Retuning our ambition for music learning - reports

Barbara Eifler, Chief Executive of Making Music, highlights the key findings

You wait ages for a report on music education and then four come along in just a few months (in England, plus one in Wales and two in Scotland). That alone tells us two things: that making music is being taken seriously by a lot of people, including academics and funders; and secondly that truly all is not well in music education.

But look on the bright side: yes, old models of teaching, access to and funding of music education may be in crisis, dying off, even; on the other hand I am constantly inspired by the discovery of new imaginative ways of introducing people of all ages to music-making; by the great range of opportunities available; and by the technology now developing to support music learning. So maybe when we come to look back on this period, it will not seem one of decline, but one of change and re-invention. My glass is half full.

Which reports?

Musicians Union: Understanding how income affects likelihood to learn an instrument
Short and easy to read, this shows clearly that cost and lack of home encouragement are the two factors leading to children from lower income families (<£28k) being only half as likely to learn an instrument as those from high income families (>£48k).

Youth Music: The sound of the next generation
Read this and cheer up: music is integral to young people’s lives; they are more likely than a decade ago to be making music; but patterns of engagement differ according to a young person’s background – and formal music education hasn’t necessarily kept up. I leave you with the thought that 39% of respondents say they are self-taught; this statistic seems to me to reflect poorly on current formal music education, which is  clearly not supporting these young people in their musical journeys.

Music education: State of the Nation is published by ISM under the banner of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Music Education. It is worth reading – and presents the information in a digestible format – but note it is England only and about curriculum music only. Whatever your nation, though, I’d recommend the two pages on 'The importance of music education' (p.4-5), as they set the scene beautifully and make a powerful case for music education, way beyond the need of the music industry to recruit the next generation of talent. 

ISM remains a big player in music education, leading the Bacc for the Future campaign which highlights the absurdity of the Ebacc, a performance measure for schools at GCSE level which does not include creative subjects and has been found to have a profound effect on music teaching (decline of 13.5% in music hours taught since 2010) and uptake of music as GCSE subject (16.66% decline since 2014) as this new report demonstrates.

In Wales, 2018 saw the publication of Hitting the Right Note, an inquiry into funding for and access to music education, by the National Assembly for Wales’ Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee. Various actions are being taken forward as a result of it, most immediately some additional funding for instruments. Wales is now considering a National Music Education Plan (England has had one since 2011).

In Scotland much has happened in the last year; most recently, worth reading is the Scottish Parliaments’ Education & Skills Committee report A note of concern: The future of instrumental music tuition in schools. One of its bold conclusions is that ‘the Committee believes in principle that music tuition should be provided free of charge in every local authority.’ Strong stuff – but will the parliamentary debate scheduled for 30 April lead to any action on this or just more warm words? Tune in to watch it on Scottish Parliament TV.

The other significant and influential report, What’s Going on Now, is a follow up to a 2003 snapshot of music education and youth music initiatives. This discovers continuing strong disparity between the opportunities available to the haves and the have-nots, but also notes that in 2018 there was ‘a groundswell of opinion throbbing through the Scottish media that music education is a universal good at which Scotland excels.’ The research data suggests that ‘the number of pupils receiving tuition is determined by the supply, not the demand’ and that ‘the unmet demand continues to exceed 100,000 young people’.

Finally, the Music Commission report: Retuning our ambition for music learning turned out to be more interesting than anticipated. Funded by Arts Council England and under the aegis of ABRSM, perhaps it was expected to be more one-track than it actually is. We welcome its recommendations which include ones close to the heart of Making Music and its members (as our own report last year showed), in particular that ‘financial support is universally available to support all music learners to progress beyond first access’ and ‘parental engagement is supported as a priority from the earliest years onwards’. 

Its emphasis on more collaborative models – if put into practice – will also offer greater opportunities to Making Music members to engage with young people, and I am heartened by their insistence that young people need to be involved in shaping their own music education and that technology needs to play a more significant part in providing the right support.

Particularly, though, note the use of the word ‘learning’, rather than ‘education’ in the report title – something, again, which reflects our own findings, that music learning goes way beyond the classroom.

And finally, while so many reports may seem like overkill, actually they focus on different aspects of the landscape and reassuringly all come to much of the same conclusion: that music education and music learning are not at present accessible to all, mainly due to cost, lack of education amongst parents and school leadership, and not providing the content and in the format (e.g. digitally, computer-based) which young people favour. 

So: let’s all now get together to do something about that.