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29 September 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:51pm

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.

By Joe Fell

“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.

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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.

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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 term