ISM Chief Executive, Deborah Annetts' Keynote Speech from the Music… Jump to main content

ISM Chief Executive, Deborah Annetts' Keynote Speech from the Music Education Solutions conference

ISM Chief Executive, Deborah Annetts was invited to deliver the keynote speech for the recent Music Education Solutions Conference on Friday 18 March at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham.

Below is a copy of the full speech.


Many thanks for making the time to attend this important conference on music education and the curriculum.

As many of you will know the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) is the UK's professional body for musicians. We are also a subject association for music. Since 1882, we have been dedicated to promoting the importance of music and supporting those who work in the music profession. We have over 11,000 members across the UK and Ireland many of whom work in music education.

We know the importance of the creative arts. There is clinically significant evidence that children who participate actively in the performing arts spend less time sitting in front of a computer screen playing games and therefore are at less of a risk of developing health problems. Children who spend more than two hours a day on screen related pastimes are at a high risk of developing health issues, such as obesity. They can also become socially isolated and lose the ability to empathise, to communicate and to learn emotional intelligence.

There is plenty of research which shows the amazing impact that studying music has in terms of learning. A 2019 study from the University of British Columbia of over 100,000 pupils found that pupils participating in school music scored higher in English, maths and science. “Findings of this study revealed higher academic outcomes for students who took school music courses relative to those who took none”

Sue Hallam’s key work, 'The Power of Music' has shown that music can enhance language skills and literacy, support creativity, academic progress and attainment, enhance fine motor skills, motivate disaffected students and contribute to health and wellbeing. And a poll conducted for the ISM found that 85% of adults backed the statement that ‘Music education must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition.’

Impact of COVID-19

We know that the last two years have been very challenging. At the ISM we saw the impact of COVID-19 with music teachers seeking advice on a daily basis as to what they could or could not do in schools. In the latter part of 2020 we undertook research which focused on the impact of COVID-19 on music education across the whole of the UK. Published in December 2020, the ISM report 'The Heart of the school is missing: Music education in the COVID-19 crisis' collated over 1300 responses across the UK music teaching profession working in schools.

Our survey findings revealed the detrimental impact that COVID-19 has had on music education. All aspects of music education were being affected – curriculum entitlement, singing in schools, practical music making, extra-curricular activities, instrumental learning and examinations.

As a direct result of the pandemic, music provision was reduced in 68% of responding primary schools and 39% of secondary schools. Extra-curricular activities were no longer taking place in 72% of primary schools and 66% of primary schools in the 2020/21 academic year. Most shocking was the fact that almost 10% of primary and secondary schools were teaching no class music at all.

This crisis affected teachers as well as pupils. It is clear from these results that teachers were working incredibly hard, showing immense creativity constantly adapting resources to provide continuous access to music for young people. But this extraordinary commitment came at a cost. Our findings also found that music teachers’ health and well-being was being negatively impacted by the changes they were experiencing in the delivery of classroom and extra-curricular music and the amount of support they had received from their schools.

National Plan for Music Education

At about the same time as the pandemic was taking hold in February 2020, the Government put out a press release headed,

“ New National Plan to shape the future of music education.”

And below the headline the DfE stated that:

“Music industry experts will help shape the future of music education, as the Government sets to refresh the blueprint that promotes equal music opportunities”

And the press release went on to say that the responses to the Call for Evidence and experiences put forward will help inform changes to the Plan which will then be fully consulted on.

Remember those words because they are key to what I will be talking about.

The DfE’s call for evidence lasted from 9 February 2020 to 13 March 2020.It is important that we are clear on the scope of this consultation. Text from the Call for Evidence states as follows: ‘Wider Departmental policy, for example on assessment, accountability or school funding, does not fall within the scope of the National Plan for Music Education, and therefore does not fall within the scope of this call for evidence.’

This is in stark contrast to what the press release says.

So that means that right from the very start of the process stuff which music teachers might want to talk about such as funding and accountability measures were off limits.

On 6 August 2021, the Government finally published its report on the Call for Evidence. The report revealed that not much has changed since the NPME was first introduced. Over a third of respondents (36%) said the Call for Evidence was the first time they’d heard of the NPME and the same number said it had been ineffective in meeting the Government’s vision since 2012. Although reviews of Music Education Hubs were more positive, concerns were also raised about the challenges they face, including budget restrictions and a lack of awareness of their role. While hubs can play an extremely positive role in extending music provision this must supplement high-quality school-based music lessons, not come at its expense.

