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Talk Trinity: Priorities for maintaining growth in the UK music industry post-Brexit

Nick Beach

Nick Beach, Academic Director at Trinity College London

In this article Trinity’s Academic Director, Nick Beach, identifies key Brexit challenges and opportunities, and examines the role of the music education sector in the UK’s Industrial Strategy around skills, trade, and attracting inward investment.

Many of us never wanted Brexit; many of us never believed it would happen. But now we’ve got over the shock we need to be asking ourselves: what are the opportunities that will emerge in a future, non-EU Britain? In this short presentation, I want to focus principally on how we can develop a workforce that’s creative, collaborative, communicative and imaginative. Because surely these are the attributes that will be required to establish post-Brexit Britain as a world leading creative economy. At the same time, I hope to cover some aspects of priorities for the sector.

Providing creative development opportunities for the future workforce

There are barriers of course. The position of arts and creativity in schools is shocking. Funding for the arts is lamentable; the EBacc is devastating the take up for arts qualifications in schools. It would be easy for this to lead us into a “the Government should” mentality. And, of course, this is true; the Government certainly should take action to reverse the damage it’s doing, but there’s still much of this which is our responsibility. What is it that we, as leaders in the cultural and creative industries, can do to ensure that we provide the best creative development opportunities for the future workforce? In this presentation, I want to make one statement and propose two solutions, only two, there are many. The statement is this:

We need to get better at music education if we’re going to help children and young people become the creative workforce of the future. 

The solutions I want to propose are these. Firstly, that qualifications, and better qualifications, have a role to play in bringing about that improvement. And secondly, we can only bring about that improvement if we have better trained teachers.

The purpose of music education

A future creative workforce will not just emerge; it needs to be developed, nurtured and supported. We can see from the excellent work that Ben Sandbrook led in the Musical Progressions Roundtable, that journeys of musical progression are complex. They weave in and out of school, they weave across various provisions and they’re often chaotic. However, school is the single entitlement that every child has. So what is the experience that children have of music and the arts in general at school? It’s incredibly varied.

As music educators we make much of the benefits of music education and the fact that music education is good for you. We hear that quite a lot, and it’s true of course. But I think there’s one word missing from that statement; good music education is good for you. Poor music education is probably bad for you. And we know that there’s still too much poor experience or no experience that children and young people get.

Perhaps in order to get this right we need to ask some questions about what music education is for. And is it in the Greek sense, part of a liberal education, necessary in order to produce a fully rounded citizen? Is the main benefit of it in transferrable skills? We need to be careful about transferrable skills. Mark Phillips from Ofsted warned us a few weeks ago, that we should beware of claiming that music is a better way of teaching maths than more and better maths lessons. Or is it vocational? Is it a preparation for a future career in the creative industries? These definitions of what music education is for may take us down very different paths in terms of what we want it to look like. But perhaps the uniting factor in all of them is the need to keep doing music, helping children and young people to develop musical behaviours and make musical decisions.

The role of music qualifications

The first of my propositions was that qualifications might have a role in bringing about the improvements that we’re looking for. A couple of months ago Amanda Spielman lamented the impact that teaching to the test was having on secondary education. Narrowing the curriculum and giving what she referred to as a hollow understanding of subject areas. She’s right of course. Many schools have become exam factories with arguably the best education they offer, and certainly some of the best creative education they offer, taking place outside the curriculum, or in the parallel curriculum.

It’s a shame in my view that she didn’t challenge the qualifications themselves. It’s a poor qualification that can be prepared for by slavish repetition of past papers. A good qualification should be located in real life application of the subject area. We should perhaps ask ourselves how relevant to real musical life current GCSE and A-level exams are. Is the study of the historical canon of music a prerequisite for some routes through the music industry, but perhaps not all? And you’re absolutely right to bemoan the drop in numbers for GCSE. But actually the drop in numbers for GCSE is a long-term trend and we should perhaps ask whether that qualification is actually providing for the needs of the future workforce.

Arts Award

ARTSAWARDRGBI hope you’ll forgive me a partisan moment here because I want to talk a little about Arts Award, and I do this because I think Arts Award goes some way to supporting the sort of skills required in the future workforce. Arts Award may not be familiar to you; it’s a portfolio qualification which supports the development of young artists and arts leaders. It focuses on creative communication, leadership and research. When Trinity launched Arts Award just over 10 years ago, we did it in a very different climate. Tony Blair was Prime Minister, David Lammy was at DCMS. Funding for the arts, while may not have been riding high, was certainly in a much better position than it is at the moment. And whilst provision in schools was extremely patchy and we had that debate then about the range of quality, head teachers did at least still have some power.

Find out more about Arts Award


Now, 11 years later, we have a very different Government, which as far as one can see, has Brexit as the single item on its agenda. Austerity has devastated arts funding and schools, in many cases, are running scared, scared of exam results, of inspection results, of EBacc results, and every other kind of result. For Arts Award it’s been an enormously successful 11 years. We’ve trained nearly 40,000 arts advisers – that’s teachers and arts leaders – in that time. Those are the people that support young people through their Arts Award. And in that time nearly 400,000 children and young people have taken an Arts Award.

But if Arts Award is going to meet the needs of tomorrow’s workforce, it needs to change. Our vision is for an Arts Award which is loved by employers. Employers that will recognise that their workforce will be enriched by employees who are imaginative, creative, problem solving, and communicative team workers and leaders of the future.

Training the teaching workforce

My second proposition was that better skills in the teaching workforce are necessary to support the improvements that we need to see in music education. So how are we ensuring that our music teachers have the skills required to offer good music education? Music has almost disappeared from primary PGCE courses. Music hubs have a responsibility for CPD but there’s no quality standard and no spending requirement. We have a quality standard in the Certificate for Music Educators but nowhere is there a contractual requirement that the teacher should actually have this if we’re to let them in front of children and young people. In short, we still rely on a well-meaning, somewhat amateur approach to music education where anyone can call themselves a music teacher. Good teachers of course float to the surface but that can be pretty much by chance, while the rest are unsupported. Without good training and professional development, many teachers will not be challenged, and where there’s no challenge to the status quo the tendency is often for teachers to revert to teaching as they were taught.

Almost every other professional service is either regulated or regulates itself. Architects, chiropractors, accountants, the list could go on. If the music education sector is really going to meet the needs of employers in post-Brexit Britain, perhaps this is one of the things that we should consider focusing on.

In conclusion, I might sound down about music education and I wanted to put that record straight in my final words. Music education produces some of the most remarkable outcomes for young people of any education sector bar none. And as a music educator through-and-through for my entire career, I’ve seen that happen in countless cases. What we have to do is to bring those really high-quality life changing experiences within the reach of every child. And I think there’s a role for education and the industry working together to do that.

Find out more about Trinity's Music exams

This is an edited transcription of the presentation that Nick gave at
The Westminster Media Forum’s seminar, Priorities for maintaining growth in the UK music industry post-Brexit – tech innovation, skills and international competitiveness, on 28 November 2017.

Talk Trinity is a series exploring the wider thinking, and values that underpin everything we do. We want to hear what you have to say so please use the comments box below to join the conversation.

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