On 18 October 2023 the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord Boateng (Labour) to ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to address inequalities in access to musical education in school.

1. Music education

1.1 National curriculum

Music forms part of the national curriculum from key stage one to key stage three. This means all maintained schools must teach music from the ages of five to 14. Academy schools are not required to follow the national curriculum, though the government has said academies are expected to teach a curriculum that is “similar in breadth and ambition”, including in music. The national curriculum states that in key stage three pupils should be taught to:

  • play and perform confidently in a range of solo and ensemble contexts using their voice, playing instruments musically, fluently and with accuracy and expression
  • improvise and compose; and extend and develop musical ideas by drawing on a range of musical structures, styles, genres and traditions
  • use staff and other relevant notations appropriately and accurately in a range of musical styles, genres and traditions
  • identify and use the inter-related dimensions of music expressively and with increasing sophistication, including use of tonalities, different types of scales and other musical devices
  • listen with increasing discrimination to a wide range of music from great composers and musicians
  • develop a deepening understanding of the music that they perform and to which they listen, and its history

The government’s supporting guidance for music in the national curriculum states the expected minimum provision:

  • At key stages one and two, pupils should receive a minimum of one hour of teaching a week; this may take the form of short sessions spread across the week.
  • In years three or four, it is recommended that each class should start a whole-class instrumental programme lasting a minimum of one term.
  • There should be access to both rhythmic and melodic instruments in key stages one and two; this may be as part of the whole-class instrumental programme and/or in other classroom teaching.
  • Music should have a minimum of one weekly period the whole way through key stage three.

1.2 Music education hubs

Music education hubs are groups of organisations working in partnership to deliver music provision for all children and young people. They may consist of schools and academy trusts, local authorities, music education organisations or community, youth and voluntary organisations. Hubs both provide teaching themselves and support music teaching in schools. They also offer continuing professional development for music teachers.

Hubs were introduced in 2011. They are funded by a ringfenced grant from the Department for Education. In 2022 the government announced that it would provide £79mn per year until 2025 for the music hubs programme.

The Arts Council’s music hubs data dashboard reported that there were 120 music hubs in England in 2020/21. Before the pandemic, hubs worked with around 91% of primary schools and 88% of secondary schools in England.

2. Provision

A 2022 survey of music teachers by the Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) found there was significant variability in music provision, particularly in primary schools. It also found the key stage three music curriculum had been progressively narrowed, mostly in academies. This happened primarily through placing music on a carousel or rota system, where it was only offered for part of the year on rotation with other subjects, or through a shortened key stage three (that is, starting preparation for GCSEs before year 10). The survey found that reported mean yearly budgets for music departments were £1,865 in maintained schools, £2,152 in academies and free schools and £9,917 in independent schools.

A 2019 report published jointly by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, the University of Sussex and the ISM, titled ‘Music education: State of the nation’, also found that access to and quality of music education had been deteriorating:

A squeeze on funding and pressure on the curriculum due to accountability measures is the cause of this. These […] have become so serious that they now challenge the very existence of music education.

In response to a survey conducted by the ISM, cited in the report, more than 50% of responding schools said they did not meet their curriculum obligations to year six, citing the pressure of statutory tests in other subjects as a significant reason for this. The report said that lack of teacher confidence and cuts to funding that have forced some schools to no longer employ specialist music teachers were also important factors.

The report also found evidence of lack of provision in secondary schools:

  • In more than 50 percent of state-funded secondary schools music was not taught throughout key stage three, including in some schools still under local authority control where it was a statutory requirement until the end of year nine.
  • In key stage three there is an increasing move towards music only being offered on a ‘carousel’, where it is only offered for part of the year on rotation with other (usually arts) subjects.
  • The time allocated to music in the key stage three curriculum has been reduced, and was three percent of curriculum time in 2017.

A 2019 report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee found evidence that the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), an attainment measure based on core GCSE subjects such as English and maths, had resulted in fewer students studying music at secondary school level.

Department for Education statistics show a 30 percent fall in the number of entries for music GCSE between the 2013/14 academic year and the 2022/23 academic year. This is in spite of an increase of approximately 45,552 in the size of the 16-year-old cohort in that time.[1]

3. Disadvantage gap

The ‘Music education: State of the nation’ report argued that a reduction in music teaching in schools means music education “becomes the preserve only of those that can afford to access it outside of the classroom”.

‘Education in England’, a 2020 report produced by the Education Policy Institute, found that in 2019 disadvantaged pupils both participated and achieved less in music at GCSE than non-disadvantaged pupils. The report defined disadvantaged as having received free school meals in the previous six years, a definition often used by the Department for Education.

The report found that the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils in music GCSE was 20 months; that is, disadvantaged pupils’ performance was 20 months behind their non-disadvantaged peers. This was the highest gap of any subject. In addition, disadvantaged pupils participated at a 38.3 percent lower rate than non-disadvantaged pupils. This was the sixth highest difference of any GCSE subject with more than 5,000 entrants, behind German, physics, chemistry, biology and physical education.

