Music Education Solutions

Perfection or Participation: The Music Education Dilemma

This morning, I became embroiled in a disagreement about the assessment of young musicians that got me thinking…

As music educators, what are we striving for? Perfection or participation? Are they mutually exclusive? Is one more important than the other?

There is a myth held by the general populace that you must ‘have talent’ to ‘be musical.’ Of course this is a myth in so far as everyone is innately musical, and everyone can enjoy and participate in music to some level. But it cannot be ignored that to make a career of music you do need ‘a talent’ for it in the same way that you couldn’t be an accountant if you didn’t have ‘a talent’ for numbers.

So as music educators, are we aiming for perfection with a handful of talented students, or are we aiming for participation with as many students as possible? Are we doing both? And what if we’re trying to do both at once in the context of the same lesson?

Is it possible to have perfection in participation?

I think it is. I think that we sometimes need to uncouple our understanding of perfection from the construct of talent.

Say we are teaching 30 children the violin. Maybe 5 of them go on to take Grade 8 and achieve distinction. Does that mean that the other 25 have failed to achieve ‘perfection?’ (Ooo look, maths! Maybe I could be an accountant after all!)

I think not. I think that if the other 25 were playing at the absolute top edge of their ability, then their contribution would be perfect for them.

So as music educators yes of course we are looking to widen the net of participation to, well, everyone! And of course we are looking to help our ‘talented’ students to excel towards a career in music. But we’re also looking to help each and every one of our participants to achieve their own version of perfection. And that is where the magic lies…

Dr Elizabeth Stafford

3rd August 2017


We are extremely excited to be working in partnership with Jersey Music Service to present the Jersey (CI) Music Conference 2017!

Taking place on Thursday 28th September at the Radisson SAS on the waterfront at St Helier, the conference will feature local and national speakers and exhibitors, and is open to delegates from across the Channel Islands and beyond.

Catering for primary, secondary and instrumental teachers, the programme features practical workshops, panel discussions, and presentations from keynote speakers including the Education Minister. Download the Jersey CI Music Conference DRAFT Programme.

Delegate tickets are free for teachers employed by Jersey Schools, and cost just £50 for non-school-based or non-Jersey teachers. Download the Booking Form.

Some exhibition slots are still available. Download the Exhibitor Packages Information.

On 9th June 2017, representatives from England’s Music Education Hubs gathered at the First Access Forum to share their experiences of devising, delivering and funding whole class ensemble teaching programmes. As the event drew to a close, we asked delegates to answer these burning questions…

We asked: What are your main challenges in delivering First Access / WCET programmes?

The three main issues for delegates were issues around school engagement, funding, and staffing. Many schools buy in programmes for PPA cover and do not engage with the sessions, and some schools do not buy-in at all as they do not see the value of the programmes. Many hubs reported that even schools with good levels of engagement are now revaluating their involvement in these programmes due to budget cuts. In addition, the central funding that hubs receive represents a reduction in real terms on previous years (due to wider economic factors), so it is hard to keep the programmes competitively priced. Hubs reported that staff turnover impacted on the availability of programmes, making it hard to get a teacher of the right instrument to each school. They also noted that staff turnover resulted in a constant need for training, with many new entrants not understanding the purpose and structure of the programmes.

We asked: What are your main priorities for First Access / WCET up to 2020?

Many hubs cited continuation as a major priority up to 2020, and were looking to embed continuation routes as part of their First Access package to encourage schools to commit to providing them. In light of education funding issues, delegates felt that advocacy was a key priority, ensuring that head teachers and governing bodies understood the value of these programmes and saved rather than cut them. Many hubs were also looking at consistency of teaching, echoing the challenges mentioned above regarding staff turnover.

We asked: How can schools and hubs provide the wider ingredients for children’s musical progression beyond First Access / WCET lessons?

Hubs were experimenting with various ways to nurture musical progression beyond First Access lessons. These included logical supporting steps like performance opportunities, ensemble provision and bursaries for further study, but there were also examples of innovative practice including advocating to families, making links with community music groups, and providing online practice resources.

We asked: What other measures of progression could be collected realistically following WCET programmes?

This question caused heated debate! At present the current Arts Council England (ACE) reporting system does not capture data points from indicators other than continuation numbers (although this may change when the system is revised). However ACE do want to know about other points of impact and progression from First Access / WCET programmes. The suggestion was that case studies and anecdotal evidence should be collected and shared with ACE to give a full picture of the impact of these programmes.

