We should ensure every young person can access high quality music education

'Too often, schools are charging young people for teaching and instrument hire that, in many cases, is necessary for the national curriculum or required to pass GCSE and A-level music'.

Ben Cooper (@BenCooper1995) is a senior researcher at the Fabian Society

Every day, millions of young people sing, make music with others, and learn to play a musical instrument. They see music education as vital to their own life and identity. The wider benefits are also significant: music teaching supports other educational outcomes and social mobility, improves health and wellbeing, and creates opportunities to participate in the creative industries – a rapidly growing sector of the economy.

But many young people in England are being denied the opportunity to participate in good quality, affordable music education in schools and the wider community. Over a decade ago, the National Plan for Music Education in England set out how public funding would ensure every child has the opportunity to sing, make music, or learn an instrument. Instead, young people are increasingly turning to YouTube and DIY learning, which can be useful but cannot adequately replace formal music education lessons.

Within schools, music has often been side-lined as a result of real-terms funding cuts, an unequal focus on so-called ‘core’ subjects – at the expense of the wider curriculum – and challenges in recruiting enough qualified teachers. In secondary schools, the introduction of the EBacc has disincentivised schools from offering creative and artistic subjects, including music. For many young people, music education is now only experienced for a few weeks a year – not as a core learning entitlement. 

Outside of schools, the government’s ‘music education hubs’ are supposed to deliver additional classroom teaching, instrumental and vocal tuition, ensemble playing opportunities, and the chance to learn from professional musicians.  But these are struggling to expand access to high quality music education consistently across the country. There is a postcode lottery: some hubs work hard to improve their offer to children and young people, while others have been unable to do so. And all hubs are being asked to deliver with vastly reduced funding and little medium or long-term certainty over budgets. This has led to a reduction in the working conditions of music teachers, with an increase in insecure contracts and widespread low pay both of which exacerbate problems with the recruitment and retention of qualified professionals.     

While accessing high quality music education is challenging for many, the barriers are particularly high for young people from low-income families. Too often, schools are charging young people for teaching and instrument hire that, in many cases, is necessary for the national curriculum or required to pass GCSE and A-level music. Young Black and minority ethnic people, disabled young people, and those who live in rural areas are also more likely to struggle to access music education. Many of these young people would benefit from music education the most, yet are less likely to be able to access it. 

Clearly, after more than a decade, government promises on music education have not materialised for most young people in England. The government must change how music education is provided, so that every young person has the chance to sing, make music, and learn an instrument. The government has an opportunity to do this: it is currently reviewing the National Plan for Music Education for England, and may potentially set out a new direction. 

As it does so, Westminster should look to Wales. Last month, the Welsh Labour Government set out its plans to deliver universal access to high quality music education, with a new National Music Service at its heart. Delivery of this aim is supported by substantially increased funding, appropriate recognition for music teachers, and a new national instrument and equipment library. The plan also explicitly focuses on inclusion – particularly for disabled young people, those from low-income families, and those from under-represented backgrounds.

The Welsh government’s plan for music education is ambitious – and in its earliest stages. Its success will need to be monitored. But the ambition should be emulated in England – and backed up by the resources needed to ensure every young person has access to a high quality music education.

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