What is ‘music in schools?’

We seem to be hearing a lot about schools in England ‘not doing music’ recently. This opinion particularly surfaces during debates about the future of classical music, as I discussed in a recent article for Music Teacher Magazine. However, it is not always clear during these debates and discussions that their participants have a solid understanding of what music in schools actually is.

What are the statutory responsibilities for schools?

State schools are required to teach the national curriculum, which includes music. Academies are not required to teach the national curriculum, but are required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, which the government has stated should include music. Independent schools do not have to follow the national curriculum, but generally do offer music.

What is the National Curriculum for music?

The National Curriculum for Music in England can be accessed here. It is a brief framework which covers the main skill and knowledge areas that pupils should be taught including performing, composing & improvising, listening, notation, and history of music.

How is the National Curriculum for music delivered?

Curriculum music is delivered through whole class music lessons, which generally tend to be organised into a linked series to form half-termly or termly topics. It is up to the school how the curriculum is constructed, what topics are chosen, and what content is taught. Where schools are judged on the content of their curriculum (for example through Ofsted inspections) the baseline measure of success is whether it is equivalent to or exceeds what is required by the National Curriculum.

What other types of music are schools required to provide?

None. Many schools provide extra-curricular programmes including instrumental lessons, ensembles, and other activities, but they are not required to do so. The new National Plan for Music Education sets out some ideas for how schools could develop their extra-curricular musical offer, but these are not statutory. Why is this distinction important? Well, at the moment it’s of particular importance because almost all the mudslinging at schools in the press centres around the lack of provision for (usually classical) instrumental lessons and ensembles, as if schools are somehow to blame if these are not provided.

Let me be clear. I think it would be amazing if all schools could offer instrumental lessons, and a range of different ensembles for pupils to join. However there is currently no requirement for them to do so, and with school budgets in crisis, and inspection and accountability frameworks based around statutory responsibilities (ie curriculum not extra-curricular) of course there are going to be schools that cannot afford to run these activities. If a school doesn’t have a peripatetic programme, or an orchestra, it does not mean that they are ‘not doing music’ or that they ‘don’t care about music’; yes we’ve all heard some horror stories about heads who don’t see the value of arts subjects, but in the majority of cases, hard decisions have been made, priorities have been chosen, and extra-curricular music hasn’t made the cut.

So are schools ‘doing music’ or not?

Yes, in the majority of cases schools are ‘doing music’ in that they are filling their statutory responsibilities providing music within their curriculum. Some may also be providing extra-curricular music and some may not. If schools do not have extra-curricular programmes, currently this is not a problem for them in terms of accountability to the government. So as long as schools are teaching curriculum music then they are doing what is required of them.

But shouldn’t schools be going above and beyond?

It is interesting to note that while the National Plan for Music Education does set out some suggestions for how schools “should” do extra-curricular music alongside the curriculum, this document remains non-statutory. If it were made statutory, there would need to be huge amounts of government investment in everything from instruments to teacher training, buildings to administration, way above the amount that is to be awarded to music hubs. We would be looking at billions of pounds of sustained investment, for pretty much the whole of the rest of time. So it is perhaps unsurprising that these ambitions for music in schools remain non-statutory…

Schools do always go above and beyond every single day to support and nurture their pupils. Indeed, the unions might currently argue that at the moment just keeping schools open is going above and beyond, given the current funding and teacher retention crises! For some schools, going above and beyond will include providing extra-curricular music, and for others it won’t. This isn’t because they don’t believe in music, but because they have to prioritise what is necessary for their own specific school community. Maybe they are plugging a massive funding hole for SEND support, maybe they are prioritising basic skills like English and Maths, maybe they haven’t been able to recruit subject specialist teachers, maybe there was not enough interest from their pupils to make it viable; there are so many reasons why extra-curricular music, and indeed any other individual initiative, could slip down the priority list.

Yes, it would be ideal if all schools had vibrant, no-cost extra-curricular music programmes, but until government funding, accountability measures, and teacher training and retention strategies support that, there is very little chance of parity between schools on a national level.

So what is ‘music in schools’?

Hopefully through this blog I have demonstrated that ‘music in schools’ is a mixture of statutory (curriculum) and non-statutory (extra-curricular) provision. When we suggest that a school ‘isn’t doing music’ if we mean they are not offering any music curriculum lessons at all then that is a serious concern and one which should get picked up through accountability measures. If, however, we are using it to mean ‘isn’t offering instrumental lessons’ or ‘doesn’t have an orchestra’, whilst we might find that disappointing, we need to understand why that is the case before we start casting judgement. Once we know why a school is struggling to provide extra-curricular provision, we can help be part of the solution, whether that be through fundraising, signposting delivery partners such as the local music hub, donating resources, or even lobbying government to effect change on a national level.

So next time you hear someone saying ‘schools don’t do music’ please challenge them to identify exactly what they mean by this, and then invite them to provide solutions rather than judgement!

Dr Elizabeth Stafford, July 2023. Copyright © 2023 Music Education Solutions Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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