So as we have seen the Call for Evidence was very narrow and specifically excluded the impact of long terms polices such as accountability measures and a lack of funding. However rather interestingly despite these policy impacts being off limits, the Government’s report on the Call for Evidence outlined a number of examples which highlighted exactly these issues. For example, the report found that ‘music in Key Stage 3 suffered from being included as part of a carousel…’ and ‘For those young people who wanted to study a music qualification but were not able to, a number of them said that they felt under pressure to choose other subjects instead or that music was not available as a GCSE or A-level option at their school.’

Both parents and pupils identified cost as the biggest barrier to musical participation and some headteachers and education leaders said that they were not engaging with their local hub as the provision offered was too expensive.

So this is all a bit of a muddle – either issues are in scope or out of scope and if the Government is reporting on an out of scope finding then surely the Government should be exploring how to rectify the insufficient funding for schools and hubs and the disappearance of the availability of GCSE and A level music.

Accountability measures

We all know that the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and Progress 8 have contributed to the decline in music education and the other arts subjects in our schools. The fall in Arts uptake at GCSE over 2014 – 2021 is really quite startling:

All Arts subjects – 28%

Design and technology: 59%

Drama: 21%

Music: 17%

The EBacc and Progress 8 disincentivise schools to offer Arts subjects. Research by Ofsted
found that around half of schools had moved to a two-year Key Stage 3 model which had resulted in the marginalisation of practical and creative subjects. This has led to inequalities of opportunity for many pupils. The most recent research by the ISM found that 25% of responding secondary school music teachers reported that pupils were not receiving classroom music throughout Key Stage 3 as a continuing result of the EBacc.

The Ofsted Research Review: Music, published in July 2021, also acknowledged the narrowing of the curriculum at Key Stage 3 and the decline in uptake of music courses at Key Stages 4 and 5:

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Music Education in their report Music Education: State of the Nation (January 2019) found that a lack of funding also plays a role in all of this - “hav[ing] a negative impact on curriculum music provision in primary schools…[including] cuts to funding which have forced some schools to no longer employ specialist music teachers”.

And as we have seen the DfE found the same thing as shown by their Report on the Call for Evidence.

Inequalities in music education

We know that arts subjects are in decline and have been for many years – the decline in the number of GCSE entries each year speak for themselves – but we also know that there are other factors at play, many of which occur outside of the classroom. Anyone who has worked in a school with a diverse intake will recognise the conductor, composer and performer Anita Datta’s analysis that ‘The obstacles facing our students from working-class and impoverished backgrounds are quite different from those of their middle-class counterparts.’

Lack of space, lack of parental support and encouragement, parents working shift work, caring responsibilities or looking after siblings can all limit a young person’s ability to engage with and enjoy after school clubs, instrumental lessons or even continue studying a subject. Research into musical participation and school culture (Underhill, 2015) found that if the parental view of learning music at school was negative then the child’s view would also be negative and this could affect the pupil’s engagement in school music, the value they played on music as a school subject and the decision to continue music education at key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5.

At the last meeting of the APPG for Music Education held on 1 March 2022, Georgina Burt, from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) talked about the impact of poverty on access to music in CPAG’s report, The Cost of the School Day. Researchers spoke to 4,500 children over two years on how school costs impact their engagement and opportunities and found that:

  • Music has one of largest participation gaps and children from low-income households are less likely to take music at GCSE.
  • There is a lack of sustained free opportunities in school music provision: for instance, a term of free tuition but then students have to pay to continue.
  • Cost of instrumental lessons and the purchase or hire of instruments are barriers.
  • Extra-curricular activities are also affected: for instance, access to school productions is more limited if you haven’t learnt an instrument.

DfE's Call for Evidence 2020

The ISM in its role of a subject association has been deeply concerned that the remit of the call for evidence was so narrow and excluded areas such as funding and accountability measures which really matter to teachers. This is particularly the case given that the scope of the call for evidence was so at odds with the DfE’s press release on the refreshed Plan, which you will recall, stated:

“Music industry experts will help shape the future of music education, as the Government sets to refresh the blueprint that promotes equal music opportunities”

The Call for Evidence in 2020 did not ask respondents their views on how the Plan should be refreshed, ignoring the wealth of experience and suggestions at their disposal from both the classroom and peripatetic music workforce. But worse was to come. It has now emerged that contrary to the promise of the Government in February 2020 the DfE has decided that it will not consult on the draft Plan.

