"Clear and present danger to the musical life of our country" - Lord Black tells Peers.

"Clear and present danger to the musical life of our country"

Lord Black and other Peers lambast Government over the state of music education in schools

In a two and a half hour debate in the House of Lords on Thursday led by Lord Black, Peer after Peer lined up to criticise the Government over the decline of music in state schools, where the number of those taking GCSE Music has plummeted by nearly a quarter since 2010 when the English Baccalaureate was introduced.

Accusing the Government of complacency, Lord Black said they were "fiddling while Rome burns", and urgent action was needed now to halt the decline before it became terminal. His speeches are below - and the full debate is here.

It can also be watched here.

Lord Black of Brentwood

My Lords, it is a privilege to lead a debate on what I believe is such a profoundly important subject. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who are taking part, many of whom have huge expertise in this area. I declare an interest as chairman of the Royal College of Music and a governor of Brentwood School. Indeed, for me, Brentwood School is a good place to start, because it was there that I fell in love with music. With the encouragement of my parents, I learned instruments, I played in orchestras, I sang in the choir and took O and A-level music. I did all the things that every young person should have an opportunity to do. I took that music education for granted as, back then, it was the birthright of every child.

The reason for this debate today is that increasingly few children have anything like such opportunities as I did. Instead of music being a fundamental right of all children, it is rapidly becoming the preserve of the privileged few at independent schools as it dies out in the state sector. As I hope that this debate will show, music in this country is now facing an existential crisis, which only urgent, radical action from the Government will be able to reverse.

Music matters first and foremost because it is the only universal language which connects all human beings, whether they live and work in a bustling city or dwell on the plains of a desert. Even in the world’s poorest slums, the refugee camps and the disaster areas, people make music and it is central to their lives. It is the most basic but important link to all our past and, if we so believe, paints the most powerful picture of the world beyond. Through its incredible blend of self-expression, energy and creativity, it moves, energises, soothes and uplifts in a way that nothing else can. It is what makes us distinctively human, enriching every life on the planet.

Music is also a formidable vehicle for economic growth. It is fundamental to the success of the creative economy, which is so important to UK plc. The UK creative industries, which generate £92 billion each year and make up 5% of our economy, are growing at twice the rate of the economy as a whole, while employment in the sector grows at four times the rate of the UK workforce, according to the Cultural Learning Alliance. One in 11 jobs depends on them, and they are long-term, sustainable jobs at no risk of automation. It is the UK music industry which powers all this.

Music is also part of our national identity and a formidable instrument of soft power. Ironically, I believe that while Brexit will have a catastrophic impact on our creative economy, our worldwide reputation for musical excellence must be one of the engines of prosperity in post-Brexit Britain. Our musical history is extraordinary, creating some of the greatest composers and performers in the world. From Tallis and Byrd via Elgar and Vaughan Williams to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Adele, the UK has a towering musical heritage. Nearly one in four albums sold in Europe during 2015 was by a British artist, making us one of the few net exporters of music worldwide. That means that music is not just an international calling card—of the sort we will desperately need after Brexit—but brings people flooding to these shores. An estimated 12.5 million people journeyed here last year for musical events, between them supporting 50,000 jobs.

My final point about why music matters is the vital role that it plays in the upbringing of children. Every survey shows the incredibly positive benefit that music has on the young mind. It improves cognitive ability by up to 17%, raising attainment in maths and English. It boosts mental health. By the time children leave primary school, one in five of them will have experienced mental health problems, and music is proven to help them find ways to cope with that. It benefits children from poorer backgrounds in particular. Students from low-income families who take part in musical and creative activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree and get a job. Music moulds young minds.

For all those reasons, music is vital to the proper, successful functioning of our society, our economy and our education system. It is not an add-on, pastime or “nice to have”; it is a fundamental building block of the country we want to be, as important as engineering, medicine and mathematics.

What supports all this—what is essential to the edifice that is UK music—is a steady supply of professionally trained musicians, who are the lifeblood of musical life throughout the UK. Whether it be “Salome” at the Coliseum this evening, the Tina Turner musical, one of 20 gigs taking place in Glasgow, Ed Sheeran in Leeds, Sondheim in Manchester or amateur choirs, orchestras and church organ recitals the length and breadth of the land, they all have one thing in common: they are made up of musicians who first learned their trade and their passion for music at school. To be clear, this is no elitist argument about classical music. The world of pop and light music, where Britain has led the way from the Beatles to Coldplay, will suffer just as grievously from the decline of music for that reason.

