ISM column: advocacy in the wake of GCSE and A Level Music decline

Naomi McCarthy
Sunday, October 1, 2023

In the wake of recent GCSE and A Level Music results, the ISM’s senior policy and campaigns officer Naomi McCarthy reflects on the decline, causes and need for advocacy.

Adobe Stock/ Adragan

Exam results day is one of joy, excitement and sometimes bitter disappointment, depending on the contents of students’ envelopes. It’s also a rewarding time for music teachers whose hard work pays off as students hopefully receive the awards that their efforts deserve. However, it seems that, for all of us who care about music education, more years than most come with reason to be concerned about the number of students having the chance to study Music at GCSE and A Level.

This year’s results are particularly concerning as they show that the decline in GCSE and A Level entries is continuing, both in the short and long term. A Level entries have dropped 7% since 2022 and a staggering 45% since 2010, while GCSEs have fallen 12.5% since 2022 and 36% since 2010. These shocking numbers are not the fault of music teachers, who do such an excellent job in all school settings across the country and whose hard work we all celebrate.

The squeeze and inequality

At the heart of the problem lie government accountability measures, the EBacc (introduced 2010, which contains no arts subjects) and Progress 8 (introduced 2016, which strongly prioritises EBacc subjects). Between them, these initiatives are squeezing music and creativity out of our state schools.

We can see this in the widening gap between state and independent schools in funding for music departments, curriculum time and extracurricular activities. Our 2022 report Music: A subject in peril? revealed that while the average music department in maintained schools received less than £2,000 per year, the average independent school received nearly £10,000. Some teachers reported having as little as £1 per pupil to spend each year, while others had resorted to mending instruments themselves and buying resources with their own money.

Sadly, when schools are heavily incentivised to prioritise EBacc subjects, there is often little money available for music and arts subjects. Our research also found a staggering inequality in music education provision from area to area and school to school. 


Much hope has been placed in the refreshed NPME: The power of music to change lives. However, it’s clear that its non-statutory nature means it cannot tackle the major issues facing music in schools. Without reform of these damaging accountability measures, music will continue to decline in our state schools. Earlier this year we launched the #SaveOurSubjects campaign to make the case for change at a government level. The campaign calls for a review of the impact of the EBacc and Progress 8, reform of Progress 8, and proper funding for arts education. Over 1,200 people signed the letter to Education Secretary Gillian Keegan which the campaign handed into the DfE in July. You can still sign up to support the campaign at

Further advocacy

There are signs that the tide is turning: committees of both MPs and Lords have put the impact of the current accountability measures under increased scrutiny. In a recent evidence session of the House of Lords Education for 11–16 Year-Olds Committee, a former Conservative Secretary of State for Education, Lord Kenneth Baker, told schools minister Nick Gibb: ‘I think you should be aware that 95% of the evidence we’ve received in this committee, both written and oral, came to the conclusion that Progress 8, EBacc and GCSE are not fit for purpose.’ The Labour Party’s Breaking Down the Barriers to Opportunity document outlines their plans to reform accountability measures and to ensure all pupils have access to a broader curriculum including music, art, sport and drama. The document states that ‘one of the non-EBacc subjects included in pupil’s Progress and Attainment 8 should be a creative or vocational subject.’

The ISM will continue to campaign for change, but we also want to support music teachers to make the case for music in your schools and communities. To help with this, we’ve produced a new ISM Advocacy Guide to assist you with making the arguments, whether you need more curriculum time, funding or other changes. The guide includes resources that you can use to show the wider benefits that music brings to pupils. You can access it for free on the ISM website. We hope you find it useful.