Music Education is working! RSL Awards Founder Norton York, recognised by Lifetime Achievement Award at the Music & Drama Education Awards 2023, releases update on the state of music qualifications in England...

Norton York, music education innovator and pioneer, has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to music education in the UK over the past 30 years at the Music and Drama Awards 2023.

The RSL Awards Founder has dedicated his career to innovating music and creative arts education. Norton holds a series of “world firsts”, having created the first commercial music degree at the University of Westminster, and creating the first set of graded exams for rock guitar, drums, and bass guitar with Rockschool (RSL Awards) in 1991. Norton’s progressive approach to music education transformed the sector, and he continues to revolutionise the Creative Industries with RSL Awards’ leading qualifications portfolio.

Norton's recently updated report into the music education system in England shows that despite the well documented decline in GCSE music qualifications, overall music qualifications are on the rise in schools...

Norton York


In 2021, RSL Awards published data for the first time on the full picture of music qualifications taken in England’s schools and colleges in ‘Pop Music Education in the UK 1960-2020’, available to purchase in hard copy form via the RSL shop.

To mark Norton's Lifetime Achievement Award, we are making a digital version of the book available to download for free for a limited time only. Hit the button below for your free digi-copy of the book.

Pop Music Education in the UK 1960-2020 by Norton York – Free Digi-Download

The aim of this report is to update the key data we presented in the book to include the latest available data for 2021.


  • Since 1994, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pupils studying music and taking music qualification in England’s schools and colleges, rising from 42000 pa in 1994 to over 72000 in 2021.
  • Since 1994, there has been a 70% increase in the number of pupils taking school and college music qualifications.
  • This rise is entirely due to the change in music education brought into our schools and colleges by the vocational music qualifications offered by Pearson, RSL Awards, UAL and others. From 1994, the number of pupils taking these qualifications rose from just 83 (1994) to 30135 (2021). For the same period, the number of pupils taking music GCSE and A levels declined from 42803 (1994) to 39710 (2021).
  • This update shows how the increase in pupils studying for music qualifications has continued into 2022, and how the pop music qualifications continue to grow as a percentage of all the music qualifications taken in England’s schools and colleges. They are now 44.4% of all school and college music qualifications in England.
  • If the current trend of growth continues, and the range of innovative qualifications continue to receive recognition and funding, we estimate pop music qualifications may overtake music GCSE and A levels by 2025 or 2026.

Summary of changes in 2021 numbers compared with 2020 are:

  • The total number of music qualification taken in England grew from 2020 to 2021. This increase is nearly 4% year on year, from 70035 (2020) and 72775 (2021) music qualifications being taken.
  • More than 2000 extra pop music qualifications being taken, with 32330 (2021) compared with 30135 (2020).
  • More pupils taking music GCSE and A level, growing from 39710 in (202)) to 40445 (2021)
  • Pop music qualifications in 2021 make up 44.4% of all music qualifications taken in England, up from 43.0% (2020).

Detailed Data and Graphics

The key change over the past 25 years remains the huge uptake of vocational music qualifications in England leading to a 70% rise in the number of pupils studying music in our schools and colleges from 1994-2021 as demonstrated clearly here:

Candidate numbers for music qualifications in England 1994-2021

Long Term Trend Changes in School & College (incl training providers) Music Qualifications in England 1994-2021 (by academic year)

Norton York - Long Term Trend Changes in School & College (including training providers) Music Qualifications in England 1994-2021 (by academic year)


  1. General Music Qualifications include music GCSE and A Levels in England – source Ofqual. (Ofqual 2022 Dataset: 2012 to present – England Ofqual accessed on 26/01/2022)
  2. Formal Vocational and Technical Music Qualifications include BTECs and equivalent music qualifications offered by the other examination boards listed – source Ofqual (2022) below. These numbers are based on RSL Awards’ analysis of the current scope and range of formal pop music qualifications currently recorded as being taken by pupils in England on courses with high levels of music specific content.
  3. * Precursor to RSL Vocational Qualifications created by Access to Music listed under RSL in 1999 here
  4. 1994 chosen as first year of any significant amount BTEC popular music qualifications, 1999 shows initial growth for these plus the early Access to Music qualifications, while the figures for 2020 confirm the 2019 position 25 & 26 years later showing the current status of candidate number across the qualifications and illustrating the long term trend is well established.

