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Bridget’s Blog: Higher Education and Musical Careers

25th October 2021

Following reports that the UK’s future music ‘talent pipeline’ could be at risk due to the decline in A-level music take-up, Music Mark CEO Bridget Whyte hits the airwaves and explores whether a more positive picture can be drawn for the future of music education…

Music Mark CEO Bridget Whyte

My husband used to work as a Studio Manager for the BBC World Service and I loved going into Bush House and seeing him in action as a sound engineer. I never at that time thought I’d be in the studio being interviewed myself, and certainly not for BBC Radio 3!

If you didn’t catch Music Matters on Saturday, you might want to get onto the Sounds App and listen, but of course, the conversation I was involved in with Tom Service and Adam Whittaker, a research fellow from the Birmingham Conservatoire, was much longer than the final edit.

Broadcasting House, London

The impact of declining numbers of 16-18 year olds studying music in higher education institutions was an interesting topic to talk about, and not one we will be able to solve overnight or indeed quickly. However, at the risk of repeating myself, here are my broader thoughts – including those that ended up on the cutting room floor!

Adam’s research report paints quite a stark picture, and I think the BBC picked up on it as a topic for the current affairs programme because of a key headline which said that by 2033 A-level music in state schools may completely disappear.

We talked about why that might be, and you won’t be surprised that I spoke about the challenge around the perception of music as an academic subject.  In the past, ministers across the UK have not helped us to argue for how valuable music can be as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, especially in England with their focus on attainment 8, progress 8 and the EBacc. In many ways, this has been compounded by the accountability processes in the past by Ofsted which focused more on the management of schools than the curriculum subjects being taught.  This all resulted in there being little or no pressure on school leaders to consider the subject with so much else to focus on and ‘get right’.

But I think a really key point to remember is that a government and school focus on the STEM subjects filters down to parents and even pupils.  For decades there has been a real stigma in learning a creative subject – even my parents were very nervous about me studying a music degree.

Of course while the music education sector recognises that populating the music departments of Higher Education establishments is not necessarily its primary aim, a reduction of numbers studying the subject in higher education will have a significant impact on the pipeline of instrumental, vocal, ensemble and classroom teachers as well as the ability for the wider music industry to thrive.  And this is an industry which is worth £5.8bn to the UK Economy, with a conservative estimate that the UK’s creative sector employs more than two million people directly and many more indirectly.

And let’s not forget the point Howard Goodall made in his keynote for us at the start of term, that learning music will support every pupil to achieve their goals; indeed, Professor Sarah Gilbert who is the lead professor behind the development of the AstraZeneca Vaccine was an oboist and has talked about how her musical learning has supported her in being in the limelight over the past year (here).

As most people will know, I’m always keen to see the positive side of a situation and I do think that there is a possibility that the tide is turning.  In Scotland the news of additional money to fund free instrumental tuition for state educated pupils, and the work going on in Wales to prepare a national plan for music education which will sit alongside that country’s curriculum which includes a pillar for creative arts are both giving a new message about how these governments view music education.

Meanwhile in England the new Ofsted inspection framework and indeed the publication of a model music curriculum by the DfE have been a catalyst for more schools engaging with their music service and the other organisations within the local music education hub.  Perhaps we can reverse the trend Adam is reporting.

I would however question whether we need to think differently about the pathways in music education.  When I did A level music – I actually did two, Music theory and practical –  it was assumed that by doing these, and because of the curriculum of the two courses, I was being prepared to either go to music college and into the performing profession (as many of my classmates did),  become a peripatetic music teacher (like my father), or a classroom teacher (like my mother).  The idea of a Portfolio Career was not ‘a thing’ then and the syllabus assumed a need to be fully versed in the history and repertoire of Western Classical music almost to the exclusion of anything else.

Of the 2 million people in the music industry workforce now, and indeed me when I started work after a three year music degree, very few will need the depth of knowledge of what we could term as just one genre of music.  There will always be a place for musicologists to expand and explore the ‘classical cannon’, but I love the report which Youth Music published a few years ago which outlined the views on music of children and young people.  Analysis of their contributions to that report resulted in the identification of over 300 genres of music!

Is what we are offering students at university the courses they want and indeed developing the skills and knowledge which is needed by the profession?  If we’re talking about providing an education which is a pipeline into the industry, have the various pieces of the pipe talked together to map out what is needed?

The Youth Music report created quite a stir when it was published.  Indeed, one headline read ‘Stormzy should replace Mozart in UK music classrooms’.  Even Stormzy didn’t agree with that, and I would say that a music education which doesn’t celebrate the rich musical history we all have would be a shame.  I’d be sad if Mozart wasn’t at least introduced to young learners at some point, but we need to diversify the repertoire explored to broaden horizons and reflect the music heritage and current music trends across the globe.

Oh, and back to the parental view of music as a ‘secondary’ subject and not one you study if you want a proper job…. I got my first job whilst still at university and started on the Monday after I graduated on the Friday.  My brother worked in computers, was made redundant three times during his career and is currently at university studying music performance and production!  There are many career paths in music, perhaps we need to do more to celebrate them?

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