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Education: Music A-level

Volume 798: debated on Monday 24 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the decline in the number of students taking music A-level.

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

My Lords, music is a vital subject. That is why we are allocating more funding to music education programmes—over £400 million between 2016 and 2020—than to any other subject except PE. These programmes include our network of 120 music hubs, which works with 89% of state schools. They also include opportunities for young people to study at the country’s elite musical institutions through our music and dance scheme and to perform at the highest level through national youth music organisations.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. A-level music is a crucial gateway to a professional career in music. If it dies out, the future of music in the UK will be threatened. Is my noble friend therefore alarmed at the shocking decline in the number of pupils taking it—down almost 40% in eight years—earning it the unenviable record of being the fastest-disappearing A-level subject? More disturbing still, is he aware of research by Birmingham City University which has painted a devastating picture of provision, with 20% of entries clustered around fewer than 50 schools and four local authorities in the most deprived parts of the country not having any A-level music centres and therefore no A-level entries at all last year? Is he therefore as angry as I am at such indefensible inequality, with access to A-level music—and therefore the chance of a music career—rapidly becoming the sole preserve of the wealthy and of independent schools and disappearing completely from poorer areas?

My Lords, it is of course correct to say that A-level entries in music have declined in recent years. However, we want all students to have the opportunity to study arts subjects at A-level if they wish to, whatever their background and wherever they live. It is up to individual schools and colleges to decide which A-level courses to offer; they may wish to work together with other schools and colleges to maximise choice. I also point out to my noble friend that there are other routes into music. For example, on Friday evening I was in Norwich Cathedral with the choir; in the organ loft they are teaching children to sing in English, German, Italian and even Russian. All of this can lay the foundations for a future career in music.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware, because he kindly wrote a reply to a written request, that over the past five years the number of pupils doing GCSE music has declined, the number of pupils doing A-level music has declined, the number of students going to university to do a music degree has declined, and the number of music teachers has declined. There is one beacon of success in the independent sector, where music still flourishes. Does the Minister not think that the 98% of pupils in state schools should have the same opportunities as those in the independent sector? Does he not think that it is time to have a proper strategy to make sure that music is rescued in our schools so that it can flourish?

My Lords, I accept that there have been declines in the area that the noble Lord pointed out. However, as I mentioned in my earlier reply, music can be taught in various different ways, and the number of hours spent on music education have remained pretty stable over the last nine years.

My Lords, research clearly shows that teaching music improves cognitive ability, memory, manual dexterity and emotional development. The noble Lord, Lord Black, is absolutely right to ask this important Question. If we do not have enough teachers—perhaps the Minister can tell me how many music teachers are currently practising in state schools—how can we manage the decreasing verbal ability of so many British pupils in the state sector?

My Lords, I do not have the specific number of music teachers in the system but I know that the vacancy rate is only 0.5%, so I do not see that as a crisis. We have seen pressure on some schools crowding out subjects—for example, in key stage 2 by elongating key stage 4—but the new framework for Ofsted inspections starting from September will put more emphasis on a broad and balanced curriculum, of which music is a part.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that now the Russell group has now dropped its list of facilitating subjects, there is no justification for the Government to continue with the EBacc either?

My Lords, it is correct that some universities have withdrawn the list of facilitating subjects, but they have replaced it with a website which gives children pointers to the sorts of subjects they need to study if they are to go on and do challenging degrees; for example, if you want to read medicine, you cannot do that by dropping science subjects at either GCSE or A-level.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the decline in music A-level is part of a broader problem of social inequality in access to music itself and music education? Is it not time for the Government to reassess the persistent and growing evidence of the damaging effect of EBacc and the contribution of music through other routes such as BTEC in broadening access to our leading conservatoires, and to adjust the disproportionate bursary funding that allows £9,000 to music graduates but up to £32,000 to graduates in other subjects, in spite of recognition that music is vital to sustaining the creative industries in our country?

The right reverend Prelate shares the concern of many Peers in this Chamber today. As I have said in Answers to earlier Questions, music has been extremely important in my own life; as I mentioned a year ago when this was raised by my noble friend Lord Black, my own father was cured of a debilitating stammer through the discovery of singing when he was a teenager. However, as I said earlier, children can discover music not only through the specific routes of GCSE and A-level. We have set up the music education hubs, which have been an outstanding success. In 2013-14, some 600,000 children had access to them, and last year, according to Birmingham City University, 89% of schools and some 700,000 pupils benefited from them.

My Lords, despite what the Minister said, the Government’s commitment to music education is very much in question, not just because of the falloff in A-level entry that we have heard about. When I met the Secretary of State two weeks ago to discuss music education, he was unable even to give me a commitment that the national plan for music education, which finishes next year and to which the Minister alluded in his initial response, would continue. That is a disaster for the many young children who are studying music just now but have no guarantee beyond 2020. Will the Minister undertake to investigate the possibility of transitional funding to ensure that those young people can continue with their studies?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, these matters are all subject to the spending review, which is under discussion at the moment, but he should rest assured, as I said in my opening Answer, that music remains a high priority for the department.