Remember the promise, “that the responses to the Call for Evidence and experiences put forward will help inform changes to the Plan which will then be fully consulted on”

We have raised our concerns around a lack of consultation with the DfE because we do not believe that the refreshed NPME should be imposed on the workforce. The DfE is adamant that there is no need for more consultation because the Call for Evidence did precisely that. They have clearly forgotten their promise to consult.

Because of our concerns around the narrowness of the Call for Evidence and the flawed consultation process, the ISM created a survey aimed at music teachers working in primary and secondary schools and of course peris to examine the current music education provision in English schools (both curricular and extra-curricular) alongside ideas for what should be included in the refreshed Plan. Over 500 primary, secondary and peripatetic music teachers from all types of settings responded to the ISM’s survey. The survey ran from 16 November 2021 to 10 January 2022.

The findings showed that unfortunately inequality in music education in England, which the NPME was meant to address, still exists – in classroom and instrumental provision, in funding, in Senior Leadership support and in the type of school pupils attend. And we of course now have the report of the Child Poverty Action Group which shows just how hard it is to access music if you come from a disadvantaged background.

The ISM's recent music education survey results

The results of the ISM’s survey show that school-based music education provision varies greatly, with some schools offering the bare minimum and others offering a wealth of both classroom and extra-curricular experiences. It is clear that COVID-19 is still having a negative effect on some musical activities, mostly within primary settings, with extra-curricular ensembles and choirs still not having resumed in some schools. In secondary schools, teachers reported that the Key Stage 3 (KS3) curriculum continues to be narrowed, mostly in academies, either through placing music on a carousel or rota system with other subjects, or through a shortened, two-year KS3.

Classroom teachers reported struggling with a lack of funding for their departments, often having to raise additional funds through concerts in order to provide equipment and resources for their students and in some cases paying for smaller items like drumsticks themselves. Some of the comments are simply heart-breaking.

Our survey data showed that departmental mean budgets for the year for music were £1865 in maintained schools, in academies and free schools it was £2152
and in independent schools, £9917. These budgets usually have to cover departmental spending for the entire year.

Overall, 61% of respondents in the state sector said that their budget was insufficient. Teachers reported low per-pupil spending and significant budget cuts, which they felt was limiting the learning of pupils and stifling department growth. A lack of CPD funding was also highlighted, with teachers looking at alternative routes such as training to be examiners.

These are some of the quotes from classroom music teachers:

“Annual budget works out at £3.79 per student studying music…”

“It works out at less than £1 per student in the school.”

“We train to be examiners to save on CPD costs.”

A large number of teachers told us that they raised additional funds through concerts or paid for items themselves. This was often to supplement budgets which only covered basic costs such as stationery. Many teachers don’t receive additional pay for extra-curricular activities or for the time required to plan and deliver concerts. In these cases, they are essentially working for free to raise additional money for their departments.

“We rely on fundraising at concerts and events…”

“I raise some money from concerts and I buy a lot of resources myself.”

“Until recently we supplemented our budget through concert funds. This has recently been removed and we will no longer see the benefit of ticket/raffle proceeds.”

“I repair as many instruments as possible at no cost.”

“I struggle to maintain aged resources and have to pay for strings, leads, sticks etc with my own money.”

Many music departments did not have an allocated budget. In these cases, teachers had to request or bid for funding to cover what was needed.

“We no longer have a budget but are required to bid for things we need.”

“Budget not really given. Asked to put in orders in the hope they will be accepted. Always having to justify every little thing even if reason is obvious. Long wait times for processing.”

Teachers also expressed frustration regarding a lack of investment in IT and the associated costs for updated equipment and software as well as not being able to offer a full range of opportunities for their pupils. Many teachers reported a desire to buy in workshops or visits from professional musicians but their budget did not allow for this.

“…[the budget] doesn’t cover paying for cultural workshops, educational visits, visiting musicians etc.”

“I’d love to invite people to lead workshops but that is too costly.”

Teachers also told us overwhelmingly that accountability measures such as the EBacc and Progress 8 have caused harm to music education, both in relation to KS3 provision, KS4 subject uptake and also post-16 options. This is the same finding as the DfE noted in their report.

Peripatetic instrumental and vocal teachers echoed the experiences of their classroom colleagues in both primary and secondary schools. They noted mixed provision and opportunities in primary schools including the long-term impact that COVID-19 has had, and the narrowing of the curriculum and impact of accountability measures in secondary schools. Reduced uptake of GCSE, A Level and vocational music qualifications had also led to a reduction in the number of pupils taking instrumental lessons which was directly impacting on their income.

