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The Conservatoire Crisis: suggestions from Oxbridge

  • 22 May 2019
  • By Scott Caizley

A guest blog kindly contributed by Scott Caizley, who is a PhD researcher at Kings College London looking at the experiences of low-income state school pupils at elite UK music conservatoires.

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.


  1. Jo Hutchinson says:

    Hi Scott, thanks for the interesting thoughts, which we read here at Guildhall School. We wondered if you’d like to come into Guildhall and find out more about our outreach and work with young people beyond the traditional ‘junior’ models you mention, in case it is of interest to your project? It sounds like that information hasn’t reached you yet, and we’re at an exciting position in this work which might change your perception on what some institutions are doing in this area. Please contact us if you’d like to chat!

  2. Tim says:

    Dear Scott,

    I think this is a wonderful blog post and suggestions most definitely do need to be made. How rather unfortunate that conservatoires have let such inequalities fester for so long now. I studied at a conservatoire and you are very much right, these paces are elitist and I can only imagine how unjustly these feels for those from working class backgrounds.



  3. Dear Scott

    The assertion you make ‘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’ is not correct.

    At the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland we are wholly committed to tackling inequality of access and do so in wide a range of ways, with this work embedded throughout the conservatoire and led at senior management level by a Director of Fair Access. Far from ‘no formal programme’ RCS works through a number of formal programmes – including our multi award-winning Transitions programme – to support people from under-represented parts of Scotland to access higher arts education. You’d be warmly welcome to come and see for yourself.

  4. Scott says:

    Dear Janette,

    Thank you for the reply.

    Whilst the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is leading the way in terms of outreach and access, the conservatoire is still not meeting the benchmark for the recruitment of state schooled students (see data in HESA). I was not aware of the “fair access programme” at the RCS which “offers fully-funded training and support for young people living in SIMD 20 Scottish postcode areas” but since looking at this, the issue here is the selective demographic and the issues surrounding selectivity from the SIMD postcodes. Again, classifying this as a “formal” programme would bring critique as it is highly selective in regards to demographic and based on a postcode system which is not representative to the wider UK context (especially Scotland).

    Whilst this is a step in the right direction, more does need to be done to widen access and diversity (and not just from those postcodes). Racial diversity is another issue all UK conservatoires face (especially the RCS) but again, using just those postcodes is not enough. In 2017 (the latest data available from UCAS Conservatories) 3060 undergraduate applicants applied to the RCS of which only 285 were accepted.

    Now looking at available data closer:

    In 2017, only 45 black undergraduate applicants applied to all UCAS UK conservatoires compared to 3815 white applicants. Only 15 black students were accepted through UCAS Conservatoires (which includes data for the RCS) compared to 880 white applicants. I am still waiting for the latest report to be made publicly available from the RCS to see the data form the latest academic year from the “fair access” on students from BME backgrounds but rest assured, once I do, I hope to include this in my research.

    I want conservatoires to open their doors to everyone. I suggested here more formalised programmes be made available to ensure this happens. Classical music needs sociocultural renewal and reform. Conservatories could be key agents in aiding such a process but only through doing more to equal the playing field.

    To summarise, you are right in the sense that the RCS does have a formal programme but wrong in thinking that this is enough (hence my suggestions from Oxbridge). Whilst the RCS is a leader in access, when you look at data closer (especially for the BMus) and students studying western classical music instruments, you start to see a different picture.

    I am very much looking forward to seeing the results in future years from this programme you offer but for now, as the RCS is not meeting their benchmark, it would do little harm to take away these suggestions I have made. The bigger picture here is not “who has what” or “who is doing more” but instead “what more can be done”. Looking at data, these suggestions should be welcoming and not disheartening.

    Warm wishes,


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