Is curriculum music safe?

At the recent Music Mark conference, I had a slot to talk about current issues in music education. This blog entry is based on that presentation.

For me, one of the big issues that’s facing us is the reduction of curriculum time in secondary schools. This is across the board, from KS3, via KS4, to A level. I am also hearing of schools where music teaching is being removed from the curriculum, for example this.

At MM I presented some facts I had extracted by trawling through DfE statistical data. At the same time Alison Daubney and Duncan Mackrill at Sussex University are conducting a detailed piece of research into respondent views of music teaching in their school. I must emphasise mine is solely secondary data analysis using DfE extant datasets. All the statistics I cite in this piece come from these, and so there is no nuance from the DfE, therefore I am only able to provide my interpretation of the numbers I have here

These make for quite salutary reading. Let us take first the numbers of music teachers employed in secondary schools over the past three years. These have been reducing steadily at the rate of about 200/year:

 Music Teachers loss
2013 7,300
2014 7,100 200
2015 6,900 200

In chart format this reduction can clearly be seen:


With a reducing workforce there is clearly going to be a reduction in the teaching time available too. This is clearly shown in the next chart, which shows the total number of classroom music hours taught in secondary schools:


This again shows a reduction over time, with the dataset for this being:

Total music curriculum hours taught

Music hours taught loss
2013 90,900
2014 88,600 2,300
2015 85,500 3,100

The speed of reduction is interesting here. From 2013 to 2014 we lost 2,300 hours of teaching, from 2014 to 2015 we lost 3,100. It is too early to tell if this accelerando is a trend, so I’ll be watching the details this time next year, when the 2016 stats are published.

A similar exponential loss can be seen in the time loss at KS 4 and 5:


The linear reduction shown in that chart is a simple excel function, so please don’t place too much statistical weight on it, but it does show that time is reducing. Again, there is an increasing rate of loss of hours here. First of all KS4:

KS4 loss
2013 19700
2014 19200 500
2015 18300 900

Now KS5:

KS5 loss
2013 14000
2014 13500 500
2015 12400 1100

Even at KS3, which may be thought of as being ‘safe’ because of its status as a National Curriculum subject, music is losing the number of hours being taught:


Again, the dataset:

KS3 loss
2013 57,200
2014 56,000 1,200
2015 54,900 1,100

The KS3 loss is somewhat galling in the light of Nick Gibb’s statement here that:

Through our curriculum review, music remained a statutory subject in the national curriculum, so every child in maintained schools must study it from age 5 to 14.

It seems the case that every child is not studying it up to the age of 14!

So, these are the bald stats, why is this happening? Well, as I say, all I can do is put my personal interpretation on these bald numbers. The data itself cannot tell us why this reduction is taking place, so what follows is solely my view. I think that it is a combination of factors.

  1. the EBacc. Despite what we are told, I think the EBacc is biting into take up at KS4, with a knock-on effect at A-level
  2. School accountability measures. Music is increasingly seen “not to matter” in accountability terms. (I get a lot of unsolicited mail to this effect, it’s not just me being awkward!) and, when push comes to shove, SLTs are putting their efforts into subjects that “matter”.
  3. The telescoping of KS3 into 2 years instead of three. I am hearing of these time and time again.
  4. Staffing issues. Teachers who leave cannot be replaced, there are just not enough “warm bodies” to put in front of the classes, so SLT has no choice but to do something else for contingency purposes.

Final comment

I think that there is a “perfect storm” brewing, and music hubs will feel the chill winds soon. With fewer music teachers in schools the hub-school liaison will suffer, numbers playing instruments will drop, schools will be more and more reluctant to let kids miss lessons for peri teachers, and the base level of the house of cards will start to totter. We need to be very vigilant indeed.

Sorry not to have better news for this season of Cheer!



This entry was posted in A level music exam, GCSE, KS3, Music Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Is curriculum music safe?

  1. Robbie Mitchell says:

    All your stats are right – & reflect tangible reality. Worryingly, this trend is also there in Primary schools. I work one day a week in a primary school that has just decided to axe it’s successful music programme due to financial pressures – just like that. Worrying times …

  2. nigelmtaylor says:

    Martin raises some very important issues here, the data for which demonstrates powerful indicators of the worrying decline in the provision for music education in the secondary school sector. I was particularly interested to read Martin’s personal interpretation of this data and his view of the extent to which a combination of factors at government policy and school leadership levels effect an almost pincer-type pressure on the subject in schools..

    Whilst I might be in broad agreement with his analysis of the data, I would assert that Martin’s interpretation of the issues affecting provision masks a much more complex, multi-faceted picture of why this might be happening.

    I would not doubt for a moment, that the pernicious cocktail of EBacc, school accountability measures, telescoping and staffing issues has played a significant part in the current state of affairs. But I think that the problem is much deeper, historically, philosophically, educationally, socially, culturally and structurally. Oh – and musically!

    The extent to which music is valued, provided for and taught well in primary schools and supported by parents creates the foundation of the problem. Add then the lack of cross- phase continuity, the increasingly varying degree of parental support, the onset of hormonal oscillation, the frequency, incidence and amplitude of social/peer pressure, the increasing nature of music and cultural association and identification, the exponential use of social and other media (and it’s potential back effects) – that then creates conditions for the perfect storm.

