ISM speeches from the Next steps for Curriculum Music: Beyond the… Jump to main content

ISM speeches from the Next steps for Curriculum Music: Beyond the Noise conference

Speaking at the Next steps for Curriculum Music: Beyond the Noise conference ISM Chief Executive Deborah Annetts and ISM Research Associate Dr Jodie Underhill discussed the recently published refreshed National Plan for Music Education and last 10 years of music education through the prism of the ISM’s research, including The Heart of the School is Missing, which was published during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2022’s Music: A subject in Peril?

Below are copies of the full speeches.

ISM Chief Executive Deborah Annett's speech:

The Incorporated Society of Musicians is the UK’s professional body for all musicians and a subject association for music education. Since 1882, the ISM has been dedicated to promoting the importance of music, and music education and protecting the rights of those working in the music profession including teachers, performers and composers.

We support over 11,000 members across the UK as well as the wider music sector through our range of specialist services. The ISM has been intensively involved in music education right from our founding in 1882. In 1912, the ISM supported a private members bill in the House of Lords regarding concerns about the quality of music education. Not much has changed since then in terms of our interest – today, over 100 years later, we seek to ensure high quality and provision of music education for all both in and outside our schools, irrespective of ability, age or background.

The ISM Trust, our sister charity, was created in 2014 to advance education, the arts and to promote health. The primary focus is to deliver high quality professional development by leading practitioners from the ISM and also in partnership with other organisations. The Trust is dedicated to creating pioneering resources to support music and all those who work in the sector including music educators, performers, and composers and delivers work through webinars, regional seminars, training events and advice packs. These education resources are predominantly free and can be found at

In 2009, drawing on our objects from 1882 we set up a Policy and Research function at the ISM which has grown and developed. We have now undertaken research across a number of areas which directly impact on the music sector from music education and Brexit to diversity and copyright. The ISM is very lucky in that two of our team have doctorates which means that the research they undertake is rigorous. Our methodology when undertaking primary research is to find out what is actually going on at the grass roots. Our policy surveys which focus on music education, Brexit and diversity are always open to everyone who has something they want to share with us. They are never just open to ISM members. This is important to understand when we are then analysing the data and turning the data we receive into policy asks.

Our advocacy and policy work are data led.

As many of you will know we have been voicing our concerns around the impact of some of the Government’s broader education policies for some time – in particular the accountability measures and the adverse effect they have on the provision of music education. We have also been campaigning on funding for very many years and I do not see this changing.

For some time we have been saying to the DfE we need to have strong statements from the Department on the importance of music education. We have seen in some research music disappearing in some school settings and we felt that with help from Government this direction of travel could be reversed. You will see this in particular in our report from 2019. So I was delighted to see the following statement in the Power of Music to change Lives : a National Plan for Music education.

I am now going to directly quote from page 25.

Music is a statutory subject in the national curriculum for all children in primary school and for the first years in of secondary from KS 1 to 3. This applies to all mainstream and special schools. Music should be planned, sequenced and taught as robustly as any other foundation subject.”

The ISM totally agrees.

We all know just how important music education is. 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.

As we know musical activity involves many different parts of the brain, so singing (which involves music and language) helps develop these areas, as neurological studies from the UK, Germany and the US have found. Music and the arts are a powerful contributor to wellbeing.

Music must be central to the 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.

Given that about 35% of current jobs in the UK are at high risk of computerisation over the next 10 to 20 years, music is going to be critical in this new world. So post Brexit, if the UK is going to be an ‘international trading nation’, children and young people must be educated for the industries of the future.

ISM Research Associate Dr Jodie Underhill's speech:

It has been more than 10 years since the National Plan for Music Education was published, 12 years since the introduction of the EBacc and seven years since the introduction of Progress 8, all of which follow years of cuts to education spending. Schools have also been recovering from two years of serious disruption due to COVID-19, which impacted music provision across the country, and just over a week ago, the long-awaited refreshed National Plan was released.

The original Plan was a strong, visionary document setting out a firm commitment from the Government in England to provide a high quality and sustained music education for all. The core and extension roles of the Hubs as defined in the original Plan further enhanced this commitment to a well-rounded music education. Aspects of music education for some young people were also supported in many other ways, for example through Youth Music funding, Music for Youth, In Harmony, the Music and Dance Scheme and the plethora of opportunities funded by charities, grants and families in wider school life, beyond schools and in communities.

