What’s going on now?

In 2002, it was the chance to work on a new national project on young people’s music-making that brought me to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – as a Research Assistant.

Led by Celia Duffy, the Royal Conservatoire’s first Head of Research, that project became What’s Going On? A National Audit of Youth Music in Scotland. And what a project it turned out to be. Publication of our study was greeted by a front page headline in The Herald, reporting one of its findings (‘100,000 children denied access to music tuition’) and giving a scoop on an announcement from then-First Minister Jack McConnell: in response to the report, a Youth Music Initiative (YMI) would be established to support access to music in schools, and foster local and national music initiatives in the informal sector, particularly in those areas of music, such as traditional, rock and pop, that had not previously benefited from sustained support.

What’s Going On? was to shape and inform the Scottish Government’s youth music policies for nearly fifteen years, and bring an investment totalling around £150m. It is distinctive, and possibly unique, internationally, and continues today.

In late 2017, a consortium of stakeholders in Scottish music education invited tenders on a new project to update the findings of What’s Going On?. Working in partnership with Strathclyde University, we won the bid to undertake a new study: What’s Going On Now? (WGON).

The evidence from our new study indicates that despite a 10% increase in the number of young people engaging with instrumental music services since 2002-3, around 100,000 young people are still missing out. Growing concerns about equality of opportunity were a persistent theme, both as regards to cost but also in terms of progression routes from the early experience of the YMI.

Despite this, the popularity of music as a subject for formal study stands in contrast to its position in England: music was the 6th most popular Advanced Higher at the time of WGON while in England, in 2019, music is 28th in a table of A-levels ranked by student numbers.

Scotland’s approach to music education can show demonstrable success, but this is coupled with significant concerns: there is a sense of a fragile ecology under threat.


It may have been a cold morning in February, but the children of Thorntree Primary School in Glasgow brought sunshine to the launch of What’s Going on Now?, the major report into music education in Scotland. It was a high-energy start to the day when the Shettleston school’s samba band greeted guests at the door. Budding strings players entertained the audience and were followed by RCS students Benedict Morris, the 2019 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, and Charlie Galloway who performed a roof-raising trad set.

Thorntree is one of four East End primary schools taking part in the Baby Strings programme delivered by Glasgow CREATE, established in January 2016 by Glasgow Education Services, to raise attainment and achievement. Primary one children are prepared for using instruments in primary two through songs and games which help develop vocabulary, rhythm, pitch and motor skills. Primary four children are learning ukulele, primary seven pupils have samba tuition and there are strings tutors working with children in primaries five to seven.

“As a school in the East End of Glasgow, music is an integral part of our curriculum plan for raising attainment and closing the equity gap,” says Head Teacher Shona Heggie.

“The additional Pupil Equity Funding from the Government has made it possible for us to create a fantastic, innovative and transformational project with our learning community partners which has given our children the beginning of a music education which will develop concentration, language and maths skills and hopefully a skill for life.”

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