'The aim of the scheme is to help identify, and assist, children with exceptional potential, regardless of their personal circumstances, to benefit from world-class specialist training as part of a broad and balanced education, which will enable them, if they choose, to proceed towards self-sustaining careers in music and dance.’
Music and Dance Scheme Advisory Group’s Report (2000/01)

The Department for Education’s Music and Dance scheme enables almost 800 exceptionally talented children to have access to the best specialist music and dance training available alongside a good academic education.

Before 1973, support for pupils at schools such as those currently in MDS schools was provided by local education authorities under discretionary powers provided in Sections 55 and 81 of the 1944 Education Act. In 1973, the Royal Ballet (Lower) School and the Yehudi Menuhin School were admitted to a fee remission scheme funded by the Department in recognition of their position as Centres of Excellence for the Performing Arts. The fee remission income scale (ie the means-test of parents) mirrored that of the old direct grant grammar school scheme with some modification to account for the higher costs of boarding and specialist tuition.

The Gulbenkian Report (1978) on training musicians reviewed the state of specialist music education.  It was largely as a result of the recommendations in the report that the Music and Ballet Schools Scheme (MBS) was set up.

Five specialist music schools in the UK were designated: Chetham's School of Music, Wells Cathedral School, Purcell School, Yehudi Menuhin School and St Mary's Music School (Edinburgh). Together with the Royal Ballet School, lower and upper divisions, they were allocated Government aided places under the Education (Grant) (Music and Ballet Schools) Regulations 1980 SI 1980/684 (or the Scottish equivalent).

The scheme was expanded in 1996 by the admission of two new schools (Elmhurst School for Dance and Performing Arts and the Arts Educational School, Tring), and with extra places at existing schools. In 2002, the scheme was renamed the Music and Dance Scheme and another dance school, the Hammond School, Chester, was admitted (from September 2002).

Rationale for the scheme

There is a need to educate and train, from an early age, children who are exceptionally talented in the two fields of artistic endeavour - music and dance - if Britain is to maintain a world-class pool of talent for future generations. The need for early training, in particular the primary development of the physical and intellectual disciplines required of dancers and musicians, is recognised by many to be greater than for some other forms of artistic endeavour. The MDS enables exceptionally talented children between the ages of 8 and 19 to receive a good academic education alongside the best specialist music and dance/ballet training available.

There are now eight MDS schools in England with over 800 Government Aided Pupils between them, and one similar school in Scotland. All are ISI-inspected, registered specialist independent schools.  By designating certain schools as "centres of excellence", financial and human resources can be concentrated, which ensures that:

  • Children benefit from close association with similarly gifted children who provide the stimulus of competition and example;
  • By receiving support with the costs of boarding, pupils from all over the country have access to an extended teaching day and to practice facilities within the environment of the school;
  • Timetabling can take account of the individual requirements of the pupil and the need for orchestras, choirs and performances to be integrated with other parts of the school curriculum;
  • Distinguished practitioners can be attracted to teach and/or take masterclasses.

Means-testing arrangements at MDS schools

There are two parental contribution scales currently in operation, one for Aided Boarding pupils (accounting for nearly 85% of all Aided pupils) and another for Aided Day pupils. The level of contribution towards fees is assessed solely by reference to pre-tax family income from all sources. No deductions are made in respect of allowances for tax purposes, specifically, those for personal allowances, pension contributions, donations direct to charities or covenants and no allowance is made for outgoings such as mortgage payments and every day cost of living expenses. An allowance is made against income for each dependent child - other than the Aided Pupil - or other dependent relative in the household. The thresholds below which fees are fully remitted are set deliberately low so that the least well-off families will benefit the most. Details of the scales are set down in the Music and Dance Scheme Administrative Arrangements and Financial Memorandum document made pursuant to sections 14 to 17 of the Education Act 2002 (previously the arrangements were made under the Education (Grants) (Music, Ballet and Choir Schools) Regulations 2001).

For Aided Boarding Pupils, any pupil whose parents have a relevant income of £12,343 (2012-13) or less is entitled to a free place. For Aided Day Pupils, the threshold is £15,486, below which the pupil will receive a free place. There is a sliding scale above the thresholds which determines the size of the parental contribution towards the fees charged. Parental contributions are determined only by reference to gross family income and not by reference to the fees charged at the school attended. The higher the income, the greater the contribution. The Department for Education meets the balance of the approved fees for Aided Pupils after any parental contribution. Means-testing for choir schools mirrors that for MDS schools but is not prescribed in detail in the legislative framework.