Removing barriers to musical participation in schools: a social justice issue

The Birmingham Music Education Group (BMERG) has undertaken a series of significant research projects, which support increasing access to music education for children of all economic and social backgrounds across the UK.

Removing barriers to musical participation in schools

The research group’s work has contributed to the evidence base upon which government draws for policy-making in music education.  BMERG’s work has been cited in the House of Commons and Lords, including discussions of government funding for Music Education Hubs, which provided music lessons for more than 700,000 children in 2018/19.

BMERG has also brought the debate on an accessible and diverse music curriculum across UK schools into the public eye, and has helped to highlight the importance of musical learning provision for young people in Whole Class Ensemble Tuition (WCET) programmes.

Research summary - Music education for all

Studies show that music education is being stripped out of schools in England. According to a BPI survey, state schools have seen a 21% decrease in music provision over recent years, with the gap widening between independent schools and pupils in deprived areas.

This disparity has been the driving force behind BMERG’s work, forming an important source of research, alongside a core objective concerning the removal of obstacles to accessing music.  The work of the research group emphasises the importance of enabling all young people to explore music, in a wide variety of styles, irrespective of geographical, social, or economic context.

Exemplified via five projects, each focusing on a different barrier to participation, BMERG has influenced policy changes in music education. These projects have addressed provision for disabled students, improved educational outcomes and opportunities for marginalised young people, and broadened the reach and scope of the WCET music programme.

Research background 

BMERG’s research in this area can be summarised by five influential projects, which have helped shape a more accessible and inclusive music education landscape.

The Exchanging Notes (ExNo) project, in association with Youth Music, explored whether young people at risk of low attainment or educational exclusion could achieve better musical, educational and wider outcomes through participation in a music project.

WCET is a national, government-funded music tuition programme and is often the first opportunity for many children to play a musical instrument.

As the data analyst for Arts Council England and DfE, BMERG found that access to the programme was not equal across the country.

The Listen, Imagine, Compose project was an innovative research and education programme designed to enable secondary school pupils to learn composition. The programme, led by BMERG, reaches 9,000 students annually, and enlists around 300 teachers and practitioners.

BMERG’s work with the One-Handed Musical Instrument (OHMI) Trust highlighted the barriers to musical learning faced by young people with a disability, resulting in action from ACE to embed new learning provisions in WCET programmes and beyond.

Outcomes and impact - a brighter future for music education

Collectively, these five projects have had wide-ranging impacts on the accessibility of music education to young people across the UK.

Notably, research from BMERG underpinned a new progression strategy by Leicestershire Music Hub, enabling them to aim to extend their reach to almost double the children they usually service (39,907). The work of the research group enabled informed target-setting and featured in the development of a new progression strategy for this music service. BMERG’s work with WCET is leading national debates on the programme, directly impacting the more than 700,000 students the programme attracts per year.

Work with Youth Music and OHMI has allowed marginalised communities to experience the life-changing influence of music education.

Analysis of the Exchanging Notes programme demonstrated the power of music curricula shaped for modern contexts to re-engage at-risk young people by teaching music that more closely reflects their voice. The research gave rise to national debate about the inclusion of artists such as Stormzy in the curriculum, and gave rise to the #StormzyVsMozart hashtag debate in the media. The organisation Youth Music are using the results to work with schools and music organisations to address curriculum opportunities across the country.

BMERG’s research with OHMI has led to increased music education provision for disabled youngsters, but it has also impacted teacher CPD and resulted in the first international conference for academics, practitioners and instrument makers working in this domain.

 The Listen, Imagine, Compose project has seen over 650 pupils in six schools receive training in composition. The project has also engaged over 300 practitioners and teachers who have returned to their schools to affect curriculum changes, reaching over 9,000 secondary-aged students each academic year. This composing project is designed to be of benefit to all young people; before its inception, nothing like this existed. It approaches composing as a democratic activity, amenable to learning, from the first steps of the faltering singer-songwriter, to the crafted outputs of A-level learners.  Its impact on teacher thinking has led to its own validated Masters degree programme.

As the then HMI for music observed: 


Martin Fautley

Martin Fautley

Professor of Education

Professor Martin Fautley is director of research in the school of education and social work at Birmingham City University. He has a wealth of experience in music education, both in terms of pedagogy, and of music education research. After enjoying many years as a classroom music teacher, he then undertook full-time Doctoral research working across the education and music faculties at Cambridge University, investigating teaching, learning, and assessment of classroom music making, with a focus on composing as a classroom activity.


Victoria Kinsella small

Victoria Kinsella

Senior Research Fellow in Creativities

Dr. Victoria Kinsella has researched widely in the field of the arts education and creativity, in particular music and visual arts. She has worked on a number of creative arts research projects in various contexts including schools, prisons, galleries, arts centres and with educational agencies. Victoria is recognised for her work on creativity and has presented her work internationally. She is currently BERA creativities co-convenor, a strategic board member for arts connect and a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy.


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Adam Whittaker

Research Fellow

Dr Adam Whittaker is Research Fellow at Birmingham City University, working in music education. Adam has researched widely in the fields of historical pedagogies of music and has taught music in a range of settings. He has been involved in research projects examining the reception history of early music, and completed his doctorate on aspects of musical exemplarity in Johannes Tinctoris’s (c. 1435–1511) notational treatises. He is interested in the ways in which musical pedagogy has changed over time, and what these changes can tell us about our current pedagogical approaches. Much of his recent research, in partnership with Prof. Martin Fautley and Dr Victoria Kinsella, focused on Whole Class Ensemble Teaching (WCET) and music education hubs across the country.