With the government pursuing a radical reorganisation of England’s music hubs and schools needing to produce music development plans outlining their offering, there is appetite to bolster the way music is taught in schools.
According to our research, the success of schools adapting to these new ambitions will be shaped by what we call the ‘leadership lottery’, the buy-in of parents and the role of potential hidden stigmas. But this policy change also provides a real chance for music education to be given the parity it deserves with other core curriculum subjects.
Music hubs play a key role in supporting music making in English state schools. The reorganisation by the Department for Education through Arts Council England presented a wishlist of improvements – including greater partnership working, progression opportunities for students and requirements for every school in partnership with its music hub to have a music development plan outlining its offer.
Our report focused on the large rural English county of Suffolk. It used music hub returns to Arts Council England for 2021-22, supplemented with data about school engagement from pioneering cultural charity, Britten Pears Arts, and data from the Department for Education, Arts Council England and the Office for National Statistics. These sat alongside focus groups with young people and many discussions with school leaders, music teachers and other stakeholders.
In conversations with teachers and music leads, we found that the commitment of a school’s leadership was a key factor in its offering. Learning music is viewed by some leaders in schools with higher levels of deprivation nationally as key to improving wider school outcomes or other subject areas. Not least, music education has a positive impact on motivation, wellbeing and creativity which can positively impact students in other subjects or their broader school career.
Focus groups with students found that there can be a stigma around playing a musical instrument, specifically around instruments associated with more classical forms of music. Elsewhere, pupils reported that the quality of their teacher could make or break their decision to pursue music.
Against this backdrop of a stigma, it seems that teachers and providers can benefit from refining the fit between their music education and the young people they teach – broadening musical styles and considering the process of music-making much more widely.
Analysis of our focus groups found that parents who understand the benefits of music education and music-making can increase the engagement and progression of their children in the subject – even if the parents are not musical themselves.
Engaging parents more widely with local music services and highlighting the merits of music education can help widen the reach of music services.
From our research, both schools and parents have a role to play in ensuring children get the most out of music education.
Schools should consider music-making as sound-making too. Use of different sounds and technologies can help spark young people’s creativity.
In addition, stepping-stone points such as between primary and secondary school should be considered so that children can have a smooth transition to continue their learning.
Elsewhere, schools should develop a self-review document as a starting point for their engagement with music hubs and consider musician-in-residence models to share skills and resources, as well as professional development opportunities – particularly for those for whom it is not their main subject.
More broadly, the music education system must develop a continuity so that it is not so dependent on individual dedicated music teachers taking the lead in maintaining all music provision.
But much more than that, we must promote equality of access so that music participation is viewed in the same way as other core curriculum subjects.
Just as we should not be content with a school that has not given a child the opportunity to develop maths and English skills, we should not be satisfied if a school does not offer opportunities for pupils to develop their music skills.