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An Ofsted report examining music in schools has found inequalities in opportunities to learn an instrument continue to impact pupil success in the subject.

A music teacher playing piano for a class of children
Ofsted found "access to paid instrumental or vocal lessons" was a key factor in determining student success after Key Stage 3

RDNE Stock project

A report by Ofsted on music teaching in schools has highlighted the disparity in opportunities between pupils whose families can afford to pay for tuition and those who cannot, noting the issue has not improved since it last investigated the subject in 2012.

Conducted between December 2022 and June 2023 after visits to 25 primary and 25 secondary schools, Ofsted's latest study said inspectors were concerned that in some schools, pupils were only well placed to continue their musical education and achieve well after Key Stage 3 if they had "access to paid instrumental or vocal lessons".

Ofsted said: "There is a clear divide between children and young people whose families can afford to pay for music tuition and those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This inequality of opportunity, highlighted at the time of our last subject report, persists."


Many school leaders reported that, in the last few years, they had reduced the subsidy of instrumental lessons or, in some cases, completely stopped it because of wider pressures on school budgets. Inspectors found no lessons were offered in half the primary schools it visited.

Where primary students did have the opportunity to take vocal and instrumental lessons, most schools worked with their local music hubs to provide tuition. However, inspectors found that in those schools with no provision, some leaders seemed unaware of hub services.

Frequently, headteachers had decided not to provide lessons because, in their view, families could not afford them. They also noted the number of pupils taking extracurricular music lessons “remained below pre-pandemic levels”.

At the secondary level, the report found most schools did give students the option to take elective instrument lessons, but again, subsidy had waned along with significant numbers quitting during the pandemic. As a result, Ofsted found fewer pupils were having instrumental or vocal lessons and going on to study music at Key Stage 4. 

Many music teachers said they were “struggling to maintain previously well-established music ensembles”, and in some secondary schools, these activities had not yet returned.

Primary/secondary split

With regard to music provision in the curriculum, the report found differences in delivery between primary and secondary schools. While almost all primary schools ensured pupils had “adequate” time to learn music, there was “considerable variation” in the duration allocated at Key Stage 3, and nearly half of secondary schools were not allowing time to cover the “full breadth” of the national curriculum.

The report noted that without allowing pupils to develop musical skills and knowledge incrementally, children were “far more likely simply to ‘do music’ than get better at it”.

Singing was cited as the strongest part of the primary curriculum, but inspectors found only a “very small number” of secondaries placed singing as a significant aspect of the curriculum.

Composition was considered the curriculum's weakest aspect for both older and younger pupils. Inspectors commented that “very few schools” considered “the underpinning knowledge that pupils need to learn how to construct and deconstruct music”.

Specialist teachers

In over two-thirds of the primary schools, Ofsted found music was taught by non-specialist teachers. Over half of teachers did not have enough subject knowledge to teach the curriculum well. 

Primary teachers openly conveyed a lack of confidence in the subject but were also found to be keen to develop their practice and welcomed training. Many teachers used commercially published schemes to deliver their music curriculum, saying that the structure made them feel "secure" while instructional videos helped them develop their own knowledge.

While school leaders had a “realistic view” of what teachers without subject expertise could deliver, the report said few had a clear plan for addressing these weaknesses.

Meanwhile, at Key Stage 3, only a small number of schools used non-specialists to deliver the curriculum, though it was noted that these teachers were “rarely supported or given any training”.

Headteachers attributed these instances to ongoing challenges with recruiting music teachers. In a few cases, music had been temporarily removed from the curriculum because of a shortage of specialists.


In response to the report's findings, the Musicians Union said it was “concerning that schools appear to have downgraded their support for instrumental learning programmes since 2012, which coincides with the implementation of the government’s first National Plan for Music Education (NPME).”

A refreshed NPME was published in 2022, reiterating the government’s aim for “all children and young people to learn to sing, play an instrument and create music together, and to have the opportunity to progress their musical interests and talents, including professionally.”

The MU said that while it supports much of the updated NPME, it has concerns, including funding shortages, accountability measures, and “its failure to engage with the insecure contracts faced by many visiting music teachers”. 

Chris Walters, MU National Organiser for Education, said it was “heartbreaking” to see extracurricular music suffer from a lack of resources.

He said: “Access to sustained instrumental learning, regardless of ability to pay, is vital to ensure that the next generation of professional musicians come from a diverse range of backgrounds, not just from well-off backgrounds.

“The government has shown that it understands music education through its publication of two NPMEs, but this report shows that ministers have chosen to bury their heads in the sand rather than look seriously at how to fund and deliver their ambitions in this area.

“Given the challenging environment for music education, it is testament to schools’ work that so much classroom-based delivery is as effective as it is. But it is heartbreaking to see extracurricular music struggling, and in some cases dying, through lack of resource. The government must address this.”

A headshot of Mary Stone