Probably more so than any other part of our economy, music-making by 50,000 performing musicians in the UK needs a pipeline of talent to be able to survive. It cannot survive without a steady supply of new, well-trained entrants to the profession who can both perform and teach. Many of them will come through universities or our great conservatoires. An institution such as the Royal College of Music specialises in preparing 300 graduates a year for the performing arts economy, ensuring that they are flexible and skilled enough to compete in national and international markets. In turn, UK students at college or university overwhelmingly were pupils who learned music academically and learned an instrument at school. That is where it all starts: the crucial entry point to the pipeline of talent.

Let us be clear: our great tradition in the creative industries is not because our nation is somehow innately creative; it is because we have created a strong arts education system with music at its core in which children progress through primary and secondary schools to further and higher education. Progression is the key. If music teaching in schools is undermined and eroded, that pipeline will dry up over time, with incalculable consequences for our musical life as a nation and for the creative economy. I fear that that is exactly what is happening now. Music is literally disappearing from our schools, and that is, I hate to say, a direct result of government policy.

This year, only 35,000 pupils completed a GCSE in music, the first staging post on the path to a professional career. That was down from 46,000 in 2010, a decline of a quarter in just eight years. Imagine the mayhem there would be in Whitehall if the number of pupils taking physics had declined by half as much. Now, one-fifth of schools do not even offer GCSE music and, of those that do, 11% have to teach it outside curriculum time.

Those shameful figures are part of a wider picture of music in ferocious decline in our schools. Consider these facts. The DfE’s own figures from last year show that the number of hours for which the arts, including music, were taught in secondary schools in England fell by 21% between 2010 and 2017. A survey of 500 schools from the University of Sussex published just last week shows that compulsory music for 13 to 14 year-olds is down from 84% of responding schools in 2012 to just 47% now—a terrifyingly steep decline. Over the same period, staffing levels in music departments are down by 36%, with 70% of surviving music specialists having to teach outside their subject to fill gaps. Many teaching staff are now part-time and some are unqualified.

Music outside the classroom is under equal pressure. UK Music estimates that for children aged 11 to 15, participation in extracurricular music is down from about 75% in 2012 to 60% last year, partly reflecting the sharp decline in peripatetic teaching.

If one needed evidence of how this erodes the pipeline, one has only to look at the even more shocking figures for A-level music, where there has been an inevitable decline of just under 40% in entries in England since 2010. Only 5,485 pupils took A-level music in 2018—down from 8,790 only eight years ago. That should not be a surprise: you are unlikely to take an A-level unless you have done a GCSE, so the inexorable unravelling of the ecology of our national musical architecture begins in a way which makes the long-term future of music in the UK ultimately unsustainable. This is a warning not just about the future; we are beginning to suffer the consequences even now. Last week, it was revealed that the National Youth Orchestra of Wales—a part of the UK with music in its bone marrow—has been unable for the first time ever to recruit enough violinists. That is how it begins.

While other factors may be involved, much of the blame for this situation must lie with the introduction of the English baccalaureate, which does not measure achievement in artistic, creative, and technical subjects, and therefore means that secondary schools have no incentive to offer those subjects at GCSE. It downgrades and punishes arts subjects at the expense of sciences. I know that my noble friend will say, as he did yesterday, that there is no empirical evidence linking the introduction of the EBacc in 2010 with the decline in GCSE and A-level music, which also dates from that time. However, it is what schools and teachers are themselves saying. In a recent survey of 1,200 primary and secondary schools by the BBC, 90% of teachers said that they had cut back on creative arts subjects, and most blamed the combination of EBacc criteria alongside funding cuts. In a similar survey by the University of Sussex earlier this year, 60% of independent schools specifically highlighted the EBacc as having a negative impact on the provision and uptake of music in their schools. Many confirmed that they now steer lower-ability pupils away from music so that they can concentrate on EBacc subjects.

One of the terrible consequences of all this is that a huge divide is being opened up between provision of music in the state schools and in the independent sector which is, thankfully, not constrained by the stultifying straitjacket of the EBacc. As a result, music is increasingly becoming the preserve of the wealthy, whose children go to schools where GCSE music is still encouraged and who can afford to pay for music tuition. Half of children at independent schools have sustained access to music tuition, compared to just 15% in state schools. That divide is shameful in a civilised society.

