United Kingdom National Overview

Updated in November 2018 by Ruth Wootton, International Coordinator at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Overview of Higher Music Education System

The UK system of professional music training is part of the country’s more general higher education system. UK conservatoires offer degree programmes which overlap with the curricula of university music departments and have similar award titles – Bachelor, Master and Doctor. Despite this overlap, conservatoires are seen as having a distinctive mission, more practical and more profession-orientated in their focus with a range of partnerships involving professional orchestras, ensembles and opera companies. Their first-cycle programmes are generally one year longer than the three-year standard of UK universities and their emphasis upon one-to-one instrumental/vocal/compositional training /music production places these activities at the centre of the curriculum.

The UK conservatoires have a variety of titles – conservatoire, college, academy, school. These different titles do not imply different status; all of the conservatoires nationally operate at the same level. As in any national system, however, institutional reputations and traditions may create differences in how one conservatoire is viewed in relation to another.

Three UK conservatoires teach music and drama; one teaches music and dance, one teaches music, drama and dance and the rest focus solely on music. Two conservatoires formally operate as a faculty within a university; many others have strong links with universities and have their degrees validated through university systems. Two English conservatoires have their own degree awarding powers which operate at Bachelor, Master and Doctoral level. The conservatoire in Scotland also has its own degree awarding powers, gained through the Privy Council in 1994.

Because the UK already uses a two-cycle system and a nomenclature of Bachelor, Masters and Doctor for its awards, the implications of Bologna for UK higher education are relatively small in comparison to other countries. For example, there was no mention of Bologna in the UK government’s proposals for higher education, announced in January 2003, although this was remedied later that year in statements made by ministers and events held to publicise the European dimension. In 2006, awareness grew that there were genuine issues to be confronted. These included aspects of the Diploma Supplement which, although partly matched in the UK by degree transcripts and programme specifications, required more information than these supplied. Another concern was the transition from the credit rating of courses to fully-realised credit accumulation and transfer. The implications of ECTS are beginning to be seen as greater than dividing all UK credit point scores by two.

Total number of institutions
There are nine conservatoires in the UK; four in London, one in central England, two in the north of England and one each in Scotland and Wales. Several other institutions offer programmes which would certainly qualify as professional music training, often specialising in areas such as popular music, jazz or music technology, without formally having the title or status of conservatoires.
Total number of music students
Approximately 6.000 (conservatoires only)

All the conservatoires are funded either by the UK Government (England and Wales) or the Scottish Government (Scotland). In both cases, the funding is channelled via funding councils for higher education whose role, at least nominally, is to mediate between the interests of government and those of the higher education community. Conservatoires are therefore funded according to the same principles as universities, although most receive a premium on this funding in recognition of the high costs of specialist training, especially the one-to-one lesson. All government-funded higher education institutions, including conservatoires, fund themselves through a mixture of the government grant, student tuition fees and other income. As government funding has fallen behind rising costs, they have had to increase income from fees and other sources wherever possible. As a result, government funding accounts for less than half the income of almost all institutions. Government limits the fees which institutions may charge students from the UK or EU countries for their first cycle training. Second cycle postgraduate students are not subject to the same restrictions. In principle, students from outside the EU are not funded by the UK government at all. This is what obliges conservatoires and universities to charge higher fees to these students, effectively covering both the fee element and the government grant.

UK conservatoires are entitled to bid for research funding alongside the UK universities. Research, in the definitions used in the UK can include practice based research such as composition. Some of the UK conservatoires receive funding through this stream as well as the main teaching stream. They have to be able to demonstrate that research funding is spent on research activity and teaching funding on teaching.

