Music in Schools

The United Kingdom comprises the countries of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In all cases Education is devolved to the national parliaments who are responsible for its funding and decisions about its curricular and examinations. Music is part of a national curriculum in all countries in the United Kingdom and is at least nominally an entitlement for all children and young people from ages 5-15. All music national curricular espouse a commitment to musical experience as the bedrock of music education i.e. that musical skills, knowledge and understanding are developed through music making and critically responding to music. In all countries, music plays an important part in the life of schools both in terms of extra-curricular activities and its contribution to important events in the school year.



Curriculum music in English schools is in a state of crisis. Although the national curriculum is a part of the national curriculum for all children in maintained state schools, these now represent less than fifty percent of secondary schools and a decreasing number of primary schools. An increasing number of schools now have ‘academy status’ which means they are not obliged to teach the national curriculum. Under pressure from accountability measures and music teacher shortage, an increasing number of schools are not providing young people with a sustained and coherent music curriculum. In secondary schools music often finds itself reduced from a three years to two years and/or taught for only part of the year.

In 2011/12 revisions to the national curriculum of study and subsequent revisions to GCSE specification placed a greater emphasis on music, skills and practices of the western classical tradition. At present there is being developed a government-sponsored model curriculum for music. An advisory group has been established to consult on this. There is minimal representation from school music teachers on this group. Early signs from the consultation have raised fears that in order to meet the government’s requirement for a ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ the model curriculum will seek to separate musical knowledge, skills and understanding from the direct experience of music.

Music teaching in Primary School is inconsistent both in terms of access and quality. However, initiatives such as First Access provision (whole class instrumental teaching) has begun to address this with varying degrees of success.


Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland curriculum as a whole, aims to prepare pupils for life as:

  • Individuals
  • As contributors to society
  • As contributors to the economy and the environment.

Music is statutory for all students to the age of 14.

Within this context:

The fundamental aim of the music curriculum is to develop pupils’ musical ability. All pupils are potentially musical and should be provided with learning experiences which development their knowledge, understanding and skills in making and responding to music through active engagement in the core musical activities of composing, performing and listening (Curriculum Music Statement)

The purpose of the NI curriculum, as revised in 2007, was to make learning more connected. Thus, curricular subjects are now grouped according to ‘areas of learning,’ and music sits with art and design and drama in ‘The Arts’ area. Further, the cross-curricular skills of ‘using mathematics’, ‘ICT’ and ‘communication’ are stressed across all subjects.

The Entitlement Framework (2010) placed demands on secondary schools to develop a wider menu of courses available to students aged 14-18. This increased range of courses may have had a negative impact on pupils taking GCSE and Advanced music courses in Northern Ireland, as numbers have been declining in these subjects over the past four years.



Scotland’s  Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is designed to connect learning in one single curriculum from age 3 to 18 replacing the previous individual stages of the curriculum, which were considered to result in a fragmented approach.  Its purpose is often summed up as helping children and young people to become:

  • Successful learners
  • Confident individuals
  • Responsible citizens
  • Effective contributors.

The overarching statement for music includes that:

Through music, learners have rich opportunities to be creative and to experience inspiration and enjoyment. Performing and creating music will be the prominent activities for all learners. Through these activities they develop their vocal and instrumental skills, explore sounds and musical concepts, and use their imagination and skills to create musical ideas and compositions. They can further develop their understanding and capacity to enjoy music through listening to musical performances and commenting on them…

CfE was designed to provide a high degree of school-level autonomy and the curricular map varies greatly from school to school. The amount of time spent studying classroom music differs enormously with learners choosing to narrow down subjects at multiple exit points in the ‘broad general education’, which is the first three years of the secondary school curriculum. There is a wide variation in provision and uptake across the country and with the emphasis on de-cluttering the secondary curriculum, expressive arts subjects are becoming marginalised.



Wales is in the process of revising its curriculum to begin teaching in September 2020. There has been significant involvement of teachers in the development of this curriculum. Presently, the national curriculum (Curriculum Cymreig) for music is framed around an inter-related approach to performing, composing and appraising music. As with the music curricular in other countries, there is a strong emphasis on learning through musical experience. In addition, there is a focus on the music of Wales:

In music, learners perform and listen to the music of Wales, from the past and present. This includes music from the classical tradition, folk and popular music, and other traditions and cultures, which represent the communities of Wales. Composing activities may be based on extra-musical stimuli such as the literature, visual art, or physical landscape of Wales.


The Broader Context

Schools in all countries benefit from support from external organisations including instrumental teaching. In England Music Education Hubs which are regionally based. Lead organisations brief is to bring together music education provision within a region to respond to local needs. The objectives of the music education hubs are set out in the National Music Plan (2012). Importantly the role of the music education hubs is to supplement the work teachers working in schools, not to replace it.

In Scotland instrumental music tuition provided by local authorities and musical experiences provided through the Youth Music Initiative (YMI) have all contributed to the success of Scotland’s music education and to the delivery of CfE. Improving access to music education for young people and enabling as many learners to participate as possible is the shared aim of these programmes, indeed ‘putting music at the heart of young people’s lives and learning’ is a key mission statement from the YMI, which has two strands – school based music making and music activities outwith a school setting.

In late 2018 the Welsh Government published ‘Hitting the Right Notes’, following an enquiry into the funding for and access to music education in Wales. In response to this there has been increased funding for local authorities to support music education in their areas. The Welsh government and the Arts Council of Wales have launched  a fund to help children develop their musical talents, called., Anthem Music Fund Wales.

Extended music provision in Northern Ireland is provided primarily by traditional music education services. Schools have traditonally been supported by the music services of the Education Authority in Northern Ireland, providing schools with peripatetic tutors, curriculum support, and creating ensemble opportunities for young musicians through regional orchestras. The EA’s strategic direction for the future of the music services is yet to be mapped. Currently the political stalemate in NI, where there is no sitting government, hampers progress in all aspects of educational policy and strategy. As a result, schools are experiencing ‘emergency’ funding restrictions, which have a significant impact on the wider opportuntities they can afford for their pupils.