    But. And a big “but”. Where there is visionary, highly-skilled and accomplished music teaching (supported by intelligent, confident, resilient and similarly visionary senior leadership) the storm abates. However, and to be quite blunt about it, there are simply not enough visionary, highly-skilled and accomplished music teachers.

    Too often (in my experience as a county music adviser and Ofsted-accredited school inspector) what passed for a music lesson was at best an hour of behaviour control sometimes interspersed with meaningless, unmusical “music”. I did see, continue to see, and hope to see in the future some simply amazing, compelling and inspiring teachers, teaching and learning – authentically musical, passionately progressive, dedicated to learning, progress and achievement.

    But frankly, too many secondary music lessons were, are, and will continue to be, a poor provision, lacking in musical and/or education integrity, grim outcomes and, quite honestly a travesty for young people.

    Music education can be so inspiring. It can transform some lives. But we can’t only judge it’s worthiness and/or value by the provision that is made for it in terms of numbers of hours taught or numbers of teachers teaching it. Both are important barometers of the health of the subject. But like anything else, symptoms can mask a much great malaise.

  3. terryloane says:

    Thank you, Martin, for highlighting this issue and for providing some rather worrying data to support your concerns.

    When I took A-level music as a sixth-former back in 1967 it was the first time ever that a student at my school had studied A-level music (and two years earlier I had been the second student ever to have studied O-level music). It is depressing to think that there may be schools now, 49 years later, where students may be studying GCSE or A-level music for the last time ever. Of course in the intervening half a century we have seen a flowering of music education that I believe has been the greatest single success story in British education since the war – notwithstanding the observations that you make, Nigel, about “meaningless, unmusical ‘music’ lessons” in some secondary schools. Of course the main part of this success has been the development of instrumental music, but, as you suggest, Martin, this has depended on a good relationship between music staff in schools and music services/hubs.

    I believe there are three potential factors that are contributing to the reduction of status of music in schools and the threat to this successful tradition:

    Firstly, as a society we have simply not had a conversation about what and how children should learn in the 21st century. Technology is utterly changing our relationship with knowledge and our relationship with paid work, but there has been no real discourse about how this should impact on school learning, On the contrary, politicians and educators have failed to engage with the need to rethink learning, but have (through EBacc etc.) simply imposed a more restrictive and more demanding version of the sort of curriculum we had back in the 1950s and early 1960s!

    The second factor is that politicians and their lackeys have sought to persuade us all that that the purpose of education is to prepare people for the world of work, and that this world of work requires almost exclusive concentration on STEM subjects. This is ironic given that there is far less chance than there was 50 years ago of someone who is highly qualified in a STEM subject getting a secure well paid job.

    The third factor (and this may be the contentious one) is that I think the rich see their sense of privilege threatened and eroded by the success of music in state-funded schools. When I was head of music in a comprehensive school back in the early 1980s I recall one middle-class parent deciding to send their daughter to my school rather than the local private school “because the music is better at your school, Mr Loane”. (I was delighted, of course:-) But the rich would far rather keep wonderful things like music for their own children. They don’t want to pay through their taxes for the masses to have anything more than a narrow ‘Gradgrind-meets-STEM-meets-EBacc’ type of schooling.

  4. terryloane says:

    Re-reading my earlier post made me concerned that I had ended on a rather negative note. So here is a proposal that is, I hope, very positive (but also perhaps very radical:-) In a way it follows on from Nigel’s comment about “meaningless, unmusical ‘music’ lessons”.

    I remember during the mid-1990s being at a music education conference (MANA or FMS, I seem to remember) and tentatively suggesting that maybe the secondary school classroom was not a particularly conducive or appropriate environment for making music. My idea did not go down well with colleagues!

    But now I would go further, and suggest that the secondary school classroom, as we understand it, is not a particularly conducive or appropriate environment for almost any type of learning! Surely by the age of about 12 young people are so different from each other in terms of their interests, experiences and capabilities that it is crazy to put all of them through the same educational ‘process’. There should be much more choice and variety in learning for young people from the age of, say, 12. So I think schooling, in the sense of dividing children into age-based groups and then subjecting all groups to more or less the same curricular process should cease at that age. Young people should, under the guidance of parents and educators, be able to choose from a wide range of different fields and modes of learning.

    And we music educators can claim to have pointed the way for this development and indeed to have prefigured it, as what I am suggesting is precisely how Saturday music centres/schools have always operated. So I think secondary schooling as we know it should be replaced with music centres, language centres, STEM centres, sports centres, computer coding centres etc. etc. Surely this is the way forward not just for music education but for all types of learning for teenagers. Surely this is how we can get away from “meaningless lessons”, Nigel.

  5. Richar says:

    So if more teachers are “taught” to teach in schools, and the schools themselves don’t have outstanding music teaching what hope is there?

  6. pgazard says:

    Hi Martin – alarmingly I have just written something similar about this in my TTM response to Matt Allen’s November editorial, and Jane Werry’s comment on ‘competition’. My evidence was mainly anecdotal – seems I was right – music is being eroded at all levels of the school. Surely this evidence needs to be presented at the Expo in February? Patrick

  7. Pingback: New research shows music ‘could face extinction’ in England’s secondary schools | Music Education Works!

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