Richard Morrison: why music education in the UK is under threat – but there’s still hope

BBC Music Magazine columnist Richard Morrison looks at the impact government cuts and the Covid pandemic have had on young music students and why things need to change

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Music education, at every level and in every format, has never seemed so imperilled. I write that not to demoralise those young people who, in a few weeks, will embark on music courses at school, university or conservatoire. Thank heavens you are! There are fewer and fewer of you. A new Ofsted report points out that, over the past decade, ‘pupil numbers at key stages 4 and 5 [of the music curriculum] have steadily declined, key stage 3 provision has been reduced and trainee primary teachers have been offered shrinking amounts of musical training’. In other words, every age group of state-school pupils, from reception to sixth-form, is likely to be getting less (or worse) music education than those at school ten, 20 or 30 years ago. And it wasn’t great then.

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Grim reading, but if you widen the context it looks even worse. The government is cutting funds for higher-education arts courses, including music, and ministers regularly make clear their preference for young people to specialise in science or technology, rather than the ‘useless’ humanities. The fact that the music industry contributes £5.8 billion a year to the UK economy – or did before Covid – seems to escape them.

Covid itself has also taken a toll, both on the infrastructure of music education and on the morale of music professionals. During lockdown, schools and local music hubs had to suspend their orchestras, bands and choirs. Now we are re-emerging into ‘normality’ (which, so far, seems far from normal), the emphasis is on pupils catching up in maths, science and technology – music pushed even more into the margins.

Meanwhile, thousands of adult performers hardly earned a penny in the catastrophic 15 months from March last year, and the music business’s recovery still seems fragile. At the best of times, music is an insecure profession. Right now, the line between dedication and madness seems awfully thin. Children who are highly musical are, in my experience, usually high achievers in many other academic fields. For parents, the urge to steer them into those alternative areas must be overwhelming.

Yet if I was 18 again – and even knowing what I do about the precarious state of the music profession – I would go into music again without a moment’s hesitation. First, in our volatile world, what seems hopeless today can flourish tomorrow. History teaches us that disasters which almost obliterate the music profession – the world wars, for instance – are often followed by spectacular flowerings of creativity and opportunity. The prospect of losing something precious jolts people into supporting it with renewed enthusiasm. That could be the case for music.

Second, the hiatus brought about by Covid has forced musicians to be resourceful in new ways, and some of those innovations are too good to be dumped when traditional concerts resume. Streaming is one obvious example, not just because it widens the audience but also because it has persuaded classical performers to think about how they present themselves visually and verbally, as well as musically. Localism is another. Many musicians have reconnected, or connected for the first time, with their own communities. These developments all offer new career opportunities for flexible young musicians.

And thirdly, more than ever classical music needs fresh young minds, attuned to using social media, free of preconceptions about musical categorisations and buzzing with energy and idealism. The most interesting passage in that Ofsted report – which is otherwise a bit jargon-heavy – is where its authors suggest that some of those who champion music education have been on the wrong track in recent years, because they tried to argue for music’s place in the curriculum on the basis of how it improves performance in other subjects, or pupils’ social skills. The primary purpose of learning music, Ofsted says, is to become a better musician, and that is a wonderful thing.

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I agree. But the battle for music education has to be fought on many levels, and those other arguments come in useful when dealing with the many politicians who only value things in economic or utilitarian terms. It doesn’t matter how we fight for music education, as long as we continue to fight. The brilliant teenagers currently hesitating about committing themselves to such an uncertain way of life are probably the very ones with the drive and ideas to change the musical world. Let’s light the touchpaper in their minds, stand back and enjoy the fireworks they create.