Music Education in the United Kingdom

I. Political Framework. 2

II. School System and Structure. 3

III. Music Education in Schools. 8

IV. Music Curricula. 9

V. Critical Comment and Future Development 14

I. Political framework

There are four nations which make up the United Kingdom and, although they are all governed by a common parliament (based in London), Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland also have their own systems of governance (Scotland has its own Parliament and Wales and N. Ireland both have their own assemblies) which have some degree of independence from London. Education (alongside some other services such as Health) is controlled to a large extent by devolved or semi autonomous education departments in these three countries.

Education in England is controlled by the government in London. In England the government finances schools through local authorities who are elected. These authorities then pass on almost all of this money to the schools they support, retaining a relatively small amount for centralised services such as Special Educational Needs and School Transport. Thus schools are relatively independent in terms of how they appoint teachers, and what they choose to spend their money on. In England secondary schools can specialise in various curriculum areas and over 600 can therefore emphasise the arts and music. (Further information can be found at

Control over the whole system in England is maintained through a system of inspection. Every school is inspected regularly (every 3-6 years) and the report is published. (Further information can be found at In urban areas it is perceived that schools are in competition with each other so such reports and their examination results (which are also published) can have a profound effect on the success and popularity of a school. This is true of both primary and secondary schools.

Although there has been a policy of comprehensive education (all abilities attend the same schools) in most parts of the UK, there are still places where children are selected at 11 and there is a thriving private sector especially in the big cities (currently 7% of children in England attend private schools). This means that the comprehensive ideal is not always found in practice.

Education in Scotland is controlled by the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. Education in Wales is controlled by the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. Education in Northern Ireland is controlled by the Northern Ireland Assemble in Belfast.

II. School System and Structure

Schools in all four countries generally are structured in the following way although there are local variations:

·      Nursery 3-5 (often attached to primary schools)

·      Primary 5-11

·      Middle (a variety of age ranges bridging the top of primary and lower years of secondary)

·      Secondary 11-16 (or 18)

·      Tertiary 16-19 (students may stay on at school to 18 or leave at 16 and attend a further education college)

III. Music Education in Schools

The National Curriculum for England includes Music as a statutory entitlement for all children aged 5-14. From the age of 14 students may choose to study for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and from 16 onwards study a range of courses which can lead to university entrance.

All nations have similar examination structures with the Scottish system being to most distinct.

The Welsh curriculum and the N. Ireland curriculum have the same status as in England although the content varies. In Scotland the Scottish curriculum has the status of guidance and music is part of the Expressive Arts.

IV. Music Curricula

In primary schools the policy is for generalist teachers to teach the whole curriculum. In theory this includes Music. In practice Music is often taught by a teacher or unqualified tutor who is not the class teacher. Schools can make their own decision about who teaches Music. In Secondary schools specialist music teachers are employed, although there is an ongoing shortage of such teachers.


Each subject in the curriculum has an importance statement: “Music is a powerful, unique form of communication that can change the way pupils feel, think and act. It brings together intellect and feeling and enables personal expression, reflection and emotional development. As an integral part of culture, past and present, it helps pupils understand themselves and relate to others, forging important links between the home, school and the wider world. The teaching of music develops pupils' ability to listen and appreciate a wide variety of music and to make judgements about musical quality. It encourages active involvement in different forms of amateur music making, both individual and communal, developing a sense of group identity and togetherness. It also increases self-discipline and creativity, aesthetic sensitivity and fulfilment.” (Taken from NC for England)

The three activities of composing, performing and listening form the basis of the curriculum and teachers are expected to integrate these through practical, inclusive engagement by students of all abilities. The musical content should reflect the diverse cultural landscape of the UK whilst attending to traditional and classical musics. Learning should be contextualised and link to learning in other subjects

Pupils are expected to learn through music making independently and in groups with increasing independence as they move into secondary school. Therefore the teacher’s role is conceived as one that is flexible: director, instructor, facilitator, co-musician, critic, resource manager, mentor etc.


The English music curriculum document provides a framework for assessment and does not prescribe specific content. The aim of the curriculum is to give pupils experiences in composing, performing and appraising which enable them to recognise, control and manipulate the elements of music in increasingly fluent, imaginative and expressive ways. The curriculum promotes a broad and diverse repertoire (which includes traditional music from the British Isles, western classical, popular, jazz and musics from other times and places). The framework promotes progression and implies content by the conceptual language used. There are also level descriptors which give expected learning outcomes for students at each stage (broadly equating with two chronological years).

The curriculums for Wales and N. Ireland share underlying structure and concepts with England – emphasis and aspects of content vary.

The Scottish Guidelines are more extensive and offer more specific explanations and examples for teachers. There is more guidance on singing and the use of traditional notation. Composing is termed “inventing”. Music technology is included in all curricula – with increased emphasis for the 11-14 age range.

Levels of attainment to be achieved at 14 years old / Examples from each curriculum

England: Pupils identify and explore musical devices and how music reflects time and place. They perform significant parts from memory and from notations with awareness of their own contribution such as leading others, taking a solo part and/or providing rhythmic support. They improvise melodic and rhythmic material within given structures, use a variety of notations and compose music for different occasions using appropriate musical devices such as melody, rhythms, chords and structures. They analyse and compare musical features. They evaluate how venue, occasion and purpose affects the way music is created, performed and heard. They refine and improve their work.

Scotland : Recognise simple concepts such as repetition, sequence and pattern learned through exploring and inventing music; distinguish between acoustically and electronically produced sound; identify and discuss the features and characteristics of various musical styles, e.g. folk, classical, pop and jazz; suggest and justify effective combinations of instruments; give/accept constructive and informed criticisms of performing and inventing.

N. Ireland: Pupils show an awareness of style in their compositions and arrangements and preserve their work in appropriate ways. They perform and interpret more difficult music with control, accuracy and confidence. They are critically aware and evaluate the music they make and hear.

Wales: Pupils demonstrate fluency in singing and playing a broad repertoire, they maintain a part as member of a group. Working with others they develop and organise material within appropriate musical structures and they evaluate and refine their compositions. They discriminate within musical elements and recognise the main characteristics of a variety of music.

V. Critical Comment and Future Development  

Recent changes to education in England include the introduction of National Diplomas from September 2008. By 2013 there will be fifteen “Lines of learning” available to all students from the age of 14. The timeline for introduction can be seen here.These qualifications are interesting in that they are the first to be developed by the various industries in partnership with awarding bodies. One of the first to be available is the “Creative and Media diploma”.

A number of recent initiatives in England aim to improve access to music for young people in and out of school; they focus on instrumental learning and the quality of singing in primary schools. Whole class instrumental teaching is being funded to stimulate the take up of instruments amongst primary school children; and there are many projects and programmes which are designed to enrich the curriculum through the involvement of professional musicians of all styles and traditions. These are funded through both government departments for Education and Culture. These policy initiatives are not promoted or funded equally in all four nations. 

There is also much interest in alternative pedagogies for secondary music education where informal learning practices are being explored, like musical futures.