ISM view: The refreshed National Plan for Music Education brings hope… Jump to main content

ISM view: The refreshed National Plan for Music Education brings hope but has limitations

By Deborah Annetts, ISM Chief Executive

The refreshed National Plan for Music Education (NPME) has received a warm welcome from much of the music education and music sector since it was published on 25 June.

Indeed there is much to praise in this substantial document of over 80 pages and high ideals, which are reflected in its title: The Power of Music to Change Lives. It is extremely welcome to read on the first page a clear statement of the importance of music education: ‘…music is an essential part of a broad and ambitious curriculum for all pupils. It must not be the preserve of the privileged few. Music should be planned and taught as robustly as any other foundation curriculum subject.’ The language of the Plan is also encouraging, particularly phrases such as, ‘We want to see music valued and celebrated in every early years setting and school.’

The issue of value is key to re-establishing music’s place in the curriculum. The ISM, which has spoken up on behalf of music education ever since it was established in 1882, has consistently argued that music should be valued more highly in schools and that every child should have access to an excellent music education. One of the strongest themes that came out of our recent survey of music teachers was around the need to give music a higher profile and increase its status in schools. As one secondary academy teacher put it, ‘I just want music to be valued both as a subject and also for what it can do for students from all backgrounds.’

But will the refreshed plan fare any better than its predecessor, which was published in 2011 with similarly high aspirations? Michael Gove, then the Education Secretary, said at its launch:

All pupils should have the opportunity to enjoy and play music. However, for far too long, music education has been patchy across the country. Pupils from the poorest backgrounds have suffered most from this situation, creating a musical divide.

‘The national plan for music will deliver a music education system that encourages everyone, whatever their background, to enjoy music and help those with real talent to flourish as brilliant musicians.

The original NPME

Although the first Plan established a network of Music Hubs to deliver music services across England, it has failed to resolve the inequalities in music provision across the country. This was in part because the board set up to monitor delivery of the Plan fell into abeyance, so there was little enforcement of its measures. The Department for Education’s own report on its Call for Evidence on the NPME, published in August 2021, revealed that 36% of respondents said the first Plan had been ineffective in meeting the government’s vision over the past decade.

The ISM has long raised concerns that the first NPME did not focus sufficiently on the importance of schools in the delivery of music education. This is fundamental to ensure access to a good-quality music education for all early years and school-age children. Working with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Music Education, for which the ISM provides the secretariat, MPs and Lords have repeatedly raised concerns about the demise of music in schools and what the DfE needs to do to reverse this trend. This remains a key objective for the ISM.

We are therefore pleased to see that these concerns appear to have been taken on board and as a result music education in our schools has regained its centrality in the new Plan. This must be the key to success for music education as the Plan becomes a reality.

Strengths of the refreshed NPME

One of the limitations of the first NPME was its relative silence on curriculum music. The refreshed Plan puts this right, with its focus on three strands of music education: curriculum music, extra-curricular activities and access to external events such as concerts. Better still is the explicit expectation that all schools should deliver at least one hour of curriculum music per week throughout the year, not as part of a carousel, something that the ISM has long been calling for, and which will be a boost to music leads advocating for more curriculum time.

The refreshed NPME has also addressed a previous lack of clarity around the role of Music Hubs. Each hub will be expected to publish a Local Plan for Music Education and there will be four new national Hub Centres of Excellence, each with a different focus: inclusion, continuing professional development (CPD), music technology, and pathways to industry, to promote best practice in these areas and support other hubs. There will also be ‘lead schools’ selected in each area to help promote links between hubs and other schools.

The Plan also has greater breadth than its predecessor, covering all stages from the early years to post-18 education. Its early years section states that all settings should embrace music in their provision, a welcome acknowledgement that music education should not wait until a child begins school, although it is admittedly light on detail about how this might be achieved.

The Plan rightly emphasises the role of music in bringing enjoyment and promoting well-being, and its importance in building not just the performers of tomorrow, but the audiences too: ‘For some, music will be the foundation of a career in one of the country’s most important and globally-recognised industries. For others, it will provide experiences and skills which develop their creativity. For many, music will simply be a source of joy, comfort and companionship throughout their lives.’ This is a heartening acknowledgement that education should not be reduced to exam results and career prospects.

We also welcome the Plan’s emphasis on inclusivity. Music Hubs will be expected to publish an inclusion strategy and appoint an inclusion lead, and there is a section devoted to music education for children with SEND, both in mainstream and special schools.

Progression is another important theme, not just the importance of allowing all talented children to progress, but also building connections with the music industry to support the talent pipeline. There will be a pilot music progression fund to support disadvantaged children who show potential, provided by hubs and schools with match-funding from government.

Limitations of the NPME

Yet there are some serious shortcomings in the Plan, as Richard Morrison points out in his recent Times column. Funding is a key concern. Admittedly the Plan has provided some much-needed financial certainty by confirming funding of £79 million per year for Music Hubs to 2025. There is also an additional £25 million of funding for instruments and equipment. But keeping the hub funding at current levels is almost certainly not sufficient in order to implement the Plan’s broad ambitions, and as time progresses we believe this will become clear.

The NPME’s non-statutory status is a further concern. Its final paragraphs do mention a new National Plan for Music Education Board, which will be responsible for ensuring that ‘those things outlined in this plan happen and are delivered well’, but it is unclear how this will work in practice or how the DfE will ensure it doesn’t meet the same fate as the defunct monitoring board of the first NPME. We believe that tension will therefore continue between Music Hubs, which are required to implement the Plan, and schools, which are not.

In terms of the music education workforce, while there is some focus on CPD, there is little detail on training, particularly of primary teachers to ensure they have more confidence in delivering music lessons. It is also extremely disappointing that the Plan misses the opportunity to follow the lead of the Welsh NPME and address the issue of terms and conditions for the wider peripatetic workforce, who urgently need greater security and protections.

Finally, the Plan is silent on the continuing effects of the EBacc and Progress 8 measures. As Morrison writes, these have ‘skewed the curriculum disastrously against music’ and with many schools already struggling to stretch their limited budgets to arts subjects, it is hard to see how the Plan will successfully mitigate against these measures.

The refreshed NPME is an ambitious, detailed and worthy document, containing all the right sentiments. If it succeeds, as we hope it does, all children will be the beneficiaries of a high-quality music education. But we need to be realistic about the ability of schools to deliver the Plan without significantly increased funding and reform of accountability measures, and the ISM will continue to campaign for these issues to be addressed.