ISM response to DfE's report on Music education call for evidence Jump to main content

ISM response to DfE's report on Music education call for evidence

In February 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a call for evidence, to inform proposals for a refreshed National Plan for Music Education (NPME) - now expected in 2022. This will update the original NPME published in 2011, which was intended to help tackle challenges such the ‘postcode lottery’ of provision and ensure equal and available opportunities.

One of its main recommendations was the introduction of Music Education Hubs, with the aim of increasing and equalising access across the country. Annual grant funding for Music Education Hubs from the DfE via Arts Council England is a provision within the NPME.

Department for Education's results of the call for evidence

The results of the Music education: Report on the call for evidence on 6 August 2021 made sobering reading for everyone who has witnessed the decimation of music provision in our schools over the last decade.

While music teachers working both in and out of schools are going above and beyond the call of duty to maintain high quality provision, it is clear they are facing increasingly insurmountable challenges. Without an urgent, concerted effort from the government to reverse this trend, access to musical education will increasingly be the preserve of those who are able to afford private tuition. The report on the call for evidence found that more than 60% of young people and parents said that cost was a barrier to accessing music activities.

The DfE report ultimately reveals that not much has changed since the National Plan for Music Education (NPME) was first introduced in 2011. 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. The postcode lottery of provision is still very much in evidence, cost is a still a barrier and other subjects are being prioritised over music, leading to a limited number of opportunities and a lack of specialist teachers.

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. The updated NPME must provide clarity over the roles and responsibilities of schools and Hubs. To fulfil their potential, Hubs also need to be given ring-fenced multi-year funding in the next Spending Review.

Currently the ongoing funding insecurity for Hubs mean they are increasingly moving teachers onto insecure, flat-rate, hourly paid roles. This is at odds with the NPME’s proclaimed drive for professionalism and high-quality music education and sustainable and high-quality provision. 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.

State of the Nation report and ISM #BaccfortheFuture campaign

The 2019 Music Education: State of the Nation report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, University of Sussex and the ISM highlighted the impact of accountability measures on music education, particularly the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in 2010. Darren Henley’s Review of Music Education in 2011 (whose recommendations informed the NPME) warned that if music was not one of the subjects included in the EBacc then it risked being devalued. It is clear that over the past decade this has proved to be true.

The Call for Evidence 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. Some young people said that they were deterred by the cost of instrument tuition or qualifications.’

In 2018, Ofsted found that around half of secondary schools had moved to a two-year Key Stage 3 to enable pupils to cover the sheer amount of content in EBacc subjects which had resulted in the marginalisation of practical and creative subjects. Data from the Joint Council of Qualifications (JCQ) shows a significant decline in the number of pupils taking GCSE music, with a fall of 19% between 2011 and 2021. The impacts are also felt at Key Stage 5 where music A-Level entries fell by 44% between 2011 and 2021.

The ISM has been calling for EBacc reform since it launched the #BaccfortheFuture campaign in 2012. Adding a ‘sixth pillar’ to the EBacc for creative subjects including music was also one of the key recommendations of the State of the Nation report and would help address the significant barriers to children and young people’s access to higher-level study or performing opportunities. Successive Select Committee reports from the DfE, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and later the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have all called on the government to reform the EBacc to widen the range of subjects that are included.

When the government launched the non-statutory Model Music Curriculum (MMC) in March 2021, it was promoted as a ‘new music curriculum to help schools deliver world-class teaching’. The ‘next steps’ section of the Call for Evidence report suggests that the refreshed plan ‘will take into account how the [Model Music] Curriculum is starting to be used by schools to help inform their lessons and how it can support the vision set out in the current plan’. However, the MMC does not sit alone amongst government expectations and cannot, on its own, effect significant change when there are so many other issues at work, including the impact of the EBacc.

Impact of COVID-19 on music education provision in UK schools

One of the starkest findings was that only 8% of respondents considered that high quality music education was available to all young people. However, it should be noted that in the time since the original consultation concluded in March 2021, the situation has become even worse. The coronavirus pandemic has meant most pupils lost out on months of in-person teaching. The ISM report 'The heart of the school is missing' highlighted the devastating impact of the pandemic on music education.

