This time last year the young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was awaiting his A-level results, unaware that within 12 months he would be a world sensation. The student at Trinity school, a comprehensive in one of the less advantaged parts of Nottingham, achieved his predicted A* for music and is now at the Royal Academy of Music. That’s where he took the personal phone call from Meghan Markle at Kensington Palace inviting him to play at her wedding, after Prince Harry had heard him play at a charity event last summer.
It’s a wonderful success story for state education, but it is one that is, sadly, becoming harder to replicate. Sheku’s school, along with many others across the country, is being forced to make budget cuts – and music is often first in line. In addition, the government’s decision to exclude arts subjects from the Ebacc – the GCSE subjects by which school performance is judged – has made them a lower priority, music teachers say.
It means talented students such as Archie Ttwheam, whose teachers predict he will get 99% for composition in his music GCSE this summer, are being forced to drop the subject. Archie, who wants to study music at university, has been told by his Wiltshire school that the A-level will not be offered in September, nor at other local sixth forms.
Music A-level was one of the subjects with the biggest falls in popularity last year, down from 7,089 UK entries in 2016 to 6,428, a fall of 9.3%. Over the past decade entries have plummeted by 39%, while GCSE entries fell by 31% over the same period to 42,507 last year.
Joe Alsop, head of St Augustine’s Catholic college in Trowbridge, where Ttwheam is a student, says pupils are getting the message from the government and leading universities that they need to study mainstream academic subjects. Ttwheam was the only student wanting to study music in the sixth form. The change to linear A-levels is also a factor as most students now choose three subjects instead of four, he suggests.
Fewer A-level candidates means even fewer music teachers in future to keep the subject alive for all children, not only the talented, says Simon White, the headteacher of Egglescliffe school near Stockton-on-Tees.
“We are the only music A-level provider from here to the north-east coast. If the students don’t come here then they may not pursue music, and what is going to happen in 25 years time? Where will be the performers and the teachers? If we are not careful, under these funding arrangements music will disappear.”
Sophie Maycroft,17, says students across Teesside are being forced to give up music because of the lack of transport links to the schools still teaching it. She commutes 22 miles from her home in Stokesley to Egglescliffe, the nearest school offering music A-level.
“I am incredibly lucky and grateful that my parents are able to drive me to school and back because there is no train that would get me there on time and the bus routes do not extend that far,” she says.
Myleene Klass, co-host of the Classic Brit Awards, last month added her voice to warnings from leading musicians and public figures over the threat to school music. And in a letter to the Observer in May, all past winners of the BBC Young Musician prize wrote of their deep concern that instrumental music was being “left to decay in many British schools”.
As schools divert funds to those subjects the government considers a higher priority, music departments are being forced to turn to parents and donors for money once provided by the state.
“It is terrifying to think that we cannot replace instruments we have collected over the years,” says Vicky Manderson, head of music at Trinity school, where all students learn the violin, recorder and keyboard as part of the curriculum for their first three years.
“We have a set of steel pans that are very popular but virtually unplayable because they have not been tuned for 12 years – it costs around £800. Our department’s budget for the whole year is £2,800, including photocopying and stationery,” she says.
In some schools, the energy of fundraisers and support of parents is keeping music alive. The Friends of Egglescliffe School Music, run by parents, has bought 30 violins and 35 cellos, for example. Schools in disadvantaged areas, however, find it a struggle and their students are less likely to take up music. Research by Cambridge Assessment [pdf] shows that 8.6% of students in affluent postcodes took a music GCSE in 2016 compared with just 5.7% of those in more deprived areas.
It’s not just classroom music being affected. Subsidies for instrument teaching are being cut and East Sussex council is consulting on plans to save money by scrapping lessons for more than 3,000 children provided by its county music service, despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of the service’s income comes from parents and schools through tuition charges.
“I have two children and won’t be able to afford the more expensive private lessons plus the instrument hire for them,” says Jess Johnson, from Robertsbridge, East Sussex. “My son is 10 and one of the youngest in his class and he has dyslexia, which makes academic subjects a struggle for him. When it comes to music he becomes a different boy, it gives him confidence that he can be good at something.”
While the funding for music and instrument lessons as part of the curriculum comes from school budgets, which– which headteachers say are under immense pressure, there is some help with the cost of instrument teaching through a national network of music hubs that receive Arts Council England grants. Most local authorities contribute funds to centralised music services that send teachers into schools and subsidise the cost of lessons for low income families and schools in remote areas but thhese are stretched too.
Since leaving Trinity school, Sheku has donated £1,000 a year from his earnings to help fund cello lessons that are under threat. His mother, Kadie Kanneh, says her son is passionate about giving every child the chance to make music. “The opportunity to learn an instrument, to share music learning and performance with friends and to hear and understand music was an integral part of his school education. Without the thriving music department at Trinity school, Sheku could not have developed into the musician that he is,” she says.
Meanwhile, Archie Ttwheam has failed to find another suitable school that offers music and so is deciding between psychology or chemistry A-level instead. Matthew Haworth, Egglescliffe school’s director of music, fears that unless things change, music could become the preserve of the middle classes. He points to the reliance of county and national orchestras and choirs on independent school members. Nearly a third – 30% – of members of the National Youth Orchestra and a similar proportion of the National Youth Choirs are from independent schools, which educate around 7% of young people.
“We are sleepwalking back into a class-ridden society where music is only for the elite, for those whose parents can afford independent schools or private lessons,” he says.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said the new “stretching, core academic” curriculum was not a barrier to arts subjects. Music remains a compulsory school subject for children from age of five to 14 and the government is investing nearly £500m in music and arts education programmes between 2016 and 2020, including £300m for music hubs to give all children the opportunity to learn an instrument, he said.