Music education must ‘evolve’ for 21st century, warns former BBC Proms controller Sir Nicholas Kenyon

The discordant clamour of an enthusiastic choir is a sound synonymous with the memory of music lessons in school.

The Brass Band at Foxhill Primary School, Queensbury, is battling to save its Musical Talent. Lilly Manton and Nathan Elam are pictured at the school. ..Picture by Simon Hulme
The Brass Band at Foxhill Primary School, Queensbury, is battling to save its Musical Talent. Lilly Manton and Nathan Elam are pictured at the school. ..Picture by Simon Hulme

Yet these time-honoured traditions in musical education, a former controller of the BBC Proms has warned, are in danger of disappearing.

There are “huge disparities” in education provision, Sir Nicholas Kenyon has said at the close of an 18-month inquiry by The Music Commission, alongside a failure to recognise how young people engage. Music education must evolve to fit the needs of the 21st century, he warns, before the talent of today’s youth is squandered in the absence of appreciation.

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“Every young person should be supported to achieve their musical potential, whatever their background,” report chairman Sir Nicholas has said. “This is a basic issue of equality of opportunity.”

There have been rising concerns over access to an arts education, with an investigation by The Yorkshire Post last year revealing a patchwork picture of provision. The subject was being pushed to the margins of the state curriculum, experts warned, with schools facing mounting pressure over performance and funding.

There were tales of classes being cut, of falling exam entry rates, and of parents being asked to pay financial contributions.

But there were also moving stories of bold moves to maintain provision, and no more so than in Queensbury, Bradford, home to the original Black Dyke Band.

At the village’s Foxhill Primary, more than half of the children are in the choir. And despite the school having to fundraise for provision, headteacher Sally Hey said, she remains convinced over the benefits it brings. “For as long as I’m head, I’m not going to take any enjoyment out of school for the children,” she added.

Now, as the findings of the full inquiry are published, there are calls for change to widen participation for children.

Among the suggestions is a move towards universally-free music tuition in schools, a stipulation that schools can only be classed as ‘outstanding’ if they have a broad cultural programme, and initiatives to involve young people more.

The music industry generates “significant economic value”, the report concludes, but education in the arts also improves confidence and broader academic attainment.

Inquiry chairman Sir Nicholas, stating that he recognised the pressures on schools when it came to targets and results, added: “There’s a growing understanding that this is not enough. Part of this is about funding and connecting young people with the opportunities there are to progress, but we have got to do more to move music education into the 21st century.

“There is some great practice out there, especially in the early years, as we’ve shown that we can start them on this journey.

“The problem is that too often we are then failing them - and ourselves - by not supporting them to progress.”

A spokesman for the Department for Education (DfE) said they are currently working with music groups to “refresh” the approach to music education, adding: “We want all pupils to have the opportunity to study music at school. “That is why the subject is compulsory in the National Curriculum from the age of five up to 14. We are also putting more money into arts education programmes than any subject other than PE - nearly half a billion pounds to fund a range of music and cultural programmes between 2016 and 2020.”