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MPs warned over ‘enormous risk’ of music hubs reforms

Government reforms to music hubs have sent organisations scrambling to exit the teachers’ pension scheme, put some areas’ provision at “enormous risk” and put staff through the “most torrid times of their career”, MPs heard today.

Music hub leaders and experts gave evidence to the Parliamentary education committee following the government’s decision to slash the number of hubs from 116 to 43.

The government set up music hubs in 2012 to take over the music education provision previously run by local authorities.

But the DfE announced plans in 2022 to re-tender hub contracts to a smaller number of lead organisations to provide economies of scale and more opportunities for training and development.

Here’s what we learned.

1. Arts Council ‘bit off more than they could chew’

Severn Arts currently runs a music hub, and has won a contract to run a larger one from September.

But its chair John de la Cour warned the implementation of the programme was “acting against its own ambition because it takes too long”.

He said he felt staff at the Arts Council, which administers the scheme and ran the tender process, were “biting off more than they could chew”.

“The whole thing was being thrown up in the air, and you don’t do that if you aren’t extremely clear about what benefit you think you want to get from this. And that has never been clear to anybody I don’t think.”

He said the government’s plan had “very wide ambitions but a funding programme behind it which is completely unable to meet those expectations”.

Staff up and down the country “have worked enormous hours meeting ridiculous deadlines, having to plough through enormous amounts of paperwork”.

“Many experienced managers have told me that the last 18 months have been the most torrid times of their entire arts career.”

2. Hubs scramble to leave pension scheme

Hubs directly employ musical instrument teachers. Teaching staff in hubs that are run by councils have to be in the teachers’ pension scheme by law, but many staff in hubs run by charities are also in the TPS.

Employer contributions rose by more than 20 per cent last month from 23.6 to 28.6 per cent, and the DfE has been providing top-up funding towards the rise.

Damian Hinds

But although music hubs that are run by councils will continue to receive the funding from September, those run by other organisations like charities are due to lose their funding in August.

The decision will have “enormous human and financial consequences”, said de la Cour.

Severn is now consulting on whether to leave the teachers’ pension scheme “to protect the company” from an estimated “£300,000 hit”.

Schools minister Damian Hinds told the committee the DfE was “going to be doing some work to understand [the impact] more fully”. But he said “you should not infer from that that we’re necessarily going to do something different”.

But Chris Walters, from the Musician’s Union, said “consultations to exit from the TPS are happening now. So we’re really up against it timewise”.

Walters says between three and four hubs were “well on the way to finishing their consultations”. Around 1,100 teachers across England are understood to be affected.

3. Snubbed provision ‘at enormous risk’

The deadline for bids to lead new hubs was last September, but the winners were announced this month. It leaves unsuccessful hubs scrambling to form partnerships to deliver provision in just five months.

Andrew Lane, managing director of Dynamics Medway, which lost out to Kent Music, said music hub activity in his area was now at “enormous risk”.

His organisation has only received a request for “data, financial and operational information” from the new hub lead, but “no indication at all that they’re actually seeking to work in any partnership” from September this year.

Lane called for a “national pause”, or at least a one-year postponement of transition in areas where there had been contested bids. He said six areas faced “similar challenges” to Medway.

Jenny Oldroyd, the DfE’s director for curriculum and qualifications, said it would “take time for those partnerships to reach maturity”.

“I wouldn’t at all expect us to be in a place of formed partnerships and clarity for the future two weeks into this five-month process.”

4. Stagnant funding means real-term cuts

Michael Summers, from Durham Music Service, said government funding for hubs was “very welcome” but “not enough”.

The amount put in by government – £79 million – is almost exactly the same is when the hubs launched in 2012. His hub has lost around £1.1 million in real terms, and has had to reduce staffing.

Bridget Whyte, from the charity Music Mark, said her organisation lobbied the government to increase funding for hubs to £100 million in 2019.

There are 500,000 more children in schools now than 10 years ago, and “inflationary increase for the grant in 2012 would be £103.2 million”.

5. £25m capital cash can’t fund repairs

The government is providing £25 million in capital cash for instruments and equipment, but funding rules mean it can’t be spent on maintenance and repair.

Summers added that they could also only buy secondhand equipment from providers listed via a portal, preventing him from buying cheap instruments on eBay or Facebook Marketplace.

“It feels very unsustainable and it feels like a couple of large instrument providers will make a large amount of money from this.”

6. Hinds mulls ‘performance’ measures for hubs

Hinds said the government was looking at developing performance measures for hubs.

These would be “appropriate measures like the amount of teaching time that there is for music, in the early years how many children are reaching an early learning goal for musical expression, obviously the number of children who enter qualifications of one sort or another”.

But Stuart Darke, from the Incorporated Society of Musicians, said he feared some hubs were being “set up to fail” because the government’s music plan is non-statutory and schools don’t have to engage with hubs.

“How are they going to increase engagement when schools don’t have to?”

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