In relation to the NPME, our survey findings show that the majority of music teachers in our sample had not responded to the Government’s call for evidence in 2020 because they were not aware of it. Of those who had read the subsequent Report on the Call for Evidence, most did not think it was an accurate reflection of what is currently happening in music education in the maintained sector.

Close on 100% of those who responded to the ISM’s survey thought that music teachers should be consulted on the draft refreshed NPME before it is implemented. Teachers shared their thoughts on how the Plan should be refreshed and what they would like to see covered within it – a question that was not asked in the Government’s Call for Evidence.

Themes which emerged from the data include increased, ring-fenced funding for music departments and instrumental and vocal tuition, reform of accountability measures, higher subject profile and a more inclusive and diverse curriculum. Teachers also wanted the new plan to be fully representative of Early Years, Post-18 and SEND provision and to be realistic to deliver, recognising the differences which exist between schools, funding and resources. The ISM survey shows what needs to happen if we are to improve the current state of music education.

The ISM’s full report will be out next week so watch this space.

As I said, close on 100% of music teachers want to be consulted by the DfE before the refreshed NPME takes effect. This is the opportunity for the DfE to build better links with the music teacher community and demonstrate that they value the music teacher workforce and to learn from their knowledge and experience. It is the not the time for the DfE to break their promise given the vast inequalities in music education.

Contrast this approach with the words of Mark Philips, Senior HMI and National Lead for Music at Ofsted. Last year he gave a speech at the Music and Drama Education Expo where he stressed the importance of not de-professionalising and devaluing the role of the teacher by taking a scheme of work and saying ‘anyone can teach this’. He went on to say that it’s simply not true – ‘it takes a musical music teacher to teach it’.

‘...without the expert knowledge, the expert behaviour of the music teacher, no resource is of any worth whatsoever, it takes a music teacher. A printed or published scheme of work cannot listen to what the pupils are doing. A published scheme of work does not respond to the unexpected response from the pupil, it can’t celebrate what the pupil does well, that’s the job of the music teacher.’

The DfE is increasingly ploughing a rather lonely furrow. The Times Education Commission’s interim report, published on 26 January 2022 highlighted the negative impact of accountability measures on the curriculum. The Commission calls for a ‘radical reshaping’ of an ‘out of touch’ education system. Accountability measures are criticised for their ‘single-minded focus on grades’ which have ‘undermined the broad and balanced curriculum that should be offered to all young people’.

The report also quotes an OUP survey of secondary teachers which found that less than half think the curriculum is ‘broad and balanced’ with 82 per cent saying that the current accountability system is ‘overly concerned with academic achievement’.


We need a more diverse approach than the current ideological knowledge-rich curriculum. We need to reform accountability measures such as Progress 8 so that Arts education can be supported not restricted and to allow for parity of subject status. Reducing the number of subjects included in such measures to maths, English and science – a Progress 5 – would help maintain the broad and balanced curriculum until the end of Key Stage 4, and allow pupils more flexibility in their subject choices to better reflect their interests, talents and future plans.

Whilst we are facing an unprecedented crisis in music education, COVID-19 also provides us with a pivotal moment for reflection and an opportunity to reset education policy. We have a potential opening in which to build a curriculum which puts young people’s needs first, championing creative learning in addition to science, technology, English and Maths (STEM) and addressing the needs of young people in the post-COVID-19 world. It also offers the opportunity to revisit the nature and purpose of assessments to ensure young people are fully equipped for the future.

If the UK, post-Brexit, is going to be an ‘international trading nation’, children and young people must be educated for the industries of the future. According to a study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte:

“In the future, businesses will need more skills, including: digital know-how, management capability, creativity, entrepreneurship and complex problem solving.”

And we should remember that the creative industries, are now worth more than £116 billion to the UK economy and the music industry is worth £6 billion. These industries rely heavily on the pipeline of creative talent from schools. Investing in music education ultimately results in investment in the economy, and young people deserve every opportunity to develop as musicians and join this pipeline.

Music must be central to the recovery curriculum, playing a vital role in schools helping their students to explore and express the varied emotions and challenges that they will have experienced during the pandemic, building stronger relationships and communities within schools and with families.

To deliver what the Government press release says it wants, namely a “blueprint that promotes equal music opportunities” we need to campaign for better funding for music education and for a change to the accountability measures in line with what teachers need. And the DfE needs to deliver on its promise to music teachers which it made in February 2020, namely to consult on the draft Plan.