Conservatoires, like universities, are theoretically autonomous in terms of curricula. However, they operate inside a framework of funding where a range of initiatives, protocols and, in extreme cases, penalties exert a strong influence over aspects of their training. The subject benchmarks for each discipline were introduced as a government initiative, although the use of panels of academics to draw these up, coupled with an extensive review process amongst the academic community, led to their being readily accepted. In other areas, government funding can be manipulated to further causes which it sees as strategically important to society. An example of this is the UK government’s desire to widen participation in higher education by encouraging more students from less privileged background to enter higher education. This encouragement takes the form of diverting funding from institutions with small proportions of less privileged students to those with higher proportions. This has created a challenge for conservatoires. Without a system of support and encouragement reaching back to the earliest years of children’s education, it is hard for young people from less privileged backgrounds to acquire the necessary preliminary skills to audition successfully for entry to conservatoires. Equally, although conservatoire staff look for potential in their applicants, there is a basic minimum of prior experience which is essential.
Classical, Jazz, Music Technology, Popular/Commercial Music, Musical Theatre
2-cycle system
All UK Conservatoires operate to the two cycle system and in many cases to a third cycle. Most UK conservatoires operate to a four-year first cycle. Where this is not the case, the UK higher education standard of three years applies.
Second cycle programmes vary between one year practically-based programmes, often called Diplomas, and Masters programmes which can either be twelve months long or last for two complete academic years. Partly in response to Bologna, but more specifically in recognition of students’ changing expectations, most conservatoires have moved in the direction of more postgraduate students studying on programmes which carry the award title of Masters.
All conservatoires offer a Bachelor’s degree at the end of the first cycle. The Bachelor degree offered by conservatoires is normally called a Bachelor of Music (BMus), rather than the generic Bachelor of Arts (BA) offered by most universities, although the music degrees offered by some of these also carry the title BMus. BMus degrees usually offer some opportunities to specialise during the later years of study but this does not normally affect the title of the award offered.
As already indicated, the most common titles for the second cycle are Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) and Masters. The latter, like its first cycle equivalent in conservatoires, is usually a Master of Music (MMus), rather than a Master of Arts (MA). At postgraduate level, most award titles refer to the specialism studied. For example, performance is differentiated from composition, vocal performance from other performance and opera training from vocal performance.
Entry requirements 1st cycle
Entry requirements 2nd cycle
Most second cycle programmes which carry the Masters title require a good first cycle qualification for entry. The UK Bachelor degree is currently divided into classes – First, Upper Second, Lower Second and Third. UK conservatoires, like their university counterparts, usually require at least an Upper Second in Music (or its equivalent) for entry to a Master’s programme. Practically based Diploma programmes also usually require a first cycle qualification for entry. With these, though the class of degree is less important and, provided that the student’s ability in their Principal Study is sufficient, the subject studied in the first cycle need not necessarily be Music. There are examples where students without first cycle degrees are taken into Diploma programmes on the basis of the institution crediting their experience and practical ability. Understandably, cases like this are almost unknown with Masters degrees.
% of students who continue with 2nd cycle The overall division between first and second cycle numbers in UK conservatoires, as indicated above, is roughly 70% to 30%. This is not necessarily the same as suggesting that three out of every seven UK first cycle graduates continue to the second cycle. The UK is a net receiver of postgraduate students from other countries (although the number of UK students taking their second cycle training abroad is growing).
3rd cycle
Two conservatoires in England have the powers to award its own Doctoral degrees: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Royal College of Music. However, four conservatoires have established arrangements with universities whereby they can participate in 3rd-cycle validation: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Royal Academy of Music, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Credit point system

Most UK undergraduate programmes in conservatoires are divided into units and the units credit-rated.

The UK system of credit points uses a 120-point system for each academic year. In theory, this is simply convertible into ECTS by dividing by two, giving a number based on a total of 60 credits. In practice, there are issues of the number of learning hours lying behind these credits as well as practical problems that can arise when the UK credit points amount to odd, rather than even, numbers.

UK institutions now incorporate the grading-scale aspect of ECTS.