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. It is vital that any revised offer on music education must be fully consulted on and not just imposed on the sector. An advisory panel is not sufficient when so much is at stake, especially when none of the teaching members are obliged to teach the National Curriculum.

Music education has widespread benefits as well as being a valuable subject in its own right. Improvements in mental health, wellbeing, confidence, career prospects, attainment in wider studies, engagement with peers and attendance were all identified by respondents in the call for evidence. Music education also creates the talent pipeline for the UKs world leading music industry which was worth £5.8 billion to the economy in 2019. 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. Yet the policy decisions from consecutive Governments have meant this is being eroded.

The need for an education system which is fit for purpose for the 21st Century

Now, more than ever, we need an education system which is fit for purpose for the 21st Century. Although the pandemic has reignited many discussions around this, there had already been calls to scrap GCSEs prior to COVID-19. Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, suggested in February 2019 that they should be replaced by an holistic baccaulareate at age 18 which could incorporate academic and technical skills as well as personal development. More recently, he has called for the Government to ‘rethink the entire system’, and replace A-levels with the International Baccalaureate, saying, ‘A-levels are no longer as suitable as they once were, particularly when you compare the UK’s skills and productivity deficit to other developed nations. As we enter the digital revolution, technology will have an ever greater impact on jobs so we need to make sure our curriculum and exams better prepare students’.

A survey commissioned by the Edge Foundation suggested that parents in England and Wales supported this suggestion with 73 per cent of respondents saying that there was ‘too much emphasis on exam grades’ in secondary schools. A coalition of independent schools, headteachers and other key figures, collectively known as Rethinking Assessment, along with the former Secretary of State for Education, Lord Kenneth Baker, called in Autumn 2020 for broader education assessment routes claiming that GCSEs were outdated, expensive and did not prepare children for today’s world of work.

The One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs published a report on 9 October 2020 entitled ‘The Future of Education’ calling for the replacement of GCSEs with a Baccalaureate-type qualification at age 18 which could be either academic, technical or an apprenticeship. They also called for a review of standardised tests (SATS) for 11-year olds. The report argues that GCSE students miss out on roughly six months of wider learning opportunities because of the amount of time dedicated to revision and mock and actual exams. Flick Drummond, MP, co-author of the report, also raised concerns about the harmful impact of exam pressure on pupils’ mental health.

The ISM believes that education should be broad and balanced and equip children for the future in a world post-Brexit where there is increased automation. As Andreas Schliecher, the Director of Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said in evidence to the Education Select Committee on 26 February 2020:

‘In the fourth industrial revolution, art may become more important than maths. We often talk about soft skills as being social and emotional skills, and hard skills as being science and maths, but it might be the opposite. The science and maths might become a lot softer in the future, where the relevance of knowledge evaporates very quickly, whereas the hard skills might be your curiosity, leadership, persistence and resilience.’


Within schools:

  • We need classroom teachers able to teach within their area of specialism and supported to access regular and relevant high-quality subject-specific continuing professional development, and improve the working conditions of the workforce.
  • It is also essential that, longer term, there are enough properly qualified teachers coming through to support the delivery of music education in our schools and Hubs. To support this, Secondary music should be treated as a shortage subject, and greater efforts and financial incentives applied to attract high quality candidates.
  • Equally, the Government must ensure that primary teachers have access to high-quality, relevant and practical subject-specific learning opportunities relating to teaching the music curriculum through their training, NQT period and beyond.
  • In line with other subjects, funded subject-knowledge enhancement courses should be developed and offered through partnerships with ITE providers in higher education.

The refreshed NPME must provide clarity as to the roles and responsibilities of schools and Hubs relating to the delivery of music education for all pupils, address the quality, provision and access to music education for Early Years and SEND, and improve signposting of music education opportunities for 18 to 25 year-olds.

We only hope that the publication of this call for evidence - and reported progress towards the long-awaited update to the National Plan - will finally be the wake up call the Government needs to address this.

A failure to do so will be a huge loss for those individuals who will never be given the opportunity to discover or nurture their talent – and for our society as a whole.

New music education report State of the Nation released

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, in partnership with the University of Sussex and the ISM, has released a new report entitled Music Education: State of the Nation which outlines the broad landscape of music education in England.