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CMU@TGE Top Questions: Why is there a crisis in music education?

By | Published on Tuesday 24 April 2018

Book stack with headphones

With The Great Escape getting closer, we are currently considering ten questions that will be answered during the three CMU Insights conferences that are set to take place there this year: The Education Conference (16 May), The AI Conference (17 May) and The China Conference (18 May). Today: Why is there a crisis in music education?

There have been a plethora of articles in the last year about how music education in England is currently in crisis. Seeming to confirm this, a recent BBC survey showed that the vast majority of English schools have recently cut back lesson time, staff and/or facilities in at least one creative arts subject, which would include music.

The trend has in no small part been blamed on the English Baccalaureate – or EBacc – system. This is the way the academic performance of English schools has been assessed since 2010. Creative subjects like music are excluded from the EBacc, meaning schools are less likely to prioritise them, because achievements in those subject areas don’t have a positive impact on their perceived success. It also means that when schools face funding cuts, creative art subjects are the obvious place to seek savings.

In the recent BBC survey of 1200 primary and secondary schools, 90% said there had been cutbacks of some kind in at least one creative arts subject. Meanwhile, 40% said they were spending less money on facilities for these subjects, and 30% had reduced the hours in the timetable dedicated to the creative arts. Most blamed a combination of EBacc criteria and funding cuts for these changes.

Of course, music education doesn’t just take place in music class. Many students also opt for music instrument lessons. Since 2012 funding for subsidised instrument lessons has flowed via the Arts Council through local entities called music hubs. Quite how these hubs work – and what actual services they offer – varies greatly around the country. The consensus is that some do a good job of encouraging and facilitating participation in music making, others less so. The hubs, therefore, might be helping alleviate the crisis in some parts of the country, but may be contributing to it in others.

However, is the crisis – if indeed there is a crisis – all about how much time and money government and individual schools allocate to formal music education, whether that be music class or instrument lessons? Or is it also about how that time and money is used?

For example, is formal music education perhaps defined too narrowly, in terms of genre, or what exactly the music making process involves? And does that mean that – even where funding and facilities are available – some students with a passion for music would still not be engaged by the music education on offer?

There is also the question as to whether school is even the right place for young people with a passion for music to experiment with music making. Music should definitely be in the curriculum, to ensure everyone has access to it. But when it comes to more proactive music making projects, perhaps activity outside the classroom – and even outside the school – are more appealing and have more potential.

Where that’s the case, both government and the music industry itself needs to ensure that such extracurricular activities are accessible to all, and that the schools can signpost those opportunities to the young people who would most benefit from them. Which brings us back to the need to join a lot of dots between all the different people, companies and organisations involved in music education. Joining those dots may not in itself overcome the crisis, but it will be a step in the right direction.

We’ll be discussing the ‘crisis’ in music education as part of The Education Conference at The Great Escape next month. We’ll debate the eBacc and the music hubs, but also delve into other topics too, and identify all the dots to be joined. Maybe we’ll find that the actual crisis is quite different to that identified in all those aforementioned articles.

The Education Conference takes place on Wednesday 16 May – more info here. See more questions we’ll answer at The Great Escape here.