However, despite the best intentions and efforts of schools and Hubs, there have been systemic challenges across music education which have negatively impacted the aspirations of the original Plan and the DfE’s own research showed that a third of respondents to their 2020 Call for Evidence thought it had been ineffective in meeting its original vision. The Music Education: State of the Nation report, published by the ISM, the University of Sussex and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education in 2019 highlighted the significant impact of government policy on music education, through factors including accountability measures in secondary schools, and statutory English and maths tests in primary schools. Widening gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, falling teacher recruitment numbers and a continuing decrease in the uptake of Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 courses have all contributed to a decline in music education.

Described in Music Teacher magazine as ‘very much Nick Gibb’s baby’ the Model Music Curriculum (MMC) was published in March 2021, offering helpful evidence of the Government’s stated desire to support music education and its importance in schools. However, its potential for meaningful impact on music education has to be seen within the framework of the government’s wider policies and initiatives. It does not sit alone amongst government expectations and cannot, on its own, effect significant change when there are so many other issues at work.

The ISM have long been concerned that while the government has expressed its commitment to music education in documents such as the National Plan and the Model Music Curriculum, it has also made a variety of decisions over the last decade that have undermined music and other creative subjects, including funding cuts and the introduction of the EBacc and Progress 8 accountability measures, all of which remain a concern.

Music is a curriculum subject and should be funded accordingly, yet real-term education spending per pupil fell 9% in the decade from 2009 to 2019 – the largest cut in over 40 years. At the APPG for Music Education in March this year, experts from across the music sector agreed that variations in funding for school music affect the quality of provision, highlighting that no other subjects are expected to rely on outside agencies to deliver the curriculum in the way that music does.

Although government funding for Music Education Hubs has gradually increased since 2014 from £58 million to £79 million in 2021 (a drop of £1 million from 2020), this has at most accounted for just under 40% of the total income for hubs according to the most recent annual survey from 2018. Predominantly schools and parents have had to make up the shortfall, along with other sources such as Local Authorities and donations.

A recent report from the Child Poverty Action Group on the cost of the school day found that ‘the cost of participating fully in musical opportunities at school is preventing pupils in low-income families from flourishing. Limited and stretched household incomes are directly having an impact on engagement and achievement in music for young people in England.’ The only way to achieve equity, accessibility and inclusion in music education is by ensuring equality of funding. Without this, the government’s Levelling Up agenda cannot succeed.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant disruption to our education system and music teaching was singled out as problematic within both school and extra-curricular guidance from the Government. The late publication of safe music teaching guidance in England left schools struggling to implement mitigating measures ahead of schools returning in September 2020. Despite this, teachers worked incredibly hard in challenging times, showing flexibility and professionalism and consistently adapting in order to provide opportunities for young people to make and create music.

ISM surveyed over 1300 music teachers across the UK during this time and published The Heart of the School is Missing in December 2020. We found that all aspects of music education were being impacted by the pandemic - curriculum entitlement, singing in schools, practical music making, extra-curricular activities, instrumental learning and examinations were all being impacted. Our survey findings also suggested that music teachers’ health and well-being was being negatively affected by the changes they were experiencing in the delivery of classroom and extra-curricular music and the amount of support they received from their schools.

68% of primary school teachers and 39% of secondary school teachers reported a reduction in music provision as a direct result of the pandemic. Teachers reported that extra-curricular activities were no longer taking place in 72% of primary schools and 66% of secondary schools. Almost 10% of primary and secondary schools were not teaching class music at all as a direct result of COVID-19. Our latest report found that some primary school music provision was still struggling to recover, almost a year after COVID-19 restrictions in schools were lifted. Some respondents reported that extra-curricular activities or group singing had not resumed or that numbers attending were greatly diminished.

In order to establish the situation of music education in schools as COVID restrictions were fully lifted and in anticipation of the refreshed National Plan we ran a survey of classroom and peripatetic music teachers between November 2021 and January 2022. The survey gathered teachers’ opinions on the current music education provision in English schools (both curricular and extra-curricular), the impact of the EBacc and Progress 8 accountability measures and their ideas on what should be included in the refreshed National Plan. Over 500 primary, secondary and peripatetic music teachers from all types of settings responded to the survey. The findings confirmed that inequality in music education in England, which the original National Plan was meant to address, still exists – in classroom and instrumental provision, in Senior Leadership support, in the type of schools pupils attend and, most starkly, in funding.