Quality assurance
The external quality assurance process in the United Kingdom takes about thirty-six weeks (an academic year) although the audit visit is usually about one week long. Preliminary meetings takes place with students and staff, a self-evaluation document has to be produced along with any other documentation the auditors may require (and they can request anything). A draft report is submitted eight weeks after the audit visit for comment and twenty weeks after the audit, the report is published.
The process makes use of a self-evaluation report, of a visitation by peers, and occasionally also by visitations by other types of experts (only used if the Agency during the audit deems it necessary). The standards of awards are set by the institution (or validating institution) and identified in their Self Evaluation Document. The purpose of the audit is to test what is stated in this document through reading the institutional policies, minutes of meetings, and by meeting members of staff and students.
External evaluators receive special training. The purpose of the training is to ensure that all auditors understand the aims and objectives of the processes, are acquainted with the procedures involved, understand their own roles and tasks and the rules of conduct governing the process, and that they have an opportunity to practice the techniques of the process, the forming of judgments and statements, and the preparation of reports.
Quality Assurance is required by the Government, but the process is organized by the relevant Quality Assurance Agencies in England/Wales and Scotland acting as an intermediary. It takes place on a five year cycle. Quality assurance is obligatory and public, and it is organized at the institutional and national levels. In England and Wales, universities and colleges of higher education are reviewed through an institutional audit. In Scotland, the programme is referred to as an ‘enhancement’ process. Colleges offering further education that provides higher education programmes are reviewed through an academic review at subject level. Some institutions run accredited courses – courses that are recognized by other educational institutes or professional bodies. For example, completion of a degree at a university might in some cases be recognized by another institution as equivalent (in whole or in part) to a professional qualification. The Quality Assurance Agency publishes a set of guidelines for the operation of such accredited programmes. The arrangements for these programmes are subject to scrutiny by the Agency during the institutional audit.
There is no relation between quality assurance, accreditation and funding in the UK.
While the audit itself may be a stressful time for all involved, it does ensure that an institution has its ‘house in order’. It is not meant to be confrontational. Experiences have been courteous, friendly and supportive despite that fact that some reports contain criticism and recommendations. For further information on any of the above points, see the UK Handbook for Institutional Audit, available at http://www.qaa.ac.uk/reviews/institutionalAudit/handbook/audit_handbook.pdf.
All UK conservatoires have mission statements that, in one way or another, refer to their training students for the profession. The same goal comes through clearly in their strategic planning documents. Increasingly, conservatoires are encouraged to demonstrate, by tracking the careers of graduates, that students do indeed enter and remain within the profession in significant numbers. Most Conservatoires in England receive extra funding called ‘exceptional funding’. The criteria for receiving this funding have recently changed and continuation of this extra support is not guaranteed, especially as the government is seeking ways to reduce expenditure.
In Scotland the specialist funding does not depend upon the percentage of employability. The employability rates are usually higher than 85%.
Academic Year
UK conservatoires operate broadly to the UK higher education standard of an academic year running from early autumn until roughly the end of June. They generally have a slightly longer teaching year than most universities and this is achieved by starting in September, rather than the more normal early October. UK higher education has experimented with semesterisation but remains largely committed to an academic year divided into three terms, with most courses running right through the year.
Overview of the Pre-College Music Education System
In the United Kingdom, there are several routes into music at higher education level.

Types of Pre-College Education

Music Services

 Across the UK, two million children receive instrumental/vocal tuition through organisations known as Music Services. These are generally run by Local Authorities. The precise availability of lessons, cost (if any) and nature of tuition varies widely from area to area. Music Services also provide important orchestral, ensemble and choral activities, often on a national, regional and local level. Music Services provide access to effective progression routes for children and young people with a diverse range of needs.

A number of independent schools offer music scholarships and/or awards to talented students. Most independent schools employ their own team of instrument/vocal instructors.

Junior Departments of Conservatoires (UK – wide) and Centres of Advanced Training (England only)
All conservatoires within the UK offer advanced tuition at the highest level open to children usually between the ages of 8 and 18 years. Entry to a Junior Course is by audition. The core curriculum typically includes an individual lesson(s), orchestra, chamber music, musicianship, composition, music technology and choir, all delivered on Saturdays. Most Junior Departments also offer courses for children of primary school age and some offer lessons for adults.
While Junior Departments charge fees, all offer bursaries to students who require financial assistance. In addition, the government-funded Music and Dance Scheme has become available to students of exceptional ability at Junior Departments in England.
Through an expansion of the Music and Dance Scheme, a number of new Centres of Advanced Training are currently being established in areas of England where access to such training has traditionally been difficult due to geography or social disadvantage.
Specialist Music Schools
A number of specialist residential music schools in England and Scotland provide similarly advanced musical tuition at the highest level as well as a general primary/secondary education for students usually between the ages of 7 and 18. In addition to their mainstream academic studies, students receive intensive tuition on a solo instrument and a music curriculum related to their age, which generally includes aural training, chamber music, choir, composition, jazz and music technology. While Specialist Music Schools are fee paying, most students receive scholarships, many of which are provided by the Music and Dance Scheme. Entry to a Specialist Music School is by audition.
Specialist Music Units within a Secondary School (Scotland)
A small number of mainstream secondary schools in Scotland incorporate specialist units for talented young musicians. In addition to their general academic studies, students follow a music curriculum typically comprising instrumental lessons, chamber music and orchestra. Students are provided with boarding facilities, if required, and receive a grant from the Scottish Executive to support their studies. Entry to a Specialist Music Unit is by audition.
Choir Schools
There are a large number of Choir Schools in the UK connected to cathedrals, colleges and Churches of England, Scotland and Wales and the Roman Catholic Church. These generally cater for children aged from 7 to 19 years. In addition to their mainstream academic studies, daily choral rehearsals and regular participation in church services, choristers can receive instrument lessons and musicianship and theory classes. Entry to Choir Schools is by audition. While choir schools are fee paying, most children receive scholarships that are provided by the school or the government.
Private tuition
Hundreds of thousands of instrument/voice tutors offer private instrument/voice tuition in music of many different styles and genres. Lessons are usually given either at the tutor or the student’s home or studio. The private tutor’s work is independent of the general education system.

