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UK government consultation on T Levels ends with doubts over future of Level 3 music qualifications

The Musicians' Union has expressed serious concerns about the government’s plans for the future of vocational music qualifications as the new T-Levels exclude the performing arts

T-Levels (Technical Levels) were introduced by former UK prime minister Theresa May’s government as part of a programme to simplify the maze of qualifications that, it said, was confusing to employers.

The stated aim was that these new levels would replace BTECs and other A-Level vocational equivalents. But the T-Level roll-out over the next couple of years includes no music-related qualification, at all, and the Musicians’ Union (MU) fears that music and music technology BTECs may be de-funded.

The Department for Education (DfE) concluded the second phase of its public consultation at the end of January 2021 after an extension to allow for a late flood of submissions in defence of BTECs. It will be some months before the outcome of this consultation will be published, though it is unclear whether the DfE of Gavin Williamson will have the same policies as those under his predecessor. But the MU is concerned that the direction of travel risks erasing a path for less academic students to a career in music or even to benefit from the more general life skills music education provides.

This is especially the case with music production where BTECs are praised for their hands-on approach to learning. As the MU states, ‘The proposals also assume that students can pursue A-Level music if other qualifications are withdrawn. In fact, the government’s policy of pushing schools towards core academic subjects means that fewer GCSE and A-Level music courses are available than ever.’

Music-based BTECs are not universally popular, though. Some cite the Government’s handover of control of them to Pearson Education Ltd as having pushed the curriculum back towards academe. Others suggest the move to T-Levels and apprenticeships will ‘level up’ the value of the qualifications to that of academic levels. But few can see how the overarching concept of mixing classroom and workplace experience will work in practice and that might be the reason no music or music technology T-Levels are planned. As one music technology educator told us, commercial studios can’t expect their clients’ privacy and ‘freedoms’ to be hampered by a work experience student hanging around. Part of the problem, he suggests, has been that the BTEC’s designers had lumped audio engineering under general engineering subjects and had never really grasped the difference.

Others, however, suggest that Music Technology BTECs are beneficial even if one doesn’t want a career in music, the Diploma versions being recognised by some universities as better than three A-Levels.

‘The government is all into STEM subjects and getting people jobs. The music industry is very difficult to work in and you have to be adaptable,’ says Simon Lee, who is the course leader in Music and Music Technology at Bilborough Sixth Form College in Nottingham. ‘But there’s a lot of IT in Music Technology BTECs. You have all these transferrable skills in the course. I have a guy doing Music Technology who’s joining the RAF to be a fighter pilot.’

Bilborough has only moved across to BTECs over the last couple of years as A-Levels became more academic and exam-based. So, there is understandable concern if the government de-funds the scheme.

‘If we can’t do BTECs anymore, we’d have to think about other things,’ says Lee. ‘We ran the A-Level for 16 years here but with our less academic cohort, they were more suited to coursework. At the moment, we’re quite optimistic they’re going to keep BTEC in Music Technology but if they end we’re going to have to look at other qualifications such as Rock School London’s (RSL).’

RSL’s range of music-based qualifications is being seen as a future option by both sides of the BTEC debate. Lee confirms that although his courses are full, applications have dropped since the EBacc launched without giving any qualification points to performance arts. This has made it harder for schools to attract students to music at GCSE level.

If RSL and providers such as Trinity College London become the gold standard for technical and vocational music qualifications it could be a great leap forward as the courses will be designed by musicians, music educators and sound technologists. But it does seem at odds with the government’s original aim of simplifying the qualification system.

In the short term, though, it will be important to impress upon government that some of our greatest musical and production talent came from decidedly unacademic backgrounds.