Investigating how socio-economic background influences music students’ aspirations, sense of identity and belonging within UK conservatoires

Responding the recorded lack of diversity in classical music education, this study aims to investigate the lived experiences of muisc students to explore the role of the conservatoire in the modern day, and how they can take steps to ensure music education has a more inclusive future. 

Music notation on blackboard


Kirsty Devaney

Research background

Within recent years there has been increased scrutiny around the lack of diversity within the classical music industry. Research has identified socio-economic background as a key barrier to learning an instrument and a recent study by Whittaker et al. (2019) discovered that independent schools accounted for a ‘disproportionately high number of A-level music entries’ (p.1). The conservatoire model of music education, with 18th century European roots, remains relatively unchanged and unchallenged (Ford, 2010). There are currently nine music conservatoires in the UK and access relies heavily on audition (Burt-Perkins and Mills, 2009). To many, music conservatories appear relatively secretive places and have often been sheltered from heavy criticism faced by other elite institutions.

We know that students from working-class backgrounds at elite universities face a number of challenges not just academically but also socially (Reay et al., 2009), due to feeling ‘out of place’ (Arts Council, 2014: 7). Therefore, this study seeks to capture in-depth, context-rich qualitative data from the point of view of those experiencing it, to allow us to critically reflect on the role of the conservatoire within the 21st century and to ensure a career in music is open to all.  

Research aims

Although discussions around the lack of diverse representation in the music industry are gaining public attention, it is unclear if and how this is prompting change within music conservatoires. Funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education, this study addresses the lack of in-depth qualitative research in regards to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at UK music conservatoires from students’ experiences. By listening to the experiences of conservatoire students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this research aims to bring to the foreground what is perhaps currently ‘unspeakable’ (Gill, 2014), and better understand the potential barriers to student engagement within UK music Conservatoires. The following research questions guided the study:

  1. Does socio-economic background affect students’ music education and their social experiences within conservatoires?
  2.  Do conservatoires students’ consciously consider how their background has influenced their development as musicians?
  3. How does socio-economic background play a role in determining career aspirations of conservatoire students?

Research methods

The study involves a two-staged approach with three UK conservatoiresFirstly a survey sent to current undergraduate students, and a small number of participants from each institution will be invited to take part in a semi-structured interview. The interviews ask students to share their experiences of studying at the conservatoire. Data analysis will take a thematic analysis method involving ‘identifying, analysing, and reporting patterns (themes) within data’ (Braun and Clarke, 2006: 6).

Projected outcomes

The outputs include an interim report, literature review, and submission of a journal article.