Musicians and academics are warning of a crisis in music education as research reveals that in some of the UK’s most-deprived areas not a single student is taking A-level music.
The study found a distinct correlation between schools not offering music A-level and wider social deprivation. It says: “The most-deprived areas in the country face significant difficulties as A-level music provision continues to shrink, while across a number of large regions there is no provision at all.”
Knowsley, Tower Hamlets and Middlesbrough are among the nation’s most-deprived local authorities and not one of them entered a student for A-level music in 2017-18. Blackpool, Tameside, Barnsley, Slough, Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland, and Bury – which also have high levels of social deprivation – each had fewer than five entries. The boroughs with the highest numbers were in London and the south-east.
The research, by Birmingham City University, was commissioned by two of the world’s leading conservatoires, the Royal College of Music (RCM) and the Royal Academy of Music – both in London – which are only too aware of the lack of diversity in applications.
Prof Colin Lawson, director of the RCM, said: “Large geographical areas are completely without music provision at A-level, and this is especially alarming when research tells us these are areas of the greatest social deprivation.
“We know there is a crisis in music education. The inequality in provision is now deep within the schools system … The conservatoire sector cannot recruit from the greatest pool of talent and, ultimately, the music profession will lose out.”
Photograph: Dave M Benett/Getty Images
Prof Janis Kelly, the RCM’s chair of vocal performance, who is currently performing in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Glyndebourne opera festival, said: “We are at a crisis point in music education. In my 40 years as an opera and concert singer, I have been surrounded by talented musicians of the highest level, the majority of whom accessed music as a core subject at a state school.
“It’s a different story today. Large areas of the country are now starved of music provision, which means there is hardly any chance of talent coming through the state school system. We must not take the benefits of music education for granted. Something needs to be done to protect music in schools.”
The report states that the lack of opportunities will affect the UK’s cultural life and creative industries, as well as children’s wellbeing. Independent schools account for a disproportionate number of A-level music entries, it notes. In Richmond upon Thames, of 22 A-level music entries, three came from state schools.
Recent research from the Musicians’ Union also found that families with an annual income of less than £28,000 were half as likely to have a child learning a musical instrument as families with incomes exceeding £48,000, and a 2018 BBC survey found creative arts subjects were being cut back in many secondary schools in England, owing to increased emphasis on core academic subjects and funding pressures.
Lawson said of the new report: “The postcode lottery element surprised me. That affluence could be a key to musical provision is an awful thing. For a lot of kids, the performing arts are what they do best. There’s a whole section of society whose potential is being missed.”
Overall, entries in A-level music have declined by 35%, from 8,369 in 2011-12 to 5,440 in 2017-18.
Dr Adam Whittaker, the report’s joint lead author, said: “The significant decline in A-level music is really alarming. It is deeply worrying that students in the most deprived local authorities are not able to study A-level music, while other more affluent areas see high numbers of entry.”