Schools Minister Nick Gibb says that the key to increasing the number of music GCSE entries is to improve the quality of lessons for pupils under fourteen years old.

Photo of Nick Gibb
Schools Minister Nick Gibb

The Government is shaking up the music curriculum in a bid to “make sure lessons are of the very highest quality” and increase the number of students opting to take the subject at GCSE and A Level.

An expert group of teachers, education leaders and musicians will develop a new model curriculum, to be published in summer 2019, which aims to provide pupils with “knowledge rich and diverse lessons” and make it easier for teachers to “plan lessons and reduce workload”.

But the announcement has not deterred criticism of the Government’s education policy by campaigners, who have long argued that an ongoing lack of curriculum space and resources – rather than lesson quality – are the main reasons for falling subject take-up. Across all English schools, the number of GCSE music exams taken was down 7.4% last year.

High quality

Explaining the changes, Schools Minister Nick Gibb said it was his intention that all pupils “have access to a world-class music education”.

“We want to make sure their lessons are of the very highest quality and pupils leave school having experienced an excellent music education so those who wish to do so can take up opportunities to pursue musical careers.”

Gibb made similar comments at a parliamentary select committee last month. He rebuffed Ofsted’s observation that schools are eliminating arts subjects from their programmes, insisting that the numbers taking arts GCSEs had remained “broadly stable” and that what the watchdog was concerned about was the quality of the curriculum in Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3. 

“We want more young people to be taking music to GCSE and to A level, and the way to do that is to improve the curriculum in music and the arts leading up to GCSE so that they are well equipped and motivated to take those subjects,” he added.

The expert group – which has already started working – is led by former Chair of Arts Council England (ACE) London, Veronica Wadley, and includes arts leaders such as Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber; Royal Northern College of Music Principal Linda Merrick; and Headteacher of Feversham Primary Academy, Naveed Idrees, who has been celebrated for championing music to reverse the academic fortunes of his previously struggling Bradford school. 

Webber expressed his delight at joining the panel: “Engaging children in music and ensuring they receive a rich and diverse music education is key to growing pupils’ creativity and continuing the UK’s pipeline of future musicians,” he said. “I am delighted to be playing a part in shaping a model music curriculum which will support teachers in delivering an inspiring and high-quality music education.”

Music Education Hubs

The Government has also handed an additional £1.33m to Music Education Hubs, in addition to the £300m already allocated to the programme for the 2016-20 period. A spokesperson said the new funding was to “ensure that the hubs can keep up their good work”, following an ACE report that 89% of schools and more than 700,000 pupils had been reached by Music Hub-backed teaching in 2016-17.

The National Plan for Music Education – which introduced plans for music education hubs – expires in 2020 and the Government is committed to refreshing the policy to ensure music “remains at the forefront of school life”.

Call for curriculum guidance

Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, welcomed the extra funding for music education hubs, saying “hubs have faced increasing challenges in the wake of funding cuts and we hope that this small increase will go some way in ensuring the delivery of their music education offer”.

But Annetts stressed that the ISM was also calling for “urgent action in relation to the delivery of a broad and balanced curriculum in schools”.

“The decline of music in Key Stage 3 has been driven by the headline accountability measures of the EBacc and Progress 8,” she said. “These measures mean that schools focus on EBacc subjects at Key Stage 3 and 4, at the expense of non-EBacc subjects such as music. It is evident that curriculum music is being squeezed out of the timetable.”

Annetts added that the ISM is calling on the Government to provide “clear guidance to all schools that headline accountability measures must not erode the delivery of a broad and balanced curriculum at Key Stage 3, and make it clear that a narrow curriculum will impact adversely on Ofsted inspections and evaluations”.

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