The decline of music education threatens to deprive Britain of future talent

A new National Plan is needed to stop cultural subjects being squeezed out of the curriculum. 

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Last month the talented young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason became the first artist to receive a BRIT Certified Breakthrough Award for his debut album InspirationHis album is aptly named. He inspired a TV audience of hundreds of millions when he played at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. But it’s worth remembering that he went to a comprehensive school in one of the less advantaged parts of Nottingham.

When I saw him at the Royal Albert Hall for the Classic Brits, it wasn’t just his amazing talent that created an impression on the audience. It was also his stark warning about the decline of music in education.

“Having the opportunity to have been supported from my school in my music is so special,” he said. “But I think many children like me won’t have had even nearly those opportunities and I think that is one of the saddest things to see.”

Take the recent GCSE results: although GCSE entries rose slightly, the results revealed a 7.4 per cent drop in the number of pupils taking GCSE Music - a fall from 42,507 in 2017 to 39,358.

This followed a drop of eight per cent the previous year. If GCSE Music teaching is diminished, there is a real risk that some schools will lose specialist music teachers and could even lose dedicated music spaces and equipment.

It is a similar story at A-Level. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has warned A-Level Music is under threat because some schools and colleges cannot afford to keep the courses running. A survey by ASCL found that four in 10 have cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities for A-Level Music over the last two years.

Since the introduction in 2010 of the EBacc, which excludes creative subjects such as music, 59.7 per cent of state schools say it has had a negative impact on music provision and uptake, according to a study conducted by the University of Sussex.

One fifth of schools did not offer GCSE Music last year. Of those schools that do offer Music GCSE, 11 per cent are taught outside curriculum time.

The decline of music in education has had a negative impact on social mobility where music has a key role to play. Top earners are four times more likely to pay for social-enrichment classes for their children. Fifty per cent of children at independent schools receive sustained music tuition, while the figure for state schools is just 15 per cent.

This has an impact on our talent pipeline where 17 per cent of music creators are educated at fee-paying schools, compared to around seven per cent for the population as a whole.

At a time when the creative industries are growing at twice the rate of the wider economy and are now worth £92bn to the UK, allowing creative subjects like music to wither on the vine makes no sense.

The music industry contributes £4.4bn annually to the UK’s economy. We are global leaders when it comes to music, but all of that is predicated on ensuring that as many kids as possible have access to music, to tuition, instruments and rehearsal rooms. If we are drawing water from a smaller well, our talent pipeline will be in serious jeopardy.

UK acts Coldplay, Depeche Mode, Sir Paul McCartney, Ed Sheeran and the Rolling Stones all featured in the top ten worldwide tours last year. But all bar one of these five acts released their debut single in the last century (for McCartney and the Stones, their debut was over half a century ago).

We cannot take our current success for granted. We must ensure that we have an environment that helps to nurture our talent pipeline. That work obviously needs to start in our schools.

But as well as there being a strong economic imperative to save music in our schools, there is also a solid education argument. According to the Cultural Learning Alliance, participation in structured arts activities can increase cognitive abilities by 17 per cent.

Growing international evidence demonstrates children who are engaged in their education through music do better at Maths and English. This is supported by the experience in the London Borough of Newham where pupils performing less well at Key Stage 2 have shown marked improvements in their studies after they joined the Every Child a Musician programme for schools.

The government has taken some steps to deal with the issue. In April, schools standards minister Nick Gibb announced £98m to support talented music, drama and dance pupils.  But the bulk of that money will only help those already identified as exceptionally gifted.

As the body for the commercial music industry, UK Music is rising to the challenge. We are launching a new report, “Securing Our Talent Pipeline”, which identifies the challenges facing music in education. It also sets out a number of possible solutions that the government and policy-makers could adopt to support creative talent and contribute to the development of our workforce.

The government should commit to a new National Plan for Music Education. This should be based on access to a broad and balanced curriculum that prevents cultural subjects being squeezed out of state schools.

Funding should be available so that all young people benefit from opportunities no matter where they live, what music they play and what their financial background is.

If we fail to act, we risk the prospect that huge talents like Sheku Kanneh-Mason could be the last music stars of their generation rather than the first of the next generation.

Michael Dugher is the chief executive of UK Music. He was previously shadow culture secretary and was Labour MP for Barnsley from 2010-17.