Deborah Annetts' speech to FedSpace Events: 'Whatever happened to...… Jump to main content

Deborah Annetts' speech to FedSpace Events: 'Whatever happened to... Music and Expressive Arts'

Thank you for inviting me to speak at today’s FedSpace event on ‘Whatever happened to … music and expressive arts’.

This is such a good question. I am of an age when I can recall music being a staple of my education all the way through primary school, with a dedicated music teacher who taught us how to sing in 3 parts. An awe inspiring achievement for a ten year old. And then at secondary school singing continued, as well as instrumental tuition and pathways were there for those who wanted to take A’ level music. I have a sneaking suspicion that the great music education I received at my local state schools might not now happen. And that is a concern for all of us.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) is the UK's professional body for musicians. We are also the 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 support over 11,000 members across the UK and Ireland. many of whom work in music education and who have continued to provide music education throughout the pandemic.

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.

I think Grayson Perry sums up the importance of the creative arts perfectly: 'Art helps us access and express parts of ourselves that are often unavailable to other forms of human interaction. It flies below the radar, delivering nourishment for our soul and returning with stories from the unconscious. A world without art is an inhuman world. Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane. Art, like science and religion, helps us make meaning from our lives, and to make meaning is to make us feel better.'

In many cultures, music, singing and dance have no clear divisions – they are seen as a whole activity. Through dance, children develop spatial awareness, become less clumsy and pay more attention to others sharing their space. Children struggling with language can express their feelings with immediacy through dance and movement.

There is plenty of research which shows the amazing impact that studying music has in terms of other output. Research by the University of Kansas has shown that students in schools with high quality music education programmes scored around 22% higher in English and 20% higher in maths compared to schools with low quality music programmes, regardless of socio-economic disparities among schools or schools’ districts.

And of course Sue Hallam’s key work The Power of Music highlighted the positive impact that access to high-quality classroom music education has on listening skills, awareness of phonetics, literacy and special reasoning, which supports the development of certain mathematical skills.

A poll conducted for the ISM in January 2022 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.’ And yet 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 uptake of arts subject 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 [i] 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. [ii]

The Department for Education report on the Call for Evidence on the National Plan for Music Education, carried out in early 2020 but released in August 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.’ [iii]

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.' [iv]

We know that arts subjects are in decline and have been for many years – the number of 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.

There are a number of studies which have shown that pupils’ perception of GCSE music in particular is problematic. Many pupils perceived it to be ‘more difficult’ that art or drama, elitist, a specialist subject only accessible to those who played an instrument and not a subject which was relevant to their futures.

John Sloboda writing in 2001 also suggested that ‘the musical enthusiasm and aspirations of many young people are not addressed by the current curriculum’. It could be argued that not much has changed in 20 years, even with an updated National Curriculum and the more recent Model Music Curriculum. Stuart Button’s research in 2006 showed that 43% of pupils ‘found music at school uninteresting’. Perhaps there is a disconnect between what is taught in the school curriculum and what enthuses and inspires young people and this accounts for the numerous, successful performing arts weekend schools that exist up and down the country.

In March 2020, schools across the UK and around the world closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many schools moved to remote learning and started using online resources where possible. However, many pupils lacked access to technology. ISM research found that music education, in some cases, only became available through instrumental lessons for those families who could afford them or had the technology in place for remote learning.

Published in December 2020, the ISM report The Heart of the school is missing: Music education in the COVID-19 crisis collated over 1,300 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 impacted – curriculum entitlement, singing in schools, practical music making, extra-curricular activities, instrumental learning and examinations. 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 had received from their schools.

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. The health and well-being of music teachers has been negatively affected by the changes they experienced in the delivery of classroom and extra-curricular music.

Following on from our research, Mark Philips, Senior HMI and National Lead for Music at Ofsted, recently 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.’

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.

The ISM welcomes the Times Education Commission’s interim report, published on 26 January 2022. The findings highlight the negative impact of accountability measures on the curriculum and 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 to the economy. 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.

So how do we support the uptake of creative subjects. We advocate for our subjects, not just to pupils but to parents, other teachers, Headteachers, CEOs of academy chains and Governors. We build partnerships with teaching colleagues in other departments – the arts should not be pitted against each other and subject hierarchies need to be challenged. We engage with parents on how the arts subjects can enhance their children’s lives within and beyond formal education, building self-esteem, confidence and empathy as well as showing clear career pathways. We ensure we are the best role models for the arts that we can be, supporting our pupils’ interests, widening their opportunities, celebrating their successes and helping them to progress to the next stage of their journey.


[i]Curriculum research: How to assess intent and implementation of curriculum

[ii]ISM/UK Music teachers' survey report Dec 2020

[iii]Report on the call for evidence on music education

[iv]All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, Music Education: State of the Nation, January 2019