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Music Education in State Schools

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support music education in state schools.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I declare interests as chairman of the Royal College of Music and a governor of Brentwood School.

My Lords, the Government are committed to high-quality education for all pupils and music is integral to this. We are working with experts to refresh the national plan for music education for publication later this year. This follows the publication of the Model Music Curriculum last year. We will also invest around £115 million a year, for the next three years, in music, arts and heritage education, including the network of music hubs working across England.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. The sad, blunt truth is that music education in state schools is on life support. The number of pupils taking A-level music is down by a third since 2014—sadly, often because it is simply not available as a subject. GCSE applicants have come down by 17% over the same period and 29% of state schools have seen a reduction in the number of qualified music teachers, while the number of trainees is falling inexorably. Is my noble friend aware that while 50% of pupils in private schools get sustained music education, just 15% of state school pupils do so? Should this not be at the top of the levelling-up agenda? We need a national plan soon, so can she tell us more precisely when that is coming? Can we also be assured that practitioners and musicians will be able to have their say before it is implemented?

The Government share my noble friend’s concern about the importance of music education in all of our schools. We see it, along with other arts subjects, as integral to a good, strong curriculum. In relation to the numbers that my noble friend quoted on the music GCSE, I point out that while he is right that uptake of the GCSE has declined, uptake of the VTQ—the vocational qualification—has increased, so actually there are almost 53,000 children today taking either the GCSE or the VTQ, compared to almost 50,000 in 2016. On the timing of the announcement of the plan, as I said, it will be later this year. I will take his recommendations on further consultation back to the department.

My Lords, I will follow directly from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Black. The Minister may be interested to know that my daughter is a professional musician who spends part of her working life, like so many of her colleagues, teaching in an independent school where the list of peripatetic and full-time music education staff takes up half a page on the school’s website. This shows that parents value music education and, in that case, are prepared and able to pay for it. Does the Minister think that parents of state school pupils care any less about music education? I am sure that she does not. None the less, she will be aware that my daughter’s own children, who attend state schools, do not have access to anything like the provision which my daughter is part of providing in an independent school.

I agree with the noble Baroness that parents in every school care about the richness and breadth of the curriculum which their children undertake. The music education hubs that were created in 2012 now work with around 91.4% of primary schools in this country and almost 88% of secondary schools. Since 2018, there has been a sharp increase in both music tuition and whole-class ensembles.

My Lords, the effect of the accountability measures on the arts is becoming increasingly clear as the years pass by. The narrowing of the curriculum at key stage 3 has led to a reduced uptake in music courses at key stages 4 and 5. In some cases, courses are not even being offered. If the Government truly believe in a broad and balanced education, then the EBacc and Progress 8 measures will need to be fundamentally reassessed.

I cannot agree with the noble Earl. The EBacc was designed to be limited, absolutely to allow for the study of other subjects—many of which I know the noble Earl rightly cares a great deal about.

My Lords, does the Minister have any figures on the number of schools without qualified, musically trained teachers attached to them? I declare my interests as a former chair of the Voces8 Foundation, which has been going into primary schools, particularly where there is no teacher present with any musical training, to introduce some basic singing.

Would my noble friend agree to receive a small group from the Royal School of Church Music, which reaches out to children in all parts of the country, many of whom go to state schools where they are not properly tutored in music? It does enormous work.

My Lords, could the Minister join me in congratulating Nicola Benedetti on becoming director of the Edinburgh International Festival? Bear in mind that she is on record as saying that

“Music teaching is vital to a child’s education.”

Moreover, is the Minister aware of the concerns of musicians, such as Julian Lloyd Webber, that music is being squeezed out of state school syllabuses and is increasingly coming to be seen as the preserve of only the rich? Music has the ability to enrich all children’s lives, throughout their lives.

I remind the noble Viscount, as I am sure he knows, that music is compulsory in all maintained schools from the ages of five to 14. After the age of 14, all pupils in maintained schools must be offered the opportunity to study at least one subject in the arts.

My Lords, my grand- daughter went to a splendid primary school, Eleanor Palmer, in Camden, where every child aged nine had to learn a musical instrument—whatever it might be; the recorder or anything else—for a year. Does the Minister think that is something that could be pushed in primary schools?

We believe that the network of music hubs we have set up gives children choice, including specialist individual music tuition in an individual subject, and for other children perhaps group singing or other activities.

My Lords, unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Black, has had the same answers in the same kinds of debates for many years, since he has been asking this really important question. It is very clear that music education enhances memory, improves dexterity, includes collaboration and is a major part of learning. Indeed, it has been shown repeatedly that it improves and facilitates learning in other subjects. However, not even sufficient instruments are available in primary schools, despite what the noble Baroness asserts. There should be far more done to ensure music is an essential part of the curriculum. Does the noble Baroness agree?

I absolutely agree that it is an essential part of the curriculum: that is why it is compulsory in all maintained schools. I go back to the work of the music education hubs, which have had fantastic outreach into schools but have also linked schools and the children in those schools with music groups in their communities, so they can expand their interests.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware, following my noble friend Lord Black’s point, that whereas 85% of independent schools have school orchestras, only 12% of state schools do? While the music hubs she has mentioned indeed do a good job in providing individual instrumental tuition, the best way of encouraging young people to love music is to give them the opportunity to play in school-based orchestras and ensembles. Will the new national plan please take this into account?

The new national plan is being led by my noble friend Lady Fleet, leading a team of experts from the industry, education and other relevant fields, with a focus on making sure that music education is available to all those children noble Lords have referred to, both regionally and in terms of disadvantage and diversity.

My Lords, the figures enunciated by the noble Lord, Lord Black, are indeed compelling. They are very largely the result of the English baccalaureate being introduced and will not be offset by the updated national music plan, to which the Minister referred. In the 2019 Tory manifesto, there was a pledge to introduce an arts premium in all secondary schools, with the aim of “enriching” the experience of all pupils. That was reinforced in 2020 in the Budget by the Chancellor, offering a £90 million arts premium. Both of these promises have been reneged on. Should we be concerned that the man who, as Education Secretary, introduced the English baccalaureate is now the man entrusted with delivering the so-called levelling-up agenda?

I think we should be extremely comforted that the man who introduced the English baccalaureate and has been one of the leading energetic forces of reform is leading the levelling-up agenda.