For anyone connected with a school, the last couple of weeks should have been a harried pile-up of nativity plays, choir performances, talent shows, crumbling mince pies, off-key carols. One school did make a nativity film in the Cumbrian hills. Others “sang” in sign language. But a report by the Incorporated Society of Musicians found, alarmingly, that 53% of primaries and 63% of secondaries that normally hold a festive concert at the end of the first term of the academic year did not do so.

It was physically safer that way, of course. No dangerous droplets, no viral mists. But there are other invisible harms. Music provision in schools, statutory until the age of 14, is under pressure. Last year, work for the all-party parliamentary group for music education found that – due in large part to the government insistence on maths and English testing, and the 2010 introduction of the Ebacc – more than 50% of primary schools were not meeting their curriculum obligations.

It is deeply troubling that music is no longer being taught to 11- to 14-year-olds in more than half of state secondaries. Parliamentarians found that some children got as little as one day of music tuition a year. Free lessons are provided by a few councils. If this situation is allowed to persist, music-making will become, inexorably, the preserve of those who can afford it. And, as in so many sectors, Covid-19 has only hastened this trend. A survey published this month of more than 1,300 music teachers found that a third of British primary schools are not singing – not even maths rhymes, or tidying-up rhymes – while a quarter have ceased instrumental lessons. Almost three-quarters of primary and two-thirds of secondary schools have cancelled extracurricular music. This week, work for Ofsted confirmed how badly the pandemic has affected music provision, but appeared to put this down to schools themselves, rather than pointing the finger at the government’s muted response to educators’ pleas for help.

This is very sad and shortsighted. On the most basic level, music aids academic achievement. The self-control and focus required for music practice and group music-making are strong indicators of future academic success. Research suggests that the musical demand for neurological fine-tuning improves speech and literacy. Intriguingly, a failing Bradford school suddenly improved after providing up to six weekly hours of music.

But academic progress is too narrow a gauge of success. In her forthcoming book The Musical Child, Joan Koenig uses 30 years of neurological study to argue that music is fundamental to a well-functioning society. A baby bouncing to music in time with someone else has been shown to be more settled and cooperative immediately afterward.

Music-making fosters sympathy and belonging. “People stand a much better chance of finding meaning and happiness in their lives if they feel that they belong,” as Koenig puts it. “Studies show that group musical practice can create and enhance this feeling. It is when people don’t have a sense of belonging that things go haywire.” In this time of uncertainty and fear, ensuring that all children can access music-making is a cause deserving of meaningful support and attention from ministers.

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