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Music in Schools: A Plea

In the wake of Lord Melvyn Bragg’s House of Lords debate on the vital importance of the arts to the UK’s society and economy, composer Howard Goodall makes an urgent call for the Government to rethink its proposed further reduction of resources for musical education

Photo: JRS/Alamy

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If you went to a state school in the 20th Century and had an interest in or aptitude for music, the chances are you went to a Saturday morning music school run by your local authority, played in your county youth orchestra, band or other ensemble, participated in one of its choirs, and received specialist tuition (often free) in playing or singing.

Like tens of thousands of others, my siblings, cousins, and I all benefited from the Oxfordshire County Music Service. At one point there were five Goodalls in the orchestra. Some of the County Music Services were world class, but even the smaller ones offered a safety-net provision for children who wanted to play instruments, whether or not the local authority school they individually attended had a flourishing music department of its own.

After the change of government in 2010, these services were transformed into ‘Hubs’. Part of the rationale for this was that young people’s experience of and engagement in music, in the new century, was itself changing and it was felt that providers from outside the classical orchestral tradition could add a new dimension to the offer. There was a political aspect to the change, too.

Under then Education Secretary Michael Gove from 2010 onwards, the Government’s policies moved to loosen local authorities’ grip on schooling at an accelerated pace, with the diverting of funds earmarked under Labour for the rebuilding, maintenance and renovation of all schools, to the setting up of so-called ‘free schools’ that would answer only to the Secretary of State, in effect independent but taxpayer-funded.

So it was with the replacement of County Music Services to the Hubs which followed a hybrid model, combining local authority involvement (or not) with private sector organisations, businesses and some musical charities.

The mantra that state-provided services were always necessarily worse than anything the private sector could offer reshaped government policy (see also: public utilities and infrastructure, social housing etc.). The Hubs came into existence and set about their task, by and large, with aplomb.

Then, in June 2022, the Government announced its intention to reduce the number of Music Hubs nationally from 116 (roughly analogous to the county music service network they replaced) to 43, effective this year, in April, theoretically. This came after, and in direct contradiction of, consultation in the sector and analysis of the data received from the Hubs over their 10-year existence that this would be the worst of all given options for a restructuring of the network.


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In the final year of the last Labour Government, funding for the County Music Services ran at £82 million annually, a figure that the incoming Coalition Government pledged to match, which it nearly did (£79 million) – a figure that remains today. Yet £80 million in 2010 is equivalent to £120 million in 2024, so the continued grant of £79 million is not only, in real terms, a significant cut, but the Government is now asking, for this same £79 million, for 43 Hubs to do the work and reach of the 116.

There is not one shred of evidence that the slimming down of the provision network will improve anything. The reduction of Hubs is a cost-cutting exercise dressed up as rationalisation. Nothing about this change will help a single child’s participation in music, though much in the National Plan for Music Education, of which it was a part, was welcomed, outlining as it did a strong case for musical opportunities and pathways to be made available to all children in English schools.

The transforming of the County Music Services into Hubs coincided with Gove’s radical overhaul of the national curriculum at the Department for Education. Gove was warned by almost everyone involved in cultural education that his pet project – what became the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – would decimate creative subjects in state schools. His department ignored this advice (he and Dominic Cummings haughtily described the educators who challenged their reforms as “the Blob”) and went ahead with the five-subject scheme.

Sure enough, since its introduction (and that of its bedfellow, Progress 8 assessment), the uptake of GCSE Music has dropped from 7% of the overall cohort to 4% of the cohort. The drop at ‘A’ Level Music is of a similar magnitude. Ditto other arts subjects. These are stark figures.

We are heading, at this rate, back to the situation in the early 1960s when only 5,000 children annually took ‘O’ Level Music, virtually all of them in grammar and private schools. The huge steps in access and opportunity in the arts for young people that took place thereafter, especially between 1997-2009, which included funding of new resources and classroom teaching of music technology, have been put into reverse.

Why does it matter how many children take music or music technology as a classroom subject, if they can play in an orchestra or sing in a choir, politicians ask (Gove said this to me at a lunch in 2009 before he did all this).

The reason it matters is that, unlike in independent schools, which can afford members of staff to run extra-curricular musical activities whether or not they teach classes, state schools, by and large, fund teachers according to the numbers of children studying a subject in publicly examined classroom subjects. If you are at a school with few or no children taking GCSE or ‘A’ Level music, there simply won’t be the staff to organise and run all the other myriad musical activities that every fee-paying school in the country considers essential to attract parents.

If you rank schools by results, as state schools are by Ofsted, according to how well you deliver the five EBacc subjects, giving scant or no recognition to everything else a school might offer, you will inevitably see a decline in ‘non-essential’ subjects.

What happened to music education between 2010 and 2022 was a root-and-branch dismantling of a model that expected schools to include music just as they would any other subject.

Historically, there were two types of music education offered in advanced economies in the post-war period. Three, if you include Finland (but Finland is so far ahead on its own in educational enlightenment and high standards that it’s unfair to compare it to other countries).

On the one hand, for example, Germany and France, have not traditionally offered much music inside non-specialist secondary schools but created well-resourced music schools in every town or neighbourhood for use at weekends, and after school, with highly subsidised or even free tuition. These local centres also offer the opportunity to be part of ensembles or choirs. 