Which Pupils Take Vocational Music Qualifications compared to GCSE and A Level Music?

Data provides two clear indications that pop music qualifications such as RSL Music VQ’s serve the needs of pupils and teachers providing music education for parts of our community previously not engaged by traditional GCSE and A level Music. Specifically these are:

  • Pupils coming from families with low to medium POLAR ratings
  • Pupils from families predominantly in the lowest third and half of the government’s multiple deprivation index

The data below shows the pop music qualifications like RSL Awards’ Vocational Qualifications:

  • encourage many more families with lower experience of higher education to support their children to study music
  • engage children of families within the lowest categories of multiple deprivation

POLAR data

POLAR data expresses the level of familiarity in a household of experience of higher education. The POLAR data for music pupils in England can be compared directly between some pop music qualifications and Music A level candidates.

The RAM and RCM commissioned research into A level music candidates’ POLAR data in 2019 from Faultely, Whittaker, Kinsella and Anderson. This showed that 60% or more of the c.5000 music A Level candidates per annum come from families with a POLAR rating of 4 or 5.

In 2020, RSL Awards’ analysis of its c.8000 per annum music VQ candidates shows a very different demographic, with 70% of these music students from areas with POLAR ratings of 1-3, and only 30% with POLAR ratings of 4-5. The table below illustrates this:

% of Music A Level and RSL Vocational Music Students in POLAR Categories 4-5 Compared with Categories 1-3

Multiple Deprivation Data

The RSL Music Vocational Students in 2020-21, around 8000 students, were analysed. This showed:
  • 49% of RSL Music VQ students are in the lowest 3 deciles of multiple deprivation
  • 65% are in the lower 50% of multiple deprivation.

49% of RSL Music Vocational Qualification Students in Deciles 1-3 of Multiple Deprivation in 2019-20

There is a lack of reliable published information to compare the socio-economic background of music A level and GCSE candidates with these RSL VQ pupils. In 2012 Ofsted’s report ‘Music in Schools: wider still, and wider’, Her Majesty’s Inspectors noted that ‘only 5% of the students who were known to be eligible for free school meals were involved in additional instrumental or vocal tuition’ (para128), and elsewhere in this report they also noted that this additional tuition characterised the experienced of the vast majority of music GCSE candidates. More recently, Whittaker in his 2021 article ‘Teacher Perceptions of A level Music: tensions, dilemmas and decline’ admitted the evidence suggests ‘A level music as a relatively exclusive qualification in the British educational landscape’.

Government and Music Industry Reaction

It is heartening that since publishing Pop Music Education in the UK 1960-2020, the government and music industry has begin to take note of the contribution and potential of pop music qualifications to the music education landscape.

In the House of Lords, education minister Baroness Baran showed the start of an awareness in the department for education of the contribution to growing music education when she answered Lord Black’s question on 2nd March 2022 by saying (as accessed on 26/01/2023):

‘The Government share my noble friend’s concern about the importance of music education in all of our schools. We see it, along with other arts subjects, as integral to a good, strong curriculum. In relation to the numbers that my noble friend quoted on the music GCSE, I point out that while he is right that uptake of the GCSE has declined, uptake of the VTQ—the vocational qualification—has increased, so actually there are almost 53,000 children today taking either the GCSE or the VTQ, compared to almost 50,000 in 2016.’

Hopefully the Department for Education will use this new found understanding to inform their medium term support for the pop music education sector in the future.

It is also heartening that UK Music, representing the British music industry, have started to recognise pop music students more publicly. Their recognition of results days for RSL, BTEC and UAL results days alongside those of traditional GCSEs and A-Levels was very positive for the wide range of learners who achieved qualifications.


Dig deeper with Norton York’s book: “Pop Music Education in the UK 1960-2020”

Since 1960 British music has been a global success story, but the UK’s traditional music education system was slow to understand and react to this. That left an opportunity to create an alternative music education in Britain which embraces Pop Music in all its forms and supports young people’s desires and ambitions to perform and write it, or work within its industries. This is the story of how and why that change happened, told by the people who founded its key organisations – from BIMM, ICMP and ACC to the BRIT School, LIPA and RSL Awards.


To mark Norton's Lifetime Achievement Award, we are making a digital version of the book available to download for free for a limited time only. Hit the button below for your free digi-copy of the book.

Pop Music Education in the UK 1960-2020 by Norton York – Free Digi-Download