Teachers’ responses revealed a shocking picture of inequality in music provision across the sectors. The most varied experiences were in primary schools, where provision ranged from ‘virtually none’ to weekly classroom lessons for all pupils with a specialist music teacher, complemented by whole class ensemble teaching, multiple ensembles and a full range of peripatetic instrumental lessons. Secondary teachers reported that the Key Stage 3 curriculum for pupils aged 11-14 continues to be narrowed either through placing music on a carousel or rota system with other subjects, or through shortening Key Stage 3 from three years to two years. This reflects the findings of the Ofsted Research Review for Music, published in July 2021, which 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 but stopped short of recognising the EBacc as a fundamental cause of this.

Peripatetic teachers, many of whom work in a range of schools, echoed the experiences of their classroom colleagues and also highlighted the issues surrounding instrumental and vocal lesson uptake, which directly affects their income. In some cases, COVID had impacted the numbers of pupils learning an instrument but more often the cost was the greatest barrier preventing pupils taking lessons.

Our data showed a vast difference in departmental budgets for music, ranging from £0 to £100,000, with clear differences between school types. Respondents from Independent schools received over four times the departmental funding of academies and free schools, and over five times the amount of maintained schools. The mean yearly budget in maintained schools was £1,865, in academies and free schools it was £2,152, and in independent schools, £9,917. Many music departments did not have an allocated budget. In these cases, teachers had to request funding to cover what was needed and hope that the requests would be approved. Teachers also expressed frustration regarding a lack of IT investment, 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 reported a desire to buy in workshops or visits from professional musicians, but their budget did not allow for this.

Overall, 93% of respondents said that accountability measures such as the EBacc and/or Progress 8 had caused harm to the provision of music education. Teachers told us that these accountability measures had led to a decline in the uptake of KS4 and post-16 courses, impacted option choices, and devalued music as a subject. Teachers reported fewer pupils taking GCSE or BTEC music, sometimes resulting in courses being dropped from the curriculum completely. This had a knock-on effect on A-level provision, with one teacher stating that no secondary schools in their city offered A-level music. It also impacts the workforce, with music teachers’ hours decreasing if KS4 and post-16 courses do not run. The DfE’s own research in 2021 found that ‘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.’

When asked how they would like to see the National Plan revised, seven clear themes emerged. These were increased, ring-fenced funding, addressing the narrowing of the curriculum and reforming the EBacc, supporting the workforce both in and out of the classroom, giving the subject a higher profile and increasing its value, more diverse and accessible provision, consultation with current teachers, and for it to be realistic to deliver.

There is absolutely no question that music teachers in and out of schools are going above and beyond the call of duty to deliver music education in spite of the significant challenges they face. Music teachers in schools, Hubs and community settings up and down the country share the government’s aspiration for a strong and sustained music education for all. Our research clearly shows that, while there is incredible work being delivered in many Hubs and schools, there are challenges, including funding, accountability measures and teacher education and recruitment.

It is great to see so much of what we, and the music teachers in our survey, have been calling for reflected in the new National Plan. We are particularly pleased that so many of our recommendations from our reports have been adopted, from the delivery of music for one hour a week across all key stages, to the inclusion of Early Years and SEND in the plan, to the recognition of the need for a higher subject profile. We are thankful to both the Government and the Expert Panel who have clearly worked incredibly hard to deliver it. We will monitor its impact carefully, celebrate the positives but also unashamedly keep on talking about the wider issues that impact on music education which were out of the scope of the refreshed Plan such as funding and accountability measures. We also know that there are significant challenges facing the workforce and these challenges could hamper delivery of the new Plan. Our current research, due to be published later this month, focusses on the wider workforce to see what needs to change in the light of the refreshed Plan, in particular peripatetic instrumental and vocal teachers who have faced increasing casualisation for more than 20 years as a result of government policy, changing business models and funding cuts.

There is a wealth of evidence that the current education system and the current exam system are not working and are not fit for purpose. Select committees, think tanks, education foundations, teaching unions and industry bodies all agree that the EBacc is a flawed policy.

We need a more diverse approach than the ideological knowledge-rich curriculum of Nick Gibb, influenced by the work of ED Hirsh. 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.

Some have gone further and called for a complete re-think of GCSEs, including Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, a collective of independent schools, head teachers and other key figures such as Lord Kenneth Baker called Rethinking Assessment and the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs which has called for a replacement of GCSEs with a Baccalaureate-type qualification at age 18 which could be either academic, technical or an apprenticeship. It is clear that the appetite for change is growing and now is a golden opportunity for the DfE to reverse the damaging policies of the last decade.