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UK music is facing an existential crisis

4 min read

The world class music profession in this country has not come about by accident. Now it is at risk of crumbling from the bottom upwards, warns Lord Black 

There are times when debates in the House of Lords operate like the No.11 bus – you wait for months for one, and then three come along at once.

And so, it is this week which, by the accident of the ballot, has become Arts Week on the red benches.

Last Thursday Lord Bragg led a star-studded cast on the profoundly damaging impact Brexit will have on the creative economy. Ending freedom of movement will be disastrous for, among many others, the UK’s musicians, dancers and performers who need to travel easily across Europe for their work.

This coming week we turn to music education, as I was lucky enough to secure both a question on GCSE music this Wednesday and a longer debate about the state of music education in schools the day after. I hope Lord Agnew of Oulton will forgive me for the amount of time he is going to have to put into the Chamber.

I was driven to try for a debate in the ballot after presiding over the graduation ceremony at the Royal College of Music, the leading conservatoire where I have the privilege to be Chairman. Both my speech that exceptionally hot July day and the speech of its Director Professor Colin Lawson highlighted the serious threats posed to music education in Schools as a result of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, which punishes arts subjects at the expense of maths and science subjects. After the ceremony I was taken aback by the chord – no pun intended – it had struck as countless parents and professionals came up to me to tell me their own stories of the decline of music in their own areas, some of them close to tears as they related how it was often literally dying out, depriving children of the opportunities we all had at school.

That trend was confirmed this summer, when figures revealed that only 35,000 pupils had completed GCSE music in England in 2018 – that’s a 7% fall in just one year but a shocking decline of 23% since 2010. And it’s hardly surprising in some ways as a significant number of schools – one in five – has already given up teaching GCSE music entirely. And of course, if pupils can’t take a GCSE they are not going to go onto A level, so the decline there is even steeper and even starker – nearly 40% since 2011.

The architecture of the music profession in this country is complex and sophisticated. We have a proud history of music in the UK – from Tallis and Byrd to Vaughan Williams and Elgar, and indeed last week we remembered the centenary of the death of Sir Hubert Parry, a distinguished composer and former Director of the RCM – and world-class performers, but it hasn’t come about by accident.

This great tradition is not because our nation is somehow innately creative, but because we have created a strong arts education system through primary and secondary schools to further and higher education.

That pipeline – which each year delivers thousands of professional musicians into the creative economy, which now accounts for one in eleven jobs in the UK and generates about £92bn per annum – is now in serious danger, threatening the long-term sustainability of UK music. It is not far-fetched to say that in fact, it faces an existential crisis as the structure of the profession crumbles from the bottom upwards.

There are many public policy problems which can be swept under the carpet – too difficult or too costly to deal with – but we cannot afford to let this one slip. Within a generation, probably less, the damage will be irreversible and the impact on our quality of life in the UK, as well as to our creative economy, irreparable. There is much for Noble Lords to consider this week.

Lord Black of Brentwood is a Conservative peer. The House of Lords will debate the state of music education on Thursday 18th October



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