A glorious cacophony of brass filled a south London community hall one afternoon last week.
At one end of a semicircle of young musicians sat Emmanuel, eight, tooting on a donated silver trumpet – his first instrument. On a tuba at the other end was Teigan Hastings, 17, who was the same age as Emmanuel when he started coming to this community music project. Last month he played in front of 35,000 people at Glastonbury.
The session – on the gang-affected Tulse Hill estate – was run by Kinetika Bloco, a music charity fighting back against the decline of music teaching in schools. Its leaders believe that learning to play and create music can improve lives in Britain’s deprived communities.
The pathway from Emmanuel’s novice notes to Teigan’s fledgling professional career maps a route to change, they say.
But figures reveal the number of children taking music GCSE hit a new low this summer, with just over 30,000 sitting exams – down by almost half from 15 years ago. It is less than the number sitting GCSEs in PE and food preparation and nutrition.
Downward trend of GCSE music entries: nearly 60,000 in 2008 and about 30,000 in 2023
Meanwhile, two-thirds of teachers working in academies and free schools – where the annual music budget sometimes amounted to less than £1 a year for each pupil – don’t believe they have enough money to teach music sufficiently, according to a recent survey of 500 music teachers by the Incorporated Society of Musicians.
It alleged “neglect and marginalisation of music in schools” and “a shocking picture of inequality”.
Now one of Kinetika Bloco’s most successful alumni, Femi Koleoso, is demanding a change. The leader of jazz quintet Ezra Collective, who also plays drums in Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, broke off from his band’s Glastonbury show to tell the crowd: “It is all well and good complaining about the youth of today … but let me tell you what actually works: putting a trumpet in their hands.”
Femi Koleoso, the leader of jazz quintet Ezra Collective, is one of Kinetika Bloco’s most successful alumni. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian
It is a message that is gathering pace. The composer Andrew Lloyd Webber last month called for every secondary school pupil to have the right to learn a classical music instrument, complaining 85% of private schools have an orchestra but only 12% of state schools do.
He is funding lessons through a trust and said: “We have evidence of children who have said they could have gone into a drug gang, but just said ‘we enjoy playing music’.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Koleoso, 28, described the decline in music teaching as “heartbreaking” and called for “every child in the country to have access to learn an instrument”, not just classical.
“We have such a rich history of music in this country and to see it being defunded is painful,” he said, citing the Clash, the Beatles, Blur and Skepta.
He argued music has the power to transcend educational inequalities that have become entrenched over generations.
“Music also brings joy in ways other parts of the curriculum don’t,” he said. “I wasn’t jumping for joy for a physics lesson.”
Teigan said music was “nonexistent” at his secondary school and so he hasn’t had a teacher since he was 11, but through Kinetika Bloco, he has reached a level equivalent to grade 6 or 7 and has a band signed to management.
“If I didn’t have music, I could see my life being a lot different, hanging out with people who are influential but not in the right way,” he said.
Tulse Hill estate, said Tamzyn French, the chief executive of Kinetika Bloco, “is one of the worst estates for gangs so being a part of something else and a network of friends who are doing something positive is really important”.
Eight-year-old Emmanuel (left) at a session run by Kinetika Bloco, a youth charity, in Tulse Hill. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
Playing and learning music has been shown to improve literacy, focus and memory, according to a 2022 book The power of music: an exploration of the evidence.
The authors found evidence musicians score higher in terms of creativity and openness and progress better in academic study; studying music at school has the ability to arrest declines in self-esteem; and playing music in a group encourages “pro-social” behaviour, including empathy, teamwork and reducing prejudice.
Last year the government published a national plan to “level up musical opportunities for all children, regardless of circumstances, needs or geography”.
Chris Walters, the national organiser for education at the Musicians’ Union, said the plan was “a fantastic description of what music education could be, but it’s non-statutory”.
“Schools are just expected to do it on their existing budgets and the music hubs have £80m a year, which works out at £6 per pupil. It’s a lovely plan but they haven’t put any clout behind it.”
He said it was also undermined by other education plans and policies pushing schools towards more teaching of “core” subjects.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said that around 8% of key stage 4 pupils in state schools take a music GCSE or technical award, including grades 6 and above.
“To encourage more young people to take up music we’re investing £79m per year in funding for the music hubs programme to 2025 and have published the National Plan for Music Education to ensure every young person has access to a high-quality music education. In addition, our music progression fund supports the most disadvantaged pupils with significant musical potential, enthusiasm and commitment.”