The National Music Plan (NMP) aims to enable children from all backgrounds and every part of England to have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument; to make music with other people; to learn to sing; and to have the opportunity to progress.
Unfortunately, there are good reasons to worry instead that music education has become the preserve of the elite.
For example, Ofsted reported in 2013 that few Music Hubs – set up to promote and coordinate music regionally – were doing enough to help schools bring the benefits of music education to pupils from all backgrounds. Other reports have highlighted persistent social barriers and described access to music education as ‘unacceptably variable’. Critics have argued that the NMP does not align well with principles of inclusion (for example, downgrading informal learning) and that it has been compromised by the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) which does not include expressive arts among GCSE subject areas counting towards assessment of school performance.
So who is music education for? This question was explored in a new study by researchers at UCL Institute of Education. Our research, funded by Music Hubs representing three ‘plural’ Local Authorities (where no one ethnic group is in the majority), focused on the relevance and perceived value of music education. Key Stage 3 pupils, music teachers, Head-teachers, community music partners and Music Hub leaders participated. Overall, while music was valued and was clearly a part of individual, family and community lives, there were many challenges in translating this into participation and engagement in formal music education
The arguments in favour of the wider social, emotional and cognitive benefits of music education are well-rehearsed and compelling. These benefits are thought to be greatest when engagement with high quality music education begins early and is long-term. It is also known that music education can lead to a wide range of careers. For example, between 2013 and 2014 jobs in creative occupations increased by 6.4%, compared with a 2.1% increase in the total number of jobs in the wider UK economy. Career prospects for music graduates include performance, teaching, broadcasting, arts administration and marketing, media, music production, community arts and more. Yet, although it has been shown to contribute significantly to academic attainment and to creative careers, access to music education has become increasingly inconsistent and patchy. Researchers for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation reported that a postcode lottery still plays a role in music education in the UK. Despite some ‘brilliant’ examples of inclusive and progressive music education, the gap between the best and the worst is stark, with some music departments suffering from low status and poor resourcing, limited support from senior leadership and limited opportunities for professional development.
Even so, we found a widespread and predominant view that music is for everyone. Head Teachers were clear that music at KS3 was not optional and were committed to developing extra-curricular musical opportunities as an integral part of their school cultures. However, barriers to participation included financial constraints; limited resources; personal barriers such as lack of confidence; cultural barriers where the music education on offer did not connect with the cultural experiences of the pupils; and issues concerned with the timing and location of extra-curricular musical activities. Highly variable prior experience of music amongst Year 7 students was exacerbated because secondaries failed to build on the whole-class instrumental teaching children had had in primary school. In some cases, KS3 music was delivered on a ‘carousel’ model, with pupils rotating each term amongst the arts subjects; this meant that pupils had fragmented experience of music education. In addition, families were often very ambivalent about the value of music as part of preparation for a good career. This pointed very strongly to the need for school networking, community partnerships and potentially some provision for mentoring.
Nevertheless, there was a widespread and predominant view that music was something in which everyone could participate. Young people from all cultural backgrounds described musical activities as safe and enjoyable spaces where social barriers had been broken down, and where they could freely express their emotions. Amongst those who identified more strongly as ‘musicians’, many had accessed a range of extra-curricular opportunities and some were self-taught instrumentalists. Amongst others, there was a strong sense of curiosity and desire to explore music-making, particularly through learning instruments and using music technology.
Since 2012, central government funding for implementation of the NMP in England has been channelled through 123 Music Hubs – federations of local partners with a stake in music education. Our report concluded that Music Hubs have a vital role to play in helping to realise the vision of widespread and inclusive participation in excellent music education. Hubs were most highly valued for: the facilitation of partnership working with visiting musicians; educating families about the wider benefits of music; continued instrumental teaching in schools; further developing music technology in schools; and generally supporting schools in fostering high aspirations in music.
The research decisively refutes any suggestion that young people lack interest in music; on the contrary, the findings add to the large body of evidence that music education should be for all and that it is our responsibility to ensure that this is the reality, rather than fantasy, for young people in the UK.
Image: Girl in music class (courtesy of Marc Wathleu via Flickr)