The Conservatoire Crisis: suggestions from Oxbridge


A must read for those interested in music education, this article written by Scott Caizley, a PhD researcher at Kings College London, looks at the experiences of low-income state school pupils at elite UK music conservatoires. Whilst these suggestions are in no way a magic formula to equalising the playing field in the conservatoire sector, they are nonetheless a good start!

Access and participation amongst state schooled students in UK conservatoires throughout the past years have remained at an all-time low despite major efforts to increase participation. Recent data issued by the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) highlights that only 12% of the most deprived state schools have an orchestra, compared to 85% in private schools. Likewise, there has also been a 21% decrease in music provision amongst state schools in the past 5 years whilst the private sector has witnessed a 7% increase.

For those of you who are not familiar with what a conservatoire is, these are a specialist collection of arts institutions which belong to the higher education sector. Famous conservatoire alumni include the likes of Sir Elton John, Annie Lennox, Katherine Jenkins and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to name a few. Students who are successful in gaining a place do so through a highly competitive audition process and places are extremely limited. Students wishing to pursue a classical music degree in their instrument of choice are advised to start training up to 10 years in advance of auditions.

Given the high tuition cost of learning a musical instrument along with the sociocultural barriers of classical music can make conservatoires a world which is very far away from many students lives. Taking this into consideration, it can come as no surprise that two of the UKs leading music conservatoires accept fewer state schooled students than Oxbridge. However, despite the data highlighting some rather concerning truths about the state of higher music education here in the UK, we must now put trust in the power of policy and act now in order to save the future of music. How can this be done? Well, although the Oxbridge admissions dilemma still has a long way to go before they are praised for equity and fairness, I recommend that UK conservatoires take a leaf out of their book through the agency of policy borrowing.

Each year, Oxbridge deliver thousands of outreach events with the aim of attracting talent and to make the application process more accessible. For example, every year Oxford spend over £5 million on outreach work and within their work provide summer schools, pathway programmes, partnerships with state schools, teacher summer schools and specialist support on admissions offering personalised advice. Likewise, Cambridge also offers hundreds of outreach initiatives and events every year. Amongst these include, summer schools, free subject specific courses for year 12 students, collaborative projects with state schools across the UK, subject specific programmes with an emphasis on tackling the many barriers students face when applying, challenge days for state schooled students, personalised admissions advice and many more.

Only recently Oxford has promised two new initiatives to increase diversity within their recruitment process. ‘Opportunity Oxford’ is aimed at recruiting students from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and promises a “sea-change” in admissions. The new plans aim to recruit at least 25% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds by the year of 2023. A number of measures will be included in the admissions process for ‘Opportunity Oxford’ and will include drawing on information from POLAR and ACORN as well as students previous schooling (including students who are entitled to Free School Meals), BAME, Young carers and also people in care. The second initiative is ‘Foundation Oxford’ which in essence, is a foundation year across the university for pupils with A level grades as low as BBB to boost the number of state school, disadvantaged & BAME students. This initiative will be open to students who have personally experienced severe disadvantage or educational disruption.

To date, there is no formal programme from any UK conservatoire which provides any service to tackle the barriers many students face when applying to conservatoires. Whilst conservatoires do offer financial aid (such as tuition fee waivers, scholarships and audition fee waivers), they do not provide any services which tackle the access crisis they are currently facing. What they do provide however, is outreach work within their junior departments. These departments are aimed at developing and training musicians below the age of 18 but are again, highly competitive and extremely expensive in cost. Whilst scholarships are available to students, the ones which usually grab these have usually developed a commendable skill set which have already acquired years of formal musical training.

Firstly, given the recent plans made by Oxford, I suggest a similar method to be implemented by UK conservatoires who are failing to meet the government benchmark on the recruitment of state schooled students. Although conservatoires already attempt to contextualise their admissions process, recent data on the percentage of state schooled students accepted to these institutions shows this method is proving to be unsuccessful. Foundation Oxford is a programme which could be a model for conservatoires due to their lack of training available for those missing out on places and who need further training. Whilst a handful of conservatoires already have foundation years, these programmes are not seen as instruments to widen participation but instead, for those wishing to spend a year at the conservatoire before taking up a full-time undergraduate programme of study at another institution. Foundation Oxford does not only lower grades and seek to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds but the one year course is free of charge. A recommendation could be for conservatoires to offer such a programme to those solely from state schools who are performing well in the auditions but need an extra year of training.

Another suggestion could be to start an outreach programme which exposes primary aged students to the musical world. Given that training can start up to 10 years in advance, conservatoires should make young students a priority in the widening participation agenda. Additionally, conservatoires could implement a teacher training programme in UK state schools which expose teachers to the admissions process. Identifying musical talent at a young age is a crucial aspect to aid the recruitment process but with many teachers having limited knowledge on these specialist institutions, talent is often unnoticed. Another consideration is for conservatoires to open summer schools with the sole intention of recruiting only those who have been unable to access the junior programmes on offer at their institution. Lastly, a key aspect to attract more state schooled students to conservatories would be to form partnerships with UK state schools which offer tailored services to students who have identified an interest in pursuing a musical performance career.

Whilst these suggestions are in no way a magic formula to equalising the playing field in the conservatoire sector, they are nonetheless a good start. For centuries we have given the world some of the most gifted and world leading musicians. With many looking at a conservatoires as the bridge which connects their dreams to reality, it is now their responsibility to ensure every student is given the chance to succeed and to fulfil their dreams, regardless of their background.