UK music schools are spending state cash on the middle-classes

UK music schools are spending state cash on the middle-classes


norman lebrecht

October 07, 2018

A damning report in the Guardian finds that many of the UK’s top music schools are directing grants intended for children from poor families to those who are conspicuously well-off.

The standfirst reads: Families with £190k income receive awards meant to help disadvantaged attend Yehudi Menuhin and Chetham’s schools.

Specifically: Figures obtained by the Guardian show that, despite the aim to help disadvantaged young people, families earning up to £190,000 a year are receiving awards. At Yehudi Menuhin for example, two students whose parents earn between £170,000 and £190,000 are getting MDS help with the £43,000-a-year boarding fees.

Read on here.

Full source data here.


  • Purcell_parent says:

    The schools aren’t directing the grants anywhere. They are following the MDS rules as determined by the government. Also for the record if £190,000 is the cut off for no MDS help at all. If you earn say £170,000 at Chets you would be paying 28,000 (plus 70,000 tax) and receiving just 4,000 help. Perhaps the cut-off should be a bit lower but harder a huge scandal as vast majority of students getting MDS help are low/middle earners and definitely couldn’t afford fees without MDS.

  • SVM says:

    [Declaration of interest: I studied at the Royal College of Music Junior Department for seven years, and was a beneficiary of a bursary funded from various sources, including the Music and Dance Scheme, for some of that time, after a voluntary redundancy caused a steep drop in my household income.]

    It costs a lot more to educate a musical child at an élite level than at a rudimentary level. There are fewer teachers capable of educating a child at that level, and those who are, quite rightly, tend to charge a lot more (I hasten to add that teaching complete beginners is still *not* easy, and the damage that can be done by bad teaching at *any* level should not be underestimated). Furthermore, the education for a musical child at an élite level is more intensive, encompassing not only regular one-to-one lessons, but also tuition in music theory either individually or with other children of comparable ability, chamber music with other children of comparable ability, orchestral playing with other children of comparable ability under distinguished tutors and conductors, choirs, and a *lot* of public performances.

    This increase in cost is onerous even for a household which could afford comfortably the costs of music education at a rudimentary level (e.g.: one-to-one weekly lessons with a competent *local* teacher plus the subscription fee for a *local* youth orchestra). The travel costs alone can be phenomenal (even if the child travels by himself/herself and uses public transport).

    The remit of the Music and Dance Scheme is to assist musical children who are *already* performing at a standard commensurate with that required to obtain a place at the very best specialist music schools and junior conservatoires. The main reason why the beneficiaries are more likely to be from affluent households is that to attain that standard is almost impossible without having *already* had one-to-one private tuition for several years.

    The ideal solution would be to have sufficient funding for music education at all levels (and this should include postgraduate study, for which there is nowhere near enough scholarship/bursary funding), and to provide a free education to all pupils at the élite music schools and junior conservatoires (as matters stand, lack of awareness of the Music and Dance Scheme means that many households of modest means might not send their children for audition).

    As matters stand (i.e.: in the absence of sufficient funding), the question we have to ask ourselves is whether to prioritise:

    a) funding the children with greatest ability and commitment to the extent that they can access education they need and deserve if they are to progress further; or

    b) funding all children equally, irrespective of ability and commitment, accepting that those with the greatest ability and commitment will need to find the extra funds if they are to progress further, and that not all of them will find them.

    Personally, I favour §a, for the following reasons:

    1. If the Music and Dance Scheme were to be withdrawn in favour of more “grassroots” funding (as Robert Verkaik desires), the result would be a lot of talented children unable to progress beyond a certain level, owing to inability to afford the much higher costs of an élite musical education, which would only exacerbate the underrepresentation of children from households of modest means;

    2. The furtherance of the art and science of music depends on having a sufficiently large corpus of professionals, connoisseurs, and high-achieving amateurs;

    3. More generally, highly educated musicians, directly and indirectly through their work in a vast domain of musical and non-musical professions, benefit the capacity of people from all backgrounds to enjoy music — indeed, “grassroots” music-making and music education cannot function without them;

    4. Historically, the advancement of society has depended on keeping the “beacon of knowledge” alight, such a “beacon” having been maintained by supporting the education of a minority of highly capable (and privileged) people — (almost) universal literacy (in the “developed world”, at least) is a relatively recent phenomenon; and

    5. Therefore, to put it plainly, I believe that supporting the top of the musical pyramid is more important than supporting the base (to take an analogy, it would be unthinkable to stop supporting, for example, élite medical education, because society would manifestly suffer if there were not enough medical professionals; then again, financial support for the education of nurses has recently been scrapped, and is already exacerbating the current staff shortages afflicting the NHS).

  • richard says:

    You may be right about the merit in supporting the top of the pyramid. However, the DfE and the Schools say MDS is supposed to do the exact opposite: “The Music and Dance Scheme ensures that talented children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and families with limited financial means are able to access the best possible specialist training that they need to nurture and develop their talents.“

    They also say the awards are means tested – which unambiguously means prioritising the poorest. There is a minimum talent threshold (scholarship) thereafter it’s about income – or lack of it.