Additional Information

Music and Arts in General Education
Students entering Higher Music Education
Most music students prepare for higher education:
  • By taking instrument/voice lessons privately
  • By taking lessons in school through what is known as Music Services
  • By enrolling in a conservatoire Junior Department
  • By combining general education and specialist music education by attending Specialist Music Schools
Special Facilities for Talented Students at Pre-College Level
There are many youth orchestras, ensembles, choirs, etc. in the UK on local, regional and national level, as well as many competitions for all kinds of instruments, ensembles, orchestras and composers.
Individuals, schools, foundations and the government give out grants and scholarships to extremely talented students in some areas of the UK. In England, the government funded Music and Dance Scheme offers support to extremely talented musicians, not only by providing scholarships, but by providing concert opportunities and master classes as well.

Overview of Music Teacher Education System

Training for music teachers in the UK is provided mainly by universities and conservatoires. School-based training such as School-Centred Initial Teacher Training and the Graduate Teacher Programme are also available (see below). The distinction between training for instrumental/vocal teaching and general class music teaching is set out in the separate sections below. Broadly, music colleges – whose staff is drawn directly from the music profession, give a greater emphasis to instrumental/vocal teaching than universities. Many instrumental/vocal teachers come from the music college route.

Note: Whilst there are some variations between the regulations for formal initial teacher training (ITT) in the constituent countries of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), there is a general consistency and the structure for England will be described with any significant variations for other countries noted in the text.

Instrumental/Vocal Music Teacher Education

Instrumental/vocal teachers usually study at a conservatoire (music college) or university, and follow a three or four year undergraduate (BMus) course. Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), the national standard qualification for teachers who work in state maintained schools, is not a requirement for those who teach freelance, privately in their own studios. However, many local authority music services, which provide tuition in schools, recognise QTS where teachers have it, and employ such teachers on the appropriate pay and conditions. There are a few Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses, leading to QTS, which are either specifically designed, or have optional routes, for instrumental/vocal teachers with placements being mentored by experienced instrumental teachers.
The government funding for conservatoires (music colleges) recognises the additional costs of one-on-one teaching and they are entitled to premium funding. But this specifically excludes the training of teachers except for Scotland where the Royal Scottish Academy of Music (RSAMD) has a teacher training strand leading to a BEd qualification. A further exception in England is the Royal Northern College of Music, in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University, which has a 2 year ‘Performer – Teacher Pathway’ (leading to QTS) as an option within its BMus programme. Thus music colleges are directed towards performance studies and are inhibited, through the public funding system, from opening courses for teachers. However, most music colleges incorporate pedagogic elements in their courses, but these are not recognised for QTS purposes.
Structure Please see the first section of this document, ‘Overview of Higher Music Education System’.
Curriculum is depending on the individual requirements for each institution. In general, teacher education sessions will cover pedagogy and methodology with some opportunities for teaching practice and/or observation of experienced teachers who take on a mentoring role.
The duration of courses also varies from institution to institution. An example might be 12 hours in year 2 and 24 hours in year 3 as core activities. An additional elective (optional) course might be for 18 hours in year 3 or year 4.
Employability Students who successfully complete teacher training will receive the title of Bachelor of Music.These students are trained for to work as private teachers, including self-employed teachers in schools, and music services.
Class music teachers in state schools (see below) must have QTS.
Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
CPD opportunities are available through professional organizations such as the Federation of Music Services, National Association of Music Educators, Music Education Council, Incorporated Society of Musicians, Examination Boards such as Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, Trinity Guildhall, Higher Music Education Institutions, schools and Local Authorities.
For instrumental/vocal teachers who operate on a freelance basis CPD has to be covered from their own resources and it is very dependent upon individual initiative. Professional bodies, such as the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) and the National Association of Music Educators (NAME) organise in-service courses for their members.
There are very few opportunities for professional musicians to engage in CPD. Those who wish to gain QTS may follow one of the routes open to mature students, including part-time study through the Open University.

