Why is music education in Britain so poor?

Music is taught at the majority of schools in the country, yet we still think that learning about the social and cultural context of music is the same as playing an instrument.

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“Oh cool, you’re studying music! What instrument do you play?”

If you ever meet a music student who says they have not had a conversation that starts exactly like this, they are almost certainly lying to you. It’s a sensible question to ask on the surface, but it also betrays the completely strange way we think about music education.

Any number of (very relevant) Guardian articles bemoaning the sorry state of provisions for music education in the UK will, nine times out of ten, conflate music education with instrumental tutelage. Even Ofsted’s 2011 report on music education devotes large chunks of attention to extra-curricular music and the importance of performance.

The reality is that being a “Grade 8” cellist isn’t the same as studying and thinking about music. Performance should not be the only way in. But that’s increasingly the way of things, thanks to the changing education system. Our music education does nothing to encourage children to build their social interest in music at an educational level.

There’s no doubt that exposing children to practical music is a very important part of getting them involved in musical culture. This is especially true for those from lower-income backgrounds, as practical music tuition is typically very expensive. As an example, Sistema Scotland, an offshoot of the famous Sistema project in Venezuela, has had remarkable success with young people from disadvantaged areas in Raploch, Torry and Govanhill. According to a survey of parents carried out by the Scottish government, 100 per cent thought their children were more confident and 93 per cent thought their children were happier as a result of taking part in the scheme.

While statistics like those from Sistema Scotland may make us feel warm and fuzzy, the reality of the situation is that such funding-reliant schemes will not be able to benefit all children. To treat these projects, and instrumental performance more generally, as the only way to get children interested in music, is a simplistic approach with a very problematic outcome.

Anyone tuning in to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs will hear how influential early interaction with music can be on later life. In much the same vein as slightly ropey philosophy and psychology, many young people enjoy “coffee shop musicology”, with music of all forms becoming a big part of their social and personal identity. So why on earth aren’t more students interested in engaging with music academically? It’s because of how and what we teach, of course.

Ofsted’s report observed 300 music lessons: only 30 were deemed above average. Just 7 per cent of schools in a survey of 90 qualified as “outstanding” providers of effective music education, while 61 per cent were deemed satisfactory or inadequate. This figure stands in sharp contrast to the 66 per cent of schools considered to be providing an overall effective education. Key Stage 3 (years 7 to 9) were described as the weakest: “A direct consequence of weak teaching and poor curriculum provision.”

From all this, is it any wonder that music at GCSE and particularly A level are the most under-subscribed of all elective courses by some margin, with only 1 per cent of A-level entries in England in music or music technology?

Absence breeds apathy, which in turn breeds mockery. Academic music is seen by many students, and perhaps more dangerously by staff, to be a soft option. Often it is only those pupils who have been exposed to culture from a young age and who are proficient performers who are encouraged to take up music at GCSE and A-level.  The divide between those who are deemed appropriate for academic music is therefore set up almost as soon as students join the school.

This situation is not helped by the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, supporting the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). This scheme emphasises the traditionally “academic” subjects in schools, leaving music, art and the like behind. A drive towards “academic capitalism” and an obsession with economic impact has seen an “aggressive shift in ideology that seeks to determine the worth of these disciplines exclusively in terms of their utility value”, according to Emily MacGregor’s 2012 publication Whoever Pays the Piper Calls the Tune…. The issue is not so much that English, maths and the sciences shouldn’t be emphasised, but more that “soft” subjects should be brought up to the same level and seen in the same academic light.

There is a reason, of course, why a lot of students think of music in this light: because the way it is being taught now is soft in a lot of cases. World famous violinist and outspoken supporter of music education Nicola Benedetti said in May this year that “needing the child’s approval for what they do in school is just such an alien concept when you’re talking about maths, science, history or English...but suddenly, when you bring music into the mix, it’s: ‘Oh no, we can’t show them anything that they don’t instantly love because that would be like forcing children into something that they don’t want to do.’” Benedetti’s complaints are indicative of a wider belief that, because music is a way of accessing profound emotional experience, it represents nothing more than mushy culture and shouldn’t be treated with academic respect.

Both the EBacc and the idea that music must be studied by the instrumentally (read: financially) endowed mean that classical music and musicology are seen as the preserve of the rich and privately educated. Despite the fact that music is taught at the majority of schools in the country, admissions at leading universities from state schools are on a par with subjects like classics and theology; both subjects traditionally seen only at independent schools. Professor Dan Grimley of the University of Oxford comments:

“My fear is that cuts in government funding for education mean that fewer students will have the opportunity to study music, either at school or beyond, whether practically or as part of the wider humanities. Music was once part of the Quadrivium – since when did we lose our sense of its centrality? Music surrounds us in every aspect of our daily life. We need to understand how and why it works in the way that it does.”

Despite all of this, funding for music education does seem, finally, to be getting a look in at the national level. In January of this year the government and Arts Council England kept to their 2014 promise that ringfenced money for music education hubs would rise £17m up to £75m for 2015-16. However, real change will come not just from increased funding, but from a thorough reappraisal of the syllabus itself.

The teleology of the secondary education system, you would think, would be a drive towards knowledge and specialisation, with a projected goal of further education or apprenticeships. This is clearly the case with the cumulative learning processes associated with the sciences, languages, and, less consciously, the majority of the humanities. Music, however, is very different. A lot of lower school music is not at all reflective of the breadth of academic music, nor is it an apt preparation for study at a level above Key Stage 3. In turn, the GCSE and A-level syllabuses are poorly designed to prepare pupils for how music is studied at many universities.

Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach of the University of Oxford comments: “Personally I think students are better prepared by other A-levels that make them think and/or read (e.g. History, English Literature, Maths).” The fact that any A-level course can be deemed incapable of making students think or read is incredibly depressing. It would be insanely over-ambitious to expect any school syllabus to give a complete overview of the academic potential of a subject. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that it show just a glimpse of the side to music that gets people talking about it in the first place: its place in history, in politics, in our everyday lives.

“Pure” music, it seems, is so much the focus of secondary music education, that any other approach must be ignored. Professor Dan Grimley says:

“A-level syllabuses are under tremendous strain from often competing demands, and there is only a certain amount they can be expected to cover, but I do spend a lot of my teaching time trying to encourage students to hear music in a wider cultural context – one informed by ideologies of race, power, ethnicity and gender, for example.”

In an increasingly complex world an approach like this should be encouraged and embraced much lower down the education system.

So, to go back to the start, as much as your friend may love playing the cello, I’m sure she has more interesting things to say about why she studies music. I catch myself asking the question too, but realistically it’s as odd, or should be, as asking an English student which part they play or a historian why they aren’t literally living in the Tudor court. The word “academic” shouldn’t have to be viewed as dry or uninspiring. That is only the case in a subject like music because, at the moment, the lines between “fun” performance and academic study are so clearly drawn, and yet so causally linked, hugely privileging those young people from families wealthy enough to afford instrumental tutelage.

Music education needn’t exclude those from lower-income backgrounds because of unaffordable instrumental tuition. Yes, we do need projects like Sistema Scotland to bring more young people from all backgrounds into performance, but they shouldn’t be used as an excuse or a reason to ignore studying music thoughtfully.