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We should be worried about the decline of music in our schools

15 March 2019

10:11 AM

15 March 2019

10:11 AM

Whether it’s Ariana Grande or something grand from Aïda, music is both inescapable in our society, and of incalculable value to it. This is the starting point of a new report from The Music Commission, set up by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which offers a manifesto for ‘music learning’ and finding ways of ‘enabling all young people to make progress in their musical knowledge, understanding and skills.’

We lucky ones had parents who spent countless hours driving us from instrumental lesson to youth orchestra rehearsal, from music festival to summer course. But there are thousands upon thousands who are not so blessed, whether by time or by money, whose only chance to be part of music comes at school.

And music in schools is under severe threat. The numbers are disquieting: between 2010 and 2017 the number of secondary school curriculum-hours devoted to music declined by 13.5 per cent, and 1000 specialist music teachers left the profession. Since 2014/15 there has been nearly a 20 per cent reduction in the number of children taking GCSE music, matched by a decline in those taking practical examinations.


The danger, as ever in education, comes from the unintended consequences of well-meaning interventions. The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was introduced in 2010 as a measure of school performance at GCSE. It included a ‘core’ set of subjects (English, mathematics, the sciences, geography or history, and a language) but excluded music. The Russell Group universities have published a similar list of ‘facilitating subjects’ they advise students to take, which excludes A-level music.

In the great schools music still thrives. At my own school, King Edward’s, 160 boys sing in the choir; our symphony orchestra numbers 85, and our musical partnership-work reaches more than 2,000 primary-age pupils each year in Birmingham. We are lucky to have the time and the support for music; assets we enjoy because we know that musical participation is a sure way to promote academic success. When a majority of children sing and play, schools improve, and children’s examination results climb. Children who have instrumental lessons acquire discipline, understand quickly how to learn and improve, explore individual agency, and build character by making mistakes and failing. When they stand up to perform they practise courage, when they play together they learn empathy and cooperation.

It’s important that children also enjoy both a breadth and a depth of knowledge in the classroom, and that they are taught by specialists. Children can understand the most abstruse concept when it’s presented with flair and clarity, with authority and enthusiasm. They know when an orchestral performance is half-hearted or flawed, are riveted, spellbound and speechless when they encounter greatness. Alfred Brendel’s visit to our school is still spoken of in hushed terms.

For the crisis to be averted, music needs leadership from our ministers and our head teachers. Ministers need to ensure that the EBacc does not erode curriculum breadth and they should treat music as a shortage subject, paying the best music graduates as much as they pay scientists to train to teach. More head teachers need the courage to commit to music, to understand and believe that music makes schools better. More should consider the International Baccalaureate as a broad-based and intellectually vital alternative to A-levels.

And teachers need to remember that what we do every day is of the utmost importance. It matters because, as Hegel writes, ‘in art we have to do not with any agreeable or useful child’s play, but … with an unfolding of the truth.’ In our schools and in our society, the truth of music, played by our children, is needed today more than ever.

Martin Leigh is director of music at King Edward’s school, Birmingham


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