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Teach First Secondary Music Team

5 ways to level Music - one of the UK’s most unequal school subjects

Following the release of the DfE's new National Plan for Music Education, Teach First's expert music specialists share how to help narrow the subject's glaring disadvantage gap.

The old adage ’music has the power to change lives’ is a wonderful sentiment that few people would actively disagree with. More than mere words though, HM Government have made this the central message of their new National Plan for Music Education (NPfME). Written as a follow-up to their 2011 plan (written in consultation with teachers and other sector experts), it sets out the government’s vision for music education until 2030.

2020 GCSE results showed that music had the second highest disadvantage gap in the country. One of the reasons for this is likely to be the lack of opportunities that poorer pupils might have to engage with music, in comparison to their wealthier or more advantaged peers. In fact, disadvantaged pupils are less likely to take music as an optional subject – those who do will, on average, achieve 1.37 grades lower than their peers with access to better funded and supported music education.

As music education specialists, we're excited by the plan and how it can help to close this gap. Music departments come in all shapes and sizes, and what goes on in music classrooms can seem baffling (and sometimes a little scary) to those who are not specialists or don’t consider themselves to be musical.

Music is for all, not just the most privileged in our society – and it’s our aim that after reading this you’ll understand key takeaways from the plan and what you can do to support your school.

Key takeaways from the new National Plan for Music Education

There is much that is good in the NPfME and the plan directly addresses many of the challenges that secondary music educators face. As a team responsible for training the next generation of music teachers, we are particularly encouraged that the plan:

  • recognises the absolute importance of music as part of the curriculum for all Key Stage 3 pupils, making it clear that it should not be squeezed into two years or be put on a termly carousel with other subjects
  • champions an inclusive and diverse curriculum which supports the progression of all pupils throughout and beyond their schooling. Importance is placed on ensuring that pupils with SEND and those from disadvantaged backgrounds can access this same high quality music education This includes a pilot music progression fund which will support disadvantaged pupils with musical potential from 2023
  • no longer refers to ‘extra-curricular’ music but, instead, ‘co-curricular’ music. This recognises the extensive musical worlds that exist inside school, but outside the timetabled curriculum. They are an intrinsic part of life in the music department - not just ‘add-ons’ to the school day – and offer opportunities to pupils that they might otherwise not have access to outside school
  • calls for each school to have a designated ‘music lead’ who has the support of school leadership and wider networks outside school (e.g., Music Hubs, other schools in their MAT etc)
  • recognises the amount of time and work required to establish and run a thriving music department and acknowledges that schools need to be realistic about what can be achieved and the appropriate timeframes.

So, what does all that mean for schools and where is the best place to start? Here are 5 actions that teachers and school leaders can take to make meaningful steps toward the plan’s ideals and help close the disadvantage gap in music education.

1. Read the new National Plan for Music Education

We encourage all music teachers and school leaders with direct responsibility for music to read the new NPfME, which aims to close the disadvantage gap between pupils with access to music education. An executive summary of the plan is available on page 5.

2. Talk to your school’s music team

We encourage school leaders to meet with music teachers in their school to learn more about the mysterious inner workings of the department. Ask the following questions:

  • What is their approach to teaching music?
  • Why is the music curriculum planned the way it is?
  • Does the music curriculum reflect the diversity and interests of the school community?
  • What is going well in the music department and what are its ambitions for the future?
  • What do music teachers feel they need (e.g. professional development opportunities) to meet these ambitions?

Whilst the NPfME makes several suggestions about what a successful music department might look like, we know that not all things will work or be possible in all contexts. So, we encourage these conversations to help all parties get a sense of what a thriving music department realistically looks like in the context of their school.

3. Create and implement a school Music Development Plan

The NPfME calls upon all schools to write a Music Development Plan for delivering a high-quality music education for all pupils (more details can be found on pages 21-22).

Within this, there is a need to recognise the disadvantage gap that exists in music;  Development plans should, therefore, address how this disadvantage gap could be closed so that all pupils have the opportunity to progress their musical learning.

Schools should work on the plan from September 2022, ready for the academic year starting in September 2023. This time frame provides a fantastic opportunity to create a well-considered, refined plan that works for your school and context and can have meaningful impact on your music department going forward.

We encourage school leaders to be involved in the ongoing construction of this plan, make commitments to its success, and help to bring it in line with the wider school priorities. They need to also recognise that it provides an opportunity to support and upskill teachers in writing documents of this nature, many of whom will not have done so before.

4. Recognise the importance of the music co-curriculum

Just as the plan no longer refers to music as ‘extra-curricular’ but ‘co-curricular’ instead, it is vital to recognise the power of the musical provisions outside the statutory curriculum.

It is also important to acknowledge the demands that an additional co-curriculum places on music teachers. Among these demands, the amount of time needed to prepare for and lead music ensembles is the greatest.

Consider ways in which your school could support music teachers with this. For example, music teachers could be taken off lunch-duty schedules so that they can run ensemble rehearsals during lunch breaks and still have an opportunity for a break themselves (although many have perfected the art of playing piano with one hand and eating a sandwich with the other). Or perhaps opt music teachers out of tutor groups so they can use this time to prepare for rehearsals and organise performances.

Undertaking musical activities outside school is often expensive. According to the Social Mobility Commission, household income has the greatest impact on whether children can take part in activities such as music and sport outside of school. By supporting teachers to build a strong co-curricular music provision in schools, additional musical learning is made available to all pupils, regardless of their background. All teachers across a school have a role to play in this, by encouraging pupils to engage with musical activities and supporting them to do so.

5. Get to know your local Music Hub

Music Hubs are partnerships between schools and academy trusts, local authorities, music organisations and more. They seek to support music education both within and outside schools. Although provision isn’t the same across the country, many Hubs offer support in areas of disadvantage in the form of funded instrumental hire schemes, fully or partially funded lessons, community performances, and school workshops.

Such offers provide opportunities for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds that they might not otherwise get to experience. Multi Academy Trusts may also have established music networks that schools can be part of. We encourage school leaders to familiarise themselves with their local Music Hub and find about more their school’s current involvement in it. If your school isn’t currently connected to a local Hub or MAT network, consider how teachers could be supported to make these connections.

School music departments matter

We are excited by the ambitions set out in the NPfME and look forward to seeing teachers and schools being supported to strengthen the place of music in education.  The great thing is that it can begin with the making small changes to the already good work that is going on in so many schools across the country. These changes may take time but ensuring that they are manageable and realistic also makes the process sustainable.

The funding commitment and priorities set out within this plan should, if followed, enable school leaders and music specialists within the most disadvantaged areas to move positively towards developing and securing a long term offer of music education that is equitable to those in more advantaged circumstances.

Thriving music departments bring life to every corner of a school. Those in school leadership, alongside music teachers, have a vital role to play in supporting their music departments and the young musicians within them to flourish.


The Secondary Music Team at Teach First is made up of Liz Walsh (Subject Lead for Music), Carla Glass and Katie Paley (Subject Development Leads for Music).

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