MU Column: Perfect storm

Christopher Walters
Monday, March 1, 2021

As education reform rolls on, post-16 music study might be about to take a big hit, with ‘music-free’ T Levels and a major cull of popular alternatives says Christopher Walters.

 What, no music?: T Levels
What, no music?: T Levels

What with all the disruption to education and exams over the last year caused by the pandemic, MT readers might not have noticed that the government has embarked on a major overhaul of post-16 vocational qualifications. If carried through to fruition, these reforms could drastically affect the educational landscape for aspiring music students.

In some senses, education and qualifications are always being reformed, as any beleaguered teacher will tell you. GCSE grades in England switched confusingly from letters to numbers a few years back, and many qualifications in ‘softer’ subjects have been elbowed out as the government promotes its agenda of ‘rigorous’ study. A central pillar of this agenda is the EBacc performance measure, which pushes schools towards increased GCSE entries in ‘core’ subjects, often at the cost of the arts. Since the EBacc was introduced, GCSE music and A Level entries have plummeted in state schools, which has been a tragedy in terms of open and fair access to music education.

It is in this context that the government has introduced ‘T Level’ qualifications as the centrepiece of its new vision for vocational education. The first three T Level programmes began in September 2020, and more are planned over the next few years. A single T Level is equivalent to three A Levels, offering technical training and an ‘in-depth industry placement’. What's not to like?

Firstly, there are no plans to include music in any of the proposed T Level subject areas. The closest to music will be ‘Media, Broadcast and Production’, which is not due to start until at least September 2022. This is an oversight – there is a strong case for music production to be included in T Levels. This would feed into higher education sound engineering courses and recognise the important contribution that studio technicians make to the music industry.

Students interested in these areas can still pursue BTECs and other qualifications, right? Not for much longer, under the government's proposals. As well as introducing T Levels, the government is looking to defund a range of other qualifications at post-16, arguing that the current offer is patchy with too many confusing choices. Instead, it wants to create ‘a simpler, high-quality system that students, parents and employers will all understand.’ Defunding qualifications usually means that schools and colleges will no longer be able to afford to offer them – so while these qualifications may continue to exist, they may as well not.

If we are left with only AS/A levels and T Levels at post-16, it could be very bad news for music. The aforementioned EBacc has decimated the number of A Level music courses on offer in state schools, while the A Level in music technology has been a rare beast all along. And over on the T Level side of things, for music there will be… nothing. This adds up to frustratingly few options for music students, which will have serious ripple effects for higher education and access to careers. Key Stages 3 and 4 could also be affected, as schools may limit their music offer at these levels if there is nowhere for students to progress on to.

The Musicians’ Union has made the case to government that music has been overlooked in the new plans. We support T Levels in principle, but we believe that the Media, Broadcast and Production option should include aspiring music technicians and be brought forward so that it begins as soon as possible. Meanwhile, we argue that many of the qualifications threatened with being defunded – BTECs, RSL's Music Practitioners qualifications and UAL's diplomas in Music Performance and Production – should be retained as ‘academic’ alternatives to AS and A Levels. Music and Music Technology AS and A Level courses offer valuable programmes of learning, but so too can other qualifications, albeit with different emphases on what is studied and assessed.

In short, the current system is not as broken as the government claims. If we must have constant education reform, the introduction of T Levels is enough. There is no need to wipe out other established qualifications that have been embraced by music educators as offering much-needed alternatives to the traditional AS and A Level route.

The government is now reviewing submissions to its second-stage open consultation on post-16 vocational qualification reform. The MU will monitor any statement issued by the government as a result of this consultation and take every possible step to prevent important music qualifications being needlessly defunded.