Students want music lessons, so why are they vanishing?

The pandemic saw children more eager than ever to play music but less likely to have access to it. Can the subject be saved?

Allen White

Covid and schools: How teachers can make a success of teaching music without instruments

We know that learning an instrument can provide young people with the kind of achievement and growth that is invaluable, and that was missing for many during the period of remote teaching. 

And it seems this was understood by young people themselves: a study by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra found that 66 per cent of parents said their children were more enthused than usual about practising musical instruments in lockdown.  

But a report released in December by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) revealed that 10 per cent of primary and secondary schools were not teaching class music at all during the pandemic. It also found a 68 per cent decrease in music lessons in primary schools and a 39 per cent decrease in secondary schools. 


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James Manwaring, director of Music for Windsor Learning Partnership, is eager to highlight the many mental health benefits music learning can bring for students, especially in these challenging times. 

Music is the best tool for helping children with their mental health,” he says. “It gives them an avenue of expression that no other subject can do in quite the same way.

“Without music, schools would not be the same. Without music, lockdown would have been a little less exciting – from the clapping rhythms on the doorsteps every Thursday to the joy of watching performances online.”

‘An international language’

Stewart Debenham is headteacher at Kingsland CE Primary School in Herefordshire, and explains that he and his staff were eager to continue singing with students during online worship times and assemblies.

“Music is an international language, understood by all, that brings so much more than just music,” he says.  

“It is often the way in for many children to gain confidence, which they can then apply to other curriculum areas. It is also a great way of building a community and bringing people together.” 

Early years teacher Caroline Rimmer has seen similar effects in the young people she works with. 

“Music is good for the soul,” she says. “When you feel sad or down, music has the power to lift you up. I have seen the effect that music can have on children. They naturally move to music. 

“During the struggles of the pandemic, we saw the power it has to lift spirits. I have music playing in the background throughout the day. We dim the lights as well. This has had a real calming effect on the young children I teach.” 

Squeezed out?

But the provision problem predates the pandemic. In the past five years, state schools have seen a 21 per cent decrease in music provision, according to figures from the British recorded music industry’s trade association, the British Phonographic. 

Rimmer says she is worried that music – along with another creative subjects – is being “squeezed out of the curriculum”. 

Debenham points out that the model music curriculum at key stage 1 consists of only four bullet points. “This does not reflect equality with the other foundation subjects, which often have far greater detail,” he says.   

But now, in the wake of the pandemic, where mental health issues are on the rise among young people, music could be more important than ever.  

For Rimmer’s son, music offered an escape that defined his education. Finding it hard to fit in, he was encouraged by a teacher to try out for the school musical. "My boy shone, and it really was his defining moment in school,” she says.  

“Music helped my son grow as a person; his attitude changed and school became not such a bad place.” 

Don Gillthorpe, president-elect of the Music Teachers’ Association (MTA), says the absence of communal music is hitting pupils hard but that the fight to get it back is under way. 

“The mental health of musicians young and old cannot be underestimated and we are still working out the full effect of this,” he says.  

“As part of the #CanDoMusic project, run jointly by Music Mark, the ISM and the MTA, we are now looking at how we can support colleagues in getting musical activities going again.”

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Allen White

Allen White is a student at Manchester Metropolitan University

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