I have no doubt that my noble friend, who I know is a doughty champion of music education, will say that the Government are tackling the problem in other ways, including through music education hubs. But this provision is a patchy postcode lottery at best and can never be a substitute for the proper teaching of music in schools, particularly when cuts to council budgets are putting severe stress on local authority music services. All such initiatives, important though they are, are at best a sticking plaster, and our musical life deserves better. I am sure that my noble friend will also point out that music is a part of the national curriculum, which means that schools are required to teach music up to the end of key stage 3. But that too is being eroded, not least because of the growing number of academies, which are not bound by the national curriculum. Their growth and the constraints of the EBacc mean that increasingly music is not offered even at key stage 3, irrespective of the demands of the national curriculum.

As the Incorporated Society of Musicians has made clear, the answer has to lie in wholesale change to the EBacc system—either by cutting it right back and retaining just the core subjects of English and maths but with six open spaces to give schools and pupils greater flexibility, or by reforming it in the imaginative way that my noble friend Lord Baker has proposed, ensuring that pupils study a creative GCSE from a list that would include music, art and design, dance and drama. Either way, the priority must be to give music and creative subjects equal billing in our schools in a way that they always had until this act of cultural vandalism.

We need to take immediate action because the situation is grave and urgent, as the figures I gave earlier underline. If we do not, history will damn us with those chilling words: “too late.” Once our world-renowned musical architecture crumbles—and without change it could well do so—it will be well-nigh impossible to rebuild it. The decline of GCSE music will continue apace. Fewer and fewer pupils will go on to do A-level music. Music departments in schools will shrink even further, meaning a decline in the quality of education for those lucky enough to still be able to take those exams. The gulf between the rich who can pay for music education and those who cannot will get wider and starker. The pipeline to our conservatoires and universities will rapidly dry up as music education disappears from schools—at just the time when our international competitors are seeking to emulate what we have achieved here in previous generations.

The supply of professional musicians into our creative industries in every region of the UK will inexorably diminish, damaging a vital and expanding part of our economy, with so much potential for soft power in a post-Brexit world. There will be fewer teachers to go into the schools where music still has a place, and so it will continue. Above all, many thousands of children—perhaps among them some with potential to be world-class musicians—will be deprived of something which should be their birthright: an understanding and appreciation of the beauty of music, which should be the right of all, not the privilege of the few. That is the greatest tragedy. There is a clear and present danger to the musical life of our nation, and the time to act is now.

Closing speech

Lord Black of Brentwood

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in what has been an incredibly important debate. To use a musical analogy, we have heard a stirring theme and variations. We have heard so many powerful illustrations from noble Lords with huge expertise in their areas of the clear and present danger to music education from the perfect storm, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, described it. We have heard excellent examples of how the decline is not something in the future; it is happening here and now. I was very struck by what my noble friend Lord Lingfield said about the ESO and the way in which school orchestras are declining. 

We have heard many other examples of who will lose out. We heard about how children with mental health problems will lose out, in a moving speech from my noble friend Lady Redfern. We heard about the threat to church and Cathedral music and the Anglican musical heritage from the right reverend Prelate. We have heard about the problems that employers will face. The noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Lipsey, referred to how music education has a profound effect on training young minds, even for people who are not going into the music profession. I know that the CBI has also made that point. All noble Lords talked about the threat to the UK economy and the problems those from future generations who want to get into the profession will face. My noble friend Lord Clancarty set that out with characteristic aplomb.

Yes, there are glimmers of light. I pay tribute to the charities mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, which are seeking to plug the gap. In an important speech from my noble friend Lord Lexden, we heard about the role of independent schools in partnerships. They are terribly important, but I must say to both noble Lords that both independent schools and charities depend on the supply of well-trained teachers and professionals. If the decline continues over time, they, too, will find that they do not have the people to plug the gap as they do now. There may be glimmers of light now, but there is a danger that they will be snuffed out.

To use one final musical analogy, I hate to say it but I fear that the speech we heard from the Minister was the sound of fiddling while Rome burns. I fear that, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, the Government are in denial about this, and that is extremely sad. I am very grateful to the Minister for his remarks and the way he set out what the Government are doing in music education, but perhaps he would take back a strong message from this House to the Secretary of State that it is time that the Government looked at the facts here, listened to what is going on on the ground from the experts here and beyond—the Incorporated Society of Musicians, the conservatoires and so forth, who have a day-to-day knowledge of what is happening—and then acted. I beg to move.


Hansard source here