The UK, on the other hand, developed a different tradition where music in schools would involve the option of studying the subject in class to GCSE/’A’ Level and also a range of extra-curricular musical opportunities on site.  Many states in the US persist with this model too, where you would expect considerable musical endeavour to be going on in a high school without the need for children to look for these activities elsewhere.

The County Music Service network was set up specifically to support and enlarge what individual state schools in the UK offered, not to replace provision in schools. Most if not all children accessing the County Music Services network did so through their schools.

The National Plan of 2022 intended to change the dynamic of this arrangement so that the Hubs would now be wholly responsible for ensuring schools in their area complied with the check list of requirements the Government expected them to provide for their students. No additional funding was found to pay for this considerable new burden of responsibility, and the plan’s stipulation that schools in England teach all five to 14-year-olds one hour of music a week has no statutory enforcement, nor are there any sanctions for schools’ failure to comply.

The Conservatives’ agenda seems to be to hand over the state’s responsibility for music education to independent organisations, outside schools, but with a decreasing level of funding so to do. This feels like a recipe for further decline in music as a classroom subject or extra-curricular activity in any school that does not right now have an outstanding music department, well supported by its senior leadership team.

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What worries me about all this is that it is a no-brainer for a fee-paying school to offer plentiful access to musical engagement for its students. It is assumed that parents want this for their children and that there are huge benefits for a learning community that has plenty of music going on within it.

So why must it be such a struggle for the same assumption not to underpin a government providing a rounded education to the children in its care in state schools? Why is it always a matter of how cheaply it can be done? Why can’t 93% of our children in state schools receive the same musical offering that the 7% children in private schools take for granted? If it’s a good thing for the 7% it’s a good thing for the 93%, is it not?

The signal from the Government, time and time again, is that creative subjects are non-essential. Which is weird for a country that has congratulated itself, for the past 40 years at least, for being the world’s second-biggest provider of music after America.

There is now a drastic shortage of teachers in arts subjects. The Department for Education met only 27% of its target for newly-trained music teachers last year. ’Please come and teach a subject we don’t value, nor will your school get Ofsted credits for you offering excellent music’ is not exactly the welcoming slogan to a career in music teaching they may think it is.

Headteachers are already under enormous pressure, financially, and may be tempted by governmental uninterest to see reducing musical facilities as a way of saving costs in hard times. Some may think, erroneously, the Hubs will have new money to do the job for them.

Rishi Sunak recently revealed his back-of-an-envelope priority for education – that all children up to the age of 18 should take mathematics. It is an idea that seems detached from our current, urgent reality. How will it address our shortages of health workers, revive our hospitality sector, solve the food security crisis unfolding across the agricultural landscape? How do we avert the worst effects of environmental catastrophe?

All of the above will require ingenuity, teamwork, imaginative thinking, resourcefulness – how are those qualities taught and acquired?  How do we help young people to be more open-minded, creative, and community-minded in a period of enormous insecurity and social dislocation? To question, explore, take risks? To perform, to be more confident, to think differently, and to value difference? How do we improve young people’s well-being and mental health?

One answer to these questions is engagement with music and the other arts, from a young age, as part of a rounded, transferable-skills-orientated education. I am pretty sure extending any individual subject, however laudable in its own right, is not the cure. Sunak reinforces the notion that there are ‘essential’ school subjects, and the rest are add-ons, luxuries, agreeable perks.

And, if his idea was solely about our economic future, then riddle me this: what percentage of ‘mathematical’ jobs currently undertaken by accountants and fund managers will be replaced by artificial intelligence in the next 20 years – 80%? 90%?

I’ve met several Conservative MPs who were enthusiastic supporters of the arts in general and of music education being available to young people in particular. They have gone deathly quiet in recent years. Perhaps they were removed in the Great Brexit Purge of 2019. Perhaps they are afraid of being slapped down by libertarian asset-strippers and ultra-nationalist populists, now ascendant in their party, who think the words of Rule, Britannia! or statues of slavers are what constitute our country’s ‘culture’.

In recent years, we have had to listen to a Deputy Prime Minister no less, Dominic Raab, snobbishly mocking Angela Rayner for going to the opera to see Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and a constant stream of disdainful, ill-informed ‘culture warriors’ who cannot conceal their distaste for the people who make art and the institutions, like the BBC, that nourish it.

Britain’s two biggest and most essential exporting industries, by a wide margin, financial and creative, were two sectors conspicuously left out of Lord David Frost’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement withdrawal deal with the EU. For us, in music, that shoddy, negligent negotiation led to a ‘no deal’ Brexit. How valued we felt. By our own Government. It fits a pattern that has emerged in the last decade of neglect, bordering on contempt.

A lot of hope in the music and education worlds is being pinned on an incoming Labour government, enhanced by the fact that the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Thangam Debbonaire, is herself an accomplished musician.

Both she and Labour Leader Keir Starmer have spoken forthrightly about the need to restore music and other arts to their place in schools in England and Wales. The weight of expectation on a new government, if elected, will be to find quick fixes to problems that have been years, or even decades, in the making, with a gigantic national debt and public sector funding crises everywhere you look. Right now, there are nine million children of school age in England, and the current funding for music services that support them in school, the Hubs, get £79 million a year from government. That’s less than £9 per child, per year.

Don’t our children deserve better than this?

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