—to build creative skills, health and wellbeing. Those things will all foster the next generation of innovators, creators, artists and much, much more.

Music and the arts form a vital part of children and young people’s education. In fact, the best schools in the country combine a high-quality creative arts and cultural education with excellence in core academic subjects. We are committed to ensuring that pupils in England continue to access both. Music education remains a central part of a broad and balanced curriculum. That is why it is a statutory subject, from age five to 14, in the national curriculum, and why pupils in maintained schools have an entitlement to study at least one arts subject in key stage 4.

Although only maintained schools are required to teach the national curriculum, academies are also expected to teach a curriculum that is similar in breadth and ambition. My hon. Friend referred to music teacher recruitment and concerns regarding bursaries. I am pleased to inform him that from 2020-21, the initial teacher training census shows that we have provisionally recruited 483 postgraduate trainee music teachers—that is 125% of the post-graduate ITT target for music. The bursaries and incentives are reviewed regularly to ensure that we are filling the skills gaps and needs. They might be put back in place at later dates but there are positive signs at the moment.

The Department for Education invested nearly £500 million between 2016 and 2020 on a diverse portfolio of music and arts education programmes. That includes £300 million for music education hubs that provide specialist music education services to around 90% of state schools. Almost £120 million has been given to the music and dance scheme that currently supports more than 2,300 exceptionally talented children and young people.

The Department works closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Together the two Departments co-fund a wide range of national music programmes for young people, led by the Arts Council, providing a total of £3 million in the financial year 2020-21. That includes seven national youth music organisations, such as the National Youth Orchestra and the National Youth Jazz Collective; the In Harmony project, which aims to inspire and transform the lives of children in six areas in England, through community-based orchestral music making; and the Music for Youth project, which provides opportunities for young people and families to perform in and attend festivals and concerts.

In January, the Department for Education announced a further £80 million investment in music education hubs for the financial year 2020-21, to ensure that all children, whatever their background, have access to a high-quality music education, which, as we have heard today, is so vital. I stress again that the Government remain committed to supporting music education. We will provide shortly an update on funding for the financial year 2021-22. I am afraid I am not at liberty to do that today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) referred to the national plan. As we know, the national plan of 2011 set out our vision for music education. We will be refreshing that and consulting widely. I urge everybody to input into that consultation. We can expect an announcement in the coming months.

The Government have continued to support schools to deliver a broad and ambitious curriculum, including music, since the start of the pandemic. In the previous academic year, our teachers worked tirelessly to support the majority of pupils through remote education from March, and priority groups of pupils were supported through the gradual easing of national restrictions from June into July.

Similarly, teachers and leaders of music education hubs, specialist schools and training centres funded by music and dance schemes, and the leaders of our national music programmes, transformed their support to allow children and young people to engage remotely in music making, overcoming those logistical and technical challenges highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. They were able to support the remote learning. In addition, the Department assisted with the introduction of several initiatives for schools and parents, including establishing the Oak National Academy to provide direct curriculum support to schools from a range of online resources. Professional organisations such as Music Mark, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the Music Teachers Association, along with the Musicians’ Union, also acted quickly to help their members.

The situation has been very different in the autumn term, with schools open, but we set out additional guidance, given the risk of infection in environments where singing and the playing of wind or brass instruments take place. That advice was informed by DCMS guidance on performing arts, informed by the latest scientific advice from SAGE, to give schools and educators the confidence to continue with lessons and workshops, given the importance of the activity. Guidance for schools includes comprehensive advice on music, drama and dance, including on social distancing, additional safeguards for singing and playing wind or brass instruments, groups for ensemble, and handling equipment and musical instruments. In parallel, the Department published advice on music and the performing arts in our guidance for all other educational settings, including out-of-school settings such as school clubs, tutors and other organisations that provide supervised activities for under-18s.

I recognise that the national restrictions brought new challenges for some providers of music education, such as private music tutors and performing arts organisations that run supplementary schools in the evening and on weekends. That face-to-face activity was permitted only if the primary purpose was to enable parents to work, seek work or undertake education or training, or for respite or care for vulnerable children and home-educated children. Those specific conditions have been an important part of reducing the spread of the virus and, as hon. Members will know, they have now been lifted and the general exemption for all supervised activity for under-18s applies to all tiers.

The past months have been challenging, to say the least, and hon. Members have pointed out the impact on music education and learning. However, I am encouraged by the resourceful response from our educators and I wish to thank all 120 music education hubs and their dedicated staff for all they have done to adapt and innovate in that time. The swiftness of their response as the pandemic escalated was, quite frankly, remarkable. Never has it been more important for children to have music in their lives, and the hubs helped ensure that that continued.

Music education hubs provide an important service to the vast majority of state-funded schools, with specialist teachers providing expert advice and support to classroom teachers, music tuition to individual pupils and directly supporting whole-class ensemble teaching—a cornerstone of a high-quality music curriculum. The Government recognise that one of the most significant impacts on the sector of the spring lockdown was the reduction in the money from schools and parents to music education hubs. That is why the Government took steps to ensure that music education hubs were eligible to apply for the Government’s £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund, launched by DCMS and administered by Arts Council England. As a result, 12 music education hubs secured a total of more than £3.5 million in additional funding.

We will also announce shortly an additional package of support provided by Arts Council England to struggling music education hubs, such as the Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Trust mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. He also flagged that it had benefited considerably from the covid job retention scheme, which is important to note.

All of that, once again, demonstrates the importance the Government place on music education and that we have stepped up, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) requested. I hope that hon. Members present are left in no doubt that the Government’s commitment to music education is solid. I will end by once again thanking all of the teachers, those working in music hubs and the music education sector at large for their hard work throughout the past few months, which has enabled so many children to continue to access, enjoy and learn music, no matter their background.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.