Tom Watson: We Must Reverse The Decline In Music Education In State Schools

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Tom Watson says “the future of our classrooms is the future of British music”.

The Ezra Collective have just made history by becoming the first jazz act to win the Mercury Prize.

The quintet’s drummer Femi Koleoso seized the moment to explain: “This moment that we’re celebrating right here is testament to good, special people putting time and effort into young people to play music.”

He is right, but this is more than a milestone for the UK jazz scene; it’s a testament to the untapped potential lying within our nation’s schools.

At a time when the government is looking to drive British exports and give our economy a boost, we have a possible gold mine sitting in our classrooms.  

The UK’s music superstars helped boost exports of British music to a record £2.5 billion in 2021 in a market where competition from nations like South Korea is increasingly ferocious.  That figure is set to soar even higher. 

Thousands of young people in our state schools could go on to help increase that export market, revive our economy and enrich our cultural landscape by fulfilling their dreams of following in the footsteps of some of our global icons like Adele, Stormzy and Ed Sheeran.  

However, they face a major barrier which we need to remove if they are to get a chance to capitalise on their musical talents.

The precipitous decline in music education is fast reaching the point where learning a music instrument or how to sing professionally could soon become the preserve of the rich and the privileged. 

There are some success stories such as that of Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the outstanding young cellist who played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  He studied A-level music at a Nottingham comprehensive in a disadvantaged part of the city and defied the odds to become a BBC Young Musician of the Year and a global star. 

The reality is very different for young people at most state schools. The uptake of A-level music has fallen by a catastrophic 45% in the UK since 2020 when the English Baccalaureate was introduced. It is a similarly worrying picture when it comes to those studying music for GCSE.

A big part of the problem is the big fall in the number of music teachers and funding cuts that have left many schools struggling to afford even the most basic of musical instruments. 

There are now parts of the country where it is almost impossible for a budding musician to study A-level music.

According to a study by Birmingham City University, the rates of decline in entries are so severe that no one might be taking A-level music in just ten years. 

That would be a tragedy for all the tens of thousands of children who will miss out on the joy music brings with all its benefits to health and wellbeing as well as the chance of a fulfilling career. 

It would be a disaster for our cultural landscape if we are deprived of future stars that will never grace the stage at Glastonbury or join the orchestra at the Royal Opera House. 

There is also the damage that it will cause to the talent pipeline of the UK music industry which has a reputation for producing performers, musicians and music professionals who contribute billions each year to our economy. 

So many young people dream of singing or playing music for a career.  They have the ambition, drive and talent. They just lack the opportunity. 

As a first step, it is imperative we reverse the decline in music teaching in our state schools. Put simply, we need to train and recruit hundreds more music teachers with the passion and determination to make music lessons the best part of any child’s week. 

Between 2010 and this year, the number of people starting initial teacher training for music has more than halved.  The removal of the music teacher training bursary in 2020 means even fewer people can afford to train for the job. 

As the chair of UK Music, the collective voice of the UK music industry, we are putting the need to train and hire more music teachers at the heart of UK Music’s ‘Music Manifesto’ which we will be delivering to the government tomorrow.

According to theChildren’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza, more than one in five children in England are now frequently missing school – double pre-Covid levels. Over the last academic year, Department for Education figures show 22.3% of pupils in England were persistently absent.  

That’s deeply worrying.  Yet we have a chance through the power of music to play a part in helping get children back in the classroom.  

The UK has successfully converted the creativity of its music makers into a global industry for over half a century. To continue to do so, our talent pipeline needs fixing. 

So many young people dream of singing or playing music for a career. As Femi Koleoso of the Ezra Collective rightly pointed out, this is “a special moment for every single organisation across the country, ploughing efforts and time into young people playing music”.

The time to act is now. The future of our classrooms is the future of British music.

Tom Watson is a Labour and chair of UK Music