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Education: GCSE Music

Volume 793: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have made an assessment of the number of pupils who took GCSE Music in the last academic year.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I declare an interest in the subject as chairman of the Royal College of Music.

My Lords, there were 31,000 entries to music GCSE in England this year, and the proportion of pupils taking music GCSE between 2010 and 2018 has remained broadly stable. Music is compulsory in the curriculum for local authority maintained schools for key stages 1 to 3, and pupils have an entitlement to study an arts subject, including music, at key stage 4 if they wish. We are investing more than £300 million up to 2020 in music education.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but he should be in no doubt that the situation of GCSE music in schools is very grave. The number of pupils completing it fell by 7% last year, which means a fall of 23% since 2010, with one in five schools not offering it at all last year. This is undoubtedly the fault of the EBacc, which punishes arts subjects at the expense of sciences. Does my noble friend appreciate that this merciless decline is the start of a destructive downward spiral? As fewer pupils take GCSE even fewer then take A-level, and fewer still will go on to study music at a university or conservatoire, thereby threatening the long-term sustainability of music in our country. Is it not time thoroughly to overhaul the EBacc before irreparable damage is done to music education and it has become the privilege of the children of the rich rather than the fundamental right of all pupils?

My Lords, there is no evidence that arts subjects have declined as a result of the introduction of the EBacc. Since the EBacc was announced in 2010 the proportion of young people taking at least one arts GCSE has fluctuated across the years, but has remained broadly stable. The best schools in the country combine a high-quality cultural education with excellence in core academic subjects. I reassure my noble friend of the importance, to my mind, of music to brain development, and I shall quote from a study on this; the education system needs to become more aware of it.

“Music’s pitch, rhythm, metre and timbre are processed in … the brain … Rhythm and pitch are primarily left brain hemisphere functions, while timbre and melody are processed primarily in the right hemisphere”.

Music is an integral part of our education, and so is EBacc.

My Lords, I am not sure where the noble Lord gets his evidence from. I wonder whether he is aware of research, published just this week and launched in this House, jointly commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Tate, from Nottingham University. The unique feature of this research is that it talks to young people about their experience of arts and cultural education. One of the things that emerges from it is that they are clearly getting a strong message that, important as this is to them, it is not valued in the curriculum: consequently they are often discouraged from taking it up. He might, if he has time, listen to the recent appearance of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on “Private Passions” to hear first-hand testimony of what an impact music can make on one person’s education, particularly someone who did not have a very good start in life. How much more evidence do the Government need before recognising that this is a serious issue not just for future professionals but for all students?

To answer the noble Baroness’s first question, about where the research I am using comes from, an initial five-year study by the University of South Carolina showed that music instruction appears to accelerate brain development in young children. I entirely accept that, but let us also talk about the amount of time that is being devoted to the teaching of music in schools. Music as a percentage of teaching time in secondary schools has remained broadly stable since 2010: 2.4% in 2010 and 2.3% in 2017. I get that data—I am conscious of noble Lords saying that we are loose with our data—from the school workforce census, a survey of 76% of secondary teachers and 85% of secondary schools.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of a musical education charity which is overwhelmed by requests from schools and music hubs for us to collaborate with them because the number of teachers with training in music teaching is declining and is expected to decline further in the next two or three years. Do the Government accept that music is going to be pushed aside as an extra subject and is likely, in state schools, to be provided increasingly by volunteers and charitable bodies?

My Lords, the vacancy rate for music teachers in schools is currently 0.6%, so I do not believe that there is a crisis. I am glad that the noble Lord raised music education hubs, which are supporting more than 650,000 children learning to play an instrument. More than 340,000 pupils took part regularly in area-based ensembles and choirs, of which more than 8% were eligible for pupil premium. Music is an important part of our system and the Government are supporting it.

My Lords, despite what the Minister is saying and the replies he is giving, it is now very clear from a huge amount of evidence that the EBacc is harming not just music but all the arts, and design as well. Do the Government not think it time, if we are to retain some form of baccalaureate, to look at other models such as the Edge Foundation to enable the rounded and forward-looking education the Government say they believe in?

My Lords, the EBacc was designed to get a good general education to as large a part of the population as possible, in particular those from disadvantaged areas. We all know that the cultural capital from those areas is much less than in people coming from the backgrounds of most in this Chamber. That is why we did it. There is room in the key stage 4 curriculum to add music if that is what schools decide to do. The average number of EBacc exams is seven—eight if you go to triple maths, but seven would be standard—and that leaves one slot for music if that is what a child decides to do.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise the important contribution that cathedral choir schools play in the musical education of this country? They are the envy of many European musical countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands.

My noble friend is absolutely right. To link this for a moment to EBacc, I believe that a sense of history and music come together. Many noble Lords who have listened to the “Miserere” will know that Mozart went to hear that in the Vatican aged 14, memorised it and took it back and published it for the outside world because the Vatican had chosen to keep it to itself. Beethoven wrote five piano concertos, the “Missa Solemnis” and his ninth symphony when he was totally deaf. That gives a very different understanding of music when you listen to it, so history and music stand together.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a patron of the Docklands Sinfonia. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said. This sinfonia, which is based in the East End, very often goes out to schools in the Tower Hamlets area because there are insufficient music teachers. This is wonderful and important to do because it stops people in gangs killing each other with knives. There is clearly something wrong. There is not enough chance to learn music at school if they are having to do this.

I referred earlier to the percentage of teacher time allocated to music, so I do not think this is the problem. I accept there are challenges in areas of disadvantage, which is why we have launched the In Harmony programme. This is working in six of our most disadvantaged areas. We are already seeing quantitative and qualitative evidence to suggest that children’s musical enjoyment has improved through the involvement of In Harmony. It is popular among its participants and we will be carrying out a further evaluation next September to see if we can widen its scope.