Education for Music Teacher in General Education (primary and secondary school)

Training for music teachers in general education takes place in universities. Please see the Graduate Teacher Training Registry (below) for current numbers.
Teacher education programmes are available at undergraduate (Bachelor) and postgraduate (including Master) level.Undergraduate (Bachelor of Education BEd) programmes usually take 3 or 4 years and postgraduate (PGCE) courses usually take 1 year.
For BEd courses, the minimum requirement for entry is usually 2 A levels (national qualification for school students taken at age 18). For PGCE courses, the minimum requirement is usually a 2.1 bachelor degree.Interviews / auditions are usual.
Further details on the questions in this section can be found at the Training and Development Agency for Schools and Graduate Teacher Training Registry websites below and on the websites of individual institutions.
The teaching profession for classroom teaching in the UK is wholly graduate. Those who teach in a maintained (publically-funded) school must complete an approved course of study which demonstrates that the required (government stated) standards have been met. The standards include knowledge of the education system, including structures for assessing pupils’ development and the requirement of the National Curriculum, competence in delivering the curriculum to a specified age range and skills in numeracy, literacy and ICT. Most independent schools (privately funded, fee-paying) now employ teachers who meet these requirements, which are known as Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).
Those training to teach in the primary sector (age 5 to 11) usually follow a three-year undergraduate course at a higher education institution (BEd). Those intending to teach in the primary sector through the route of a general teaching degree (BEd) will have followed a broad course of study covering a range of disciplines, including the arts, as prescribed by the curriculum for teacher training. Music is not a compulsory subject on such courses. However, whilst music studies may be included, they are reported to be of minimal duration, sometimes only a few sessions in the whole course. One year postgraduate courses (PGCE) for primary school teachers are also available.
The usual pattern for those intending to teach in secondary schools and colleges is to follow a specialist three or four year undergraduate music course at a university or music college, followed by a one year course leading to a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). About two-thirds of this training is spent in school experience.
Courses are available for undergraduates which incorporate practical school experience sessions (School-Centred Initial Teacher Training) where nearly all of the training is undertaken – under supervision – in a school; and employment-based routes whereby a graduate who is an unqualified teacher (i.e. one without QTS) is employed in a school which undertakes the training with the prospect of producing a fully qualified teacher (Graduate Teacher Programme). In parts of the UK there are teacher shortages and the government’s financial incentive schemes have been introduced for shortage subjects, including music in secondary schools (age 11 to 19). Incentives include ‘golden hello’ payments when qualified teachers begin their career as well as the full payment of students’ course fees. Full details of teacher education routes are available from the Training and Development Agency for Schools (see below).
All aspects of teacher education (methodology, pedagogy courses etc.), including substantial teaching practice, are integral parts of these courses.
All teacher training institutions are required to have formal links with schools in their area for the purpose of providing ‘school experience’ for their students. A range of competencies must be fulfilled through this process in which a school-based mentor provides an assessment of students’ progress. Schools usually appoint one member of staff to undertake the link with the training institution. The school mentor is supported within the school by subject mentors who have the specific role to guide the training process.
Upon successful completion of course work and teacher training practice, students are awarded with the title Bachelor of Education (BEd) for undergraduate courses; Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) for PG courses.This title does not affect job opportunities, but the status, i.e. QTS, does.QTS is essential for teachers who teach in maintained schools.
A graduate qualification is required of all qualified teachers in state schools in the UK. A Bachelor of Education (BEd) first degree carries with it QTS. For all other first degrees, for example BMus, post graduate qualification in education is required to gain QTS. The BEd qualification is usually obtained by intending primary school teachers whilst a specialist degree (BMus) is taken by secondary specialists and instrumental teachers.It is not absolutely essential to have a degree in music to train as a music teacher at postgraduate level provided there is evidence of sufficient subject knowledge.The graduate may have a degree in another subject.
Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
CPD opportunities are available through professional organizations such as the Federation of Music Services, National Association of Music Educators, Music Education Council, Incorporated Society of Musicians, Examination Boards such as Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, Trinity Guildhall, Higher Music Education Institutions, schools and Local Authorities.
Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for teachers (of both types) in state schools is undertaken through local authority employer. There is an entitlement of five days per year. Most independent schools also follow this pattern.