Work by the Child Poverty Action Group on its ‘Cost of the school day’ series found that low-income families experience barriers to accessing music education:

Music is another subject that creates additional costs for families when their children want to participate fully. Children in both primary and secondary schools have told us that instrument tuition usually comes with an additional cost for families: not only the cost of the tuition itself, but also the purchase or hire of an instrument so children can practise outside of their dedicated lesson time.


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.

4. Government policy

4.1 National plan for music education

On 25 June 2022 the government published ‘The power of music to change lives: A national plan for music education’ (NPME). The government said it intended the plan to “ensure all pupils receive a high-quality music education, strengthen the creative pipeline and help create the musicians and audiences of the future”.

The plan set out three goals to achieve this aim:

  • All children and young people should receive a high-quality music education in the early years (up to five years old) and in schools.
  • All music educators should work in partnership, with children and young people’s needs and interests at their heart.
  • All children and young people with musical interests and talents should have the opportunity to progress, including professionally.

The government stated that the measures in the plan would achieve this vision by 2030. It committed to a review of progress in 2025 and also to a new national plan for music education board to monitor progress and drive improvement. The plan constitutes non-statutory guidance.

The document set out several policies to achieve the goal that all children and young people should receive a high-quality music education. For example, the plan stated that every school should have a designated head of music in the primary and secondary education phases. In addition, each school should have a ‘music development plan’. Pupils should receive at least one hour of “high-quality curriculum music” per week in key stages one to three.

The government said that high-quality music education would consist of three interlinked areas of provision, namely:

  • curriculum music, which is compulsory in key stages one to three, then optional for examination classes such as GCSEs, vocational and technical qualifications and A-levels
  • instrumental and vocal lessons, and singing or playing as part of an ensemble
  • musical events and opportunities, such as singing in assembly, staging concerts and shows, and trips to professional concerts

As part of the plan, the government said it would invest £25mn in musical instruments and equipment, including music technology.

The 2022 plan called for “ever stronger partnerships at local levels”. For example, it said that schools’ music development plans should be designed in partnership with their music hub. The plan set out three new aims for hubs:

  • supporting schools to deliver high-quality music education
  • supporting young people to develop their musical talents and interests, including into employment
  • supporting all children and young people to engage with a range of musical opportunities, in and out of school

The plan proposed that hubs should appoint ‘lead schools’ that have particularly strong music provision to work with the hub in supporting all local schools. In addition, the plan called for each hub to appoint a ‘local voluntary music ambassador’, ideally a professional musician, to advocate and be a role model for children and to promote links with the wider music industry.

The 2022 plan also said that four hubs would be chosen as “national centres of excellence”. They would receive additional funding and each would be given a specialist role. This would be to promote inclusion, continuing professional development, music technology, or pathways to industry.

In addition, the government said that all music hubs would be opened up to competition by inviting applications for the role of lead organisation in each hub. The lead organisation would receive and administer the government funding for that hub. The government said that, as a result, it expected to see “a reduced number of hub lead organisations establishing partnerships across wider geographical areas”.

4.2 Inclusion

In a number of areas the plan stressed the importance of inclusion in music education. For example, it stated:

  • The government will pilot a ‘music progression fund’ to support disadvantaged pupils with significant musical potential, enthusiasm and commitment.
  • All music hubs should develop an inclusion strategy and appoint an inclusion lead.
  • All music educators should commit to removing barriers, including for children in low-income families and children with special educational needs and disabilities.
  • Those teaching music should take action to support increasing access, opportunity, participation, and progression of groups that are currently under-represented in music.

Similarly, the 2021 model music curriculum said that it “celebrates the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities as it does the leaps in technology that have made available new tools and adapted instruments, leading to improved access and greater choice for all pupils”.

4.3 Creative industries sector vision

On 14 June 2023 the government published a policy paper entitled ‘Creative industries sector vision’. In it, the government gave an update on its actions to implement the NPME. It said it would provide £25mn for musical instruments and a new music progression fund to support “up to 1000 disadvantaged pupils” with musical potential. It said a new music hub network would be in place by September 2024. It also highlighted that there would be a new monitoring board to oversee implementation of the NPME, “including a focus on strengthening the talent pipelines and help[ing] create the musicians, composers, music technicians and audiences of the future”.

Cover image by Vlad Vasnetsov on Pixabay.


  1. Sources: 2023 statistics: Ofqual, ‘Provisional entries for GCSE, AS and A level: Summer 2023 exam series’ and ‘Data tables for provisional entries for GCSE, AS and A level: Summer 2023 exam series’, 1 June 2023; 2014 statistics: Department for Education, ‘Main national tables: SFR03/2017’, 19 January 2017 and Ofqual, ‘Data tables: Summer 2018 exam entries GCSE level1_2 AS and A levels’, 24 May 2018. Return to text