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It’s time to turn up the volume on the needs and interests of young people, says Carol Reid.

A photo of a group of young people playing percussion

A new National Plan for Music Education is on the horizon. If this is to be a future-facing policy framework that delivers the best outcomes for children and young people, then it must go beyond business as usual.

England was regarded as world-leading in when it published the first ever National Plan for Music Education in 2012. Central to the plan was the formation of Music Education Hubs (Hubs), partnerships of local organisations tasked with improving the quality and consistency of local provision. This was accompanied by annual funding to Hub lead organisations, who are required to fulfil a series of ‘core and extension’ roles.

If schools are no longer providing qualifications then the DfE needs to ensure that they are still available locally

Fast forward eight years and times have changed – politically, socially, economically and technologically:

  • Music in schools has shrunk as a result of the EBacc and the continued rise of academies (which are not required to follow the National Curriculum and thus have no statutory duty to provide music).
  • Local authority contributions to music services have decreased dramatically (from £14.3m in 2012/13 to £5.7m in 2017).
  • Technology has opened up access through assistive technologies and digital learning opportunities.
  • Young people are more connected than ever – but are also more isolated and lonely than older generations.
  • The profession of ‘musician’ is changing, with fewer employed in full-time roles and continued growth in self-employment and portfolio careers.
  • The creative industries are growing fast, making a significant contribution to the UK economy.

Key principles

Our new music education policy should reflect this changing and future landscape. At Youth Music we’ll be incorporating the following principles into our response to the DfE’s current call for evidence:

1.    Ensure that music education is diverse and inclusive
Music education goes way beyond the development of musical skills: personal and social outcomes can be life-changing. If the next National Plan is clear that the purpose of music education is multi-faceted and not just about the development of technical musical skills, it will help music educators make innovations to increase their engagement and impact. Success measures would go beyond achieving grades, a more diverse range of programmes and music could be offered and more attention could be focussed on inclusive music-making for social and other outcomes. In turn this would foster greater connections with other Government policies such as economic development, health, wellbeing and youth justice.

2.    A flexible framework built on outcomes not outputs
Each young person’s journey in music is unique, but the current focus on outputs does not always allow for personalisation. It can lead to short-term box-ticking rather than long-term, sustainable progression. A more flexible framework – based primarily on aims, outcomes and impact rather than just numbers – will allow locally responsive strategies to achieve greater impact, particularly for those facing the biggest barriers.

3.    Make the age range match the reality of musical lives
The current plan covers ages 5 to 18, which neither reflects the DfE’s age remit nor the age at which young people start their musical lives. The age range should be extended to include early childhood (0-5 years) and young adulthood (18 to 25 years), with a corresponding increase in funding allocations.

4.    An accessible and future-facing offer
The easiest and most cost-effective way of delivering a universal music offer is to ensure that provision exists within schools. Yet we know that music in the school curriculum is declining. In writing the plan, serious questions need to be asked about the future of music in schools, including whose responsibility it is to provide GCSE and A Level music. If schools are no longer providing these qualifications then the DfE needs to ensure that they are still available locally, without parents having to pay.

The concept of progression in the current plan is one-dimensional, mapping out a linear path where a few exceptionally talented young people end up in national orchestras or ensembles. In reality, young people progress musically in many different ways, both on and off stage. The current understanding of progression needs an overhaul, to ensure that what Hubs offer is more creative, diverse, accessible and reflective of the real-world music industry.

Assistive technologies, online tuition, music software and online digital resources have augmented music education over the past eight years. But overall, technology continues to be underutilised and the potential of the newest technologies remains untapped. If today’s learners are to succeed in tomorrow’s job market then new technologies need to be more than an add-on: they should be embedded across the whole curriculum.

A highly skilled, motivated and representative music education workforce will be a prerequisite to achieve this diverse and future-facing offer, and appropriate ways to support the workforce should be built into policy and funding arrangements.   

5.    Turn up the volume with young people
Children and young people’s passion for music is massive. There is a real opportunity to capitalise on this to grow the numbers who engage in music education. Activities should be relevant and exciting for young people and start from their existing musical interests. Establishing a framework for youth participation within Hubs will enable this to happen, putting young people at the heart of their own musical learning. It’s time to turn up the volume on their needs and interests to help reinvigorate and reimagine a new music education policy.

Carol Reid is Programme Director at Youth Music.

The Department for Education’s call for evidence is open until 13 March 2020 and can be responded to by music education organisations, young people, parents and carers, teachers and education leaders, and music industry employers. Responses will be used to inform the Department as it develops proposals for the refresh of the National Plan for Music Education.

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