The Arts in Schools: Music in schools

Sally Bacon and Pauline Tambling talked to Naomi McCarthy from the Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) about the role of music in schools

17 May 2023

The Arts in Schools: Foundations for the Future looks back at the seminal 1982 Gulbenkian Foundation publication, The Arts in Schools: Principles, practice and provision. Between June and September 2022, we convened a series of virtual roundtables with school leaders, teachers, arts education practitioners, academics and policy makers on nine themes in the original report. The new report covers the context in which the original report was written; the practice and provision it envisioned; the immediate impact it had; and how society, education policy and the arts have changed over the past 40 years, concluding with recommendations and guidance for the future.

Please tell us about the ISM.

The Independent Society of Musicians is the UK's largest non-union representative body for musicians. Founded in 1882, we support over 11,000 members across the UK and Ireland, including many teachers. We campaign tirelessly in support of musicians’ rights and the profession as a whole. We are a financially independent, not-for-profit organisation with no political affiliation. This independence allows us the freedom to campaign on any issue affecting musicians. In 2021 the ISM was named Individual Member Association of the Year at the UK Association Awards.

There is good work being done across all the arts in schools, but it is a mixed picture, isn’t it?
The ISM’s 2022 report, Music: A subject in peril,[1] revealed a picture of decline and inequality in music provision across secondary schools, despite the outstanding work being done by many music teachers.

You've launched a campaign, #SaveOurSubjectives. What prompted it?

Government accountability measures like the EBacc and Progress 8 have damaged music provision in English secondary schools. An overwhelming 93% of respondents to our survey said that the EBacc and/or Progress 8 had caused harm to music education provision. Research by Ofsted found that around half of schools had moved to a two-year Key Stage 3 model which had resulted in the marginalisation of arts subjects.[2] The ISM’s 2020 report found that 25% of secondary school music teachers reported pupils were not receiving classroom music throughout Key Stage 3.[3] A DfE report released in August 2021 found that ‘For those young people who wanted to study a music qualification but were not able to, a number of them said that they felt under pressure to choose other subjects instead or that music was not available as a GCSE or A-level option at their school.’ [4]

Is this affecting take-up of music in schools?

There has been a fall of 27% in uptake of music at GCSE since 2010.[5] There has been a 40% fall for A-level music in the same period. Research by Birmingham City University in 2018 concluded: ‘A-level music is continuing to decline in terms of numbers of entries and that, if the trend continues at the same rate, there won’t be any more entries for A-level music by 2033.’ [6]

What about funding and support for the subject?

Music: A subject in peril revealed that music teachers often have inadequate budgets, with some receiving less than £1 per pupil per year. The gap between maintained and independent schools was also clear: the mean yearly departmental budget in maintained schools was £1,865, while in academies and free schools it was £2,152 and in independent schools £9,917.

Activity photo: From ISM’s Primary Singing Toolkit,

Activity photo: From ISM’s Primary Singing Toolkit

Are you saying that music education is becoming less accessible to all?

Music education is increasingly becoming the preserve of those who can afford private tuition. Young people in the wealthiest decile are three times more likely to sing in a choir or play in a band or orchestra weekly than those in the most deprived decile.[7]

A recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group found: ‘The cost of participating fully in musical opportunities at school is preventing pupils in low-income families from flourishing. Limited and stretched household incomes are directly having an impact on engagement and achievement in music for young people in England.’ [8]

And what about teachers?

Not enough music teachers are entering training to meet the needs of the future. Prior to 2020/21, recruitment targets for secondary subjects had been missed for seven consecutive years. Despite meeting the target in 2021/22, the target was missed again for 2022/23, with just 64% of the target met according to analysis by NFER.[9]

  • In generalised primary teacher training courses there is insufficient time dedicated to music (2-8 hours)[10]
  • There are few primary undergraduate courses specialising in music and no postgraduate primary music courses
  • A new National Institute for Teaching has been established, but they are not offering places for music trainees[11]

Do you see any positives?

The refreshed National Plan for Music Education (NPME), published in 2022, made some welcome announcements and demonstrated that the DfE had listened to the concerns of the ISM and others in the music education sector:

  • Key Stages 1-3 should have at least one hour per week of 'high quality' curriculum music
  • New funding worth £25 million for schools to purchase musical instruments and equipment
  • Every school will be expected to have a designated music lead or head of department
  • Every school should write and publish a 'Music Development Plan'

However, there is no additional funding for music hubs to deliver the broader ambitions of the refreshed NPME. Its non-statutory status is a concern, given the 80% of state schools are academies or free schools and therefore do not have to follow the National Curriculum.

How would you sum up the current situation?

There are excellent examples of music provision in schools across the country, but music teachers in state schools are working under increasingly difficult circumstances. A review and reform of accountability measures, and additional funding are all urgently required, as are measures to tackle the shrinking workforce.

Photo credits: Naomi headshot: Daniel Lane

Activity photo: From ISM’s Primary Singing Toolkit

[1] ISM, Music: A subject in peril report

[2] Ofsted curriculum report

[3] ISM, The heart of the school is missing report

[4] Department for Education report


[6] Birmingham City University report

[7] Beyond School report

[8] CPAG Cost of the school day report


[10] ISM State of the nation report

[11] National Institute for Teaching ITT