    We also now have the odd spectacle of private schools that have become dependent on state funding. It’s a mess.

    • Bill says:

      It does not unambiguously mean prioritizing the poorest – it only means that if you are from a well-to-do family you will receive less assistance, possibly none, as your need should be smaller, though it may still be painful. It does not mean they will preferentially seek out the poorest if the funds available are insufficient to cover all that request aid (which must surely be the case). Reasonable people could disagree about whether it is better to help a larger number a smaller amount, or concentrate on those in the weakest financial position, or a mix.

      • Richard says:

        Can you give me an example of a Means Test where the better off are given state support before those with less? If it’s a finite pot of money (and in this case it is) then first giving money to someone with a larger income would leave less to give to those who are poorer – in which case it’s not a means test.

        • James says:

          Richard – the better off are not given aid before the poorest. Not sure where that idea comes from. People apply to the schools and are auditioned and interviewed. They are then given an offer completely blind to the ability of parents to pay. I think the only financial question we were asked was whether or not we were eligible for MDS based on nationality and I’m not even sure we were asked that. The application process is needs blind. Then under the rules of the MDS set by government (not the schools) parental contributions are assessed. If you are earning £30,000 then you pay nothing. If you earn £150,000 (£90,000 post tax) then you pay the vast majority of the fees but get a little help. In the case of YMS where fees at 40k+ even earning 150k with MDS you would be paying almost half post-tax income.

          • Richard says:

            My point is that if the schools made an effort they should be able to find talented kids living in families earning less than £150k-200k a year.

            The money is supposed to be for disadvantaged kids. It’s means tested. And they end up with so few suitable applicants that they give it people on many multiples the income of most people in this country.

            It looks like a middle class heist carried out in cahoots with the bank manager. Shhh.

          • SVM says:

            Re: “if the schools made an effort they should be able to find talented kids living in families earning less than £150k-200k a year.”

            I agree that there is insufficient awareness of the scheme (when I started at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, my mother had no idea that I was eligible for Music and Dance Scheme support, until a significant drop in household income necessitated a thorough investigation of the funding available). It is not helped by the combative tone taken by “Richard”, “Ed”, and the Guardian. It is also not helped by the fact that directors of music in schools and county music services tend *not* to bother telling children and parents about the opportunities and financial support offered by the specialist music schools and junior conservatoires, because a director of music who did bother would find himself/herself losing his/her best performers.

            Similarly, a private music teacher has little interest in encouraging his/her pupils to apply for a scheme which would probably result in him/her losing them (that said, the prestige of getting a pupil into a specialist music school or junior conservatoire *may* be good for business…). I *was* encouraged to apply to junior conservatoire by my first pianoforte teacher, but that was because she did not consider herself competent to teach me beyond grade 8.

        • SVM says:

          The current means-testing paperwork for the Royal College of Music Junior Department can be found at:

          And, for the record, when I say “top of the pyramid”, I refer to the pyramid of musical *ability* in a given age group.

          And I think there *is* a strong argument for dropping means testing and giving all pupils full scholarships, on the grounds that many of the poorer households are unaware of the funding available, or may not realise they are eligible.

  • Tish Roskams says:

    Our son went to the Purcell school which was less costly than keeping him at home as the means test required we contribute £50 per term. He went on to win a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. We could never have afforded equivalent instrumental lessons sufficient to reach the standard he finally did. These schemes are vital to the cultural health of this country.

    • Ed says:

      That’s great! Congratulations. This is exactly what the scheme is meant to achieve.

      Unfortunately MDS, like so many other schemes set up to benefit the poor, has been hijacked by the middle classes. For this why happens see here:

      • James says:

        What a bizarre series of blog posts Ed. Sounds like somebody has sour grapes or deep misunderstanding of how the schools recruit and apply MDS. I posted above but the schools recruit completely needs blind – offers are made with no knowledge of financial situation to ensure the best students get the opportunity regardless of family income. The MDS is not just for “disadvantaged” but for people of limited financial means which means limited in the context of paying 30-40k fees. Let’s say I earn 80k a year which sounds like a lot and is not disadvantaged. My take home pay would be around £54k. Are you suggesting I should pay £34k in fee myself leaving £20k for everything else including other children? Or are you suggesting the school should take a child from a family earning say £30k just because they earn less even if the child is not as good musically as mine? (PS I don’t earn that much and there is no way my child could have attend without MDS or have access to similar level of teaching and opportunities without attending)

        • Ed says:

          Yes, the Scholarships are blind … but how do the Schools go about ensuring the kids invited to audition are representative of the cohort that tax payers are providing funding for?

          According to the DfE: “The Music and Dance Scheme (MDS) ensures that talented children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and families with limited financial means are able to access the best possible specialist training that they need to nurture and develop their talents.”

          Were you happy with the way Oxbridge was (and is still tends to be) white, public school and well-heeled? After all, entrance was/is also by examination.