Do you teach First Access / WCET programmes? Do any of the issues above ring true for you? Are there any issues that have been missed? Share your thoughts via our Twitter or Facebook page.

Music Education Solutions® launches ‘Excellence in First Access’ a new national training programme for WCET teachers.

Excellence in First Access is a structured training programme based on the latest research into the pedagogical principles behind successful First Access (WCET) teaching programmes. The programme is devised by the Music Education Solutions® team, four of whom were previously on the leadership team of the KS2 Music CPD Programme, the DfE’s national Wider Opportunities training programme which ran from 2007-2011.

The programme is suitable for teachers at all stages of their careers, and who teach any instrument in a whole class setting at primary level. The programme can be taken wholly online, or can be combined with live training, for a blended learning approach.

The programme has been developed in response to continued debate within the sector as to the purpose and practicality of Whole Class Ensemble Teaching. Excellence in First Access aims to promote national consensus whilst respecting local differences, offering a practical solution to drive best practice forward nationwide.

The programme will cover subjects such as the history of First Access, taking an holistic musical approach, integrating programmes within the musical life of the school (including with the national curriculum), collaborating with school staff, and progression and continuation. It will be fully integrated with the Level 4 Certificate for Music Educators (Trinity CME).

There will be live taster events throughout England in July 2017 for teachers to find out more, with the online and blended learning programmes being rolled out in September 2017.

To book for one of the Taster Events, or to pre-order the online programme, visit the Courses & Events page of the Music Education Solutions website.

A revolutionary new teaching method linking music and maths that is taking the USA by storm will be introduced to UK instrumental teachers at this year’s First Access Forum.

‘Make Music Count’ is an innovative method of learning how to play the piano by solving maths equations. Developed in Atlanta Georgia, by Marcus Blackwell Jnr, the scheme has gathered momentum across the United States, and has recently been featured on CNN. Watch the CNN footage here.

Dr Elizabeth Stafford of Music Education Solutions said “We are delighted to be able to bring Make Music Count to a UK audience. Their innovative approach with a direct link between the learning of music and maths could potentially provide UK music hubs and services with a new and exciting option for piano teaching in schools. At a time when we are constantly having to stress the value of music to schools and academies, this scheme could prove very useful when dealing with schools who perhaps do not recognise the benefits of music for music’s sake.”

The First Access Forum takes place on Friday 9th June 2017 in Birmingham. Alongside the presentation from Make Music Count, the event also features research presentations, UK master teacher demonstrations, discussions around assessment & accreditation, and the launch of Music Education Solutions® new national training programme for WCET teachers ‘Excellence in First Access.’

Further information on the First Access Forum event can be found by clicking on the ‘Courses & Events’ link above.


On 2oth March 2017, representatives from England’s Music Education Hubs, along with delegates from charities, arts organisations and schools, gathered at the Curriculum Music Conference to share their experiences of delivering and supporting curriculum music. As the event drew to a close, we asked delegates to answer three burning questions…

We asked: What are the main challenges facing curriculum music in primary schools?

  • “Time” / “Timetabling”
  • “Lack of Expertise” / “Lack of Confidence” / “Lack of Training” / “Isolation”
  • “Money” / “Funding” / “Resources”
  • “Opportunities”
  • “Head Teachers being anti-music”
  • “Lack of credibility. Compared to Maths and English – is it important?” / “Value”
  • “Diversity” / “Inclusion”
  • “Reliable evaluation of teaching and learning” / “Assessment”

We asked: What are the main challenges facing curriculum music in secondary schools?

  • “BTEC numbers & priority going down” / “GCSE take-up falling”
  • “GCSE options starting in Year 9”
  • “Paperwork expectations rising” / “Target setting” / “Assessment”
  • “Ebacc pushing music out”
  • “Academisation – is music a focus for the MAT?” / “Perceived value of music”
  • “Transition”
  • “Funding” / “Budget”

We asked: What are your priorities for curriculum music up to 2020?

  • “Keep music’s importance in the curriculum” / “Raise the status of curriculum music”
  • “Make sure music is actually being taught” / “Getting music back on the timetable”
  • “Better provision for autistic children” / “Making music accessible for all”
  • “Engagement with families, cultural and religious groups.” / “Getting parents involved”
  • “Raise awareness of the non-musical benefits of music”
  • “Improving confidence among non-specialists” / “CPD opportunities”
  • “Creating a musical culture in school” / “Lots of performances to give music visibility.”
  • “Teaching music meaningfully and musically”
  • “Developing cross-curricular links”

Do you teach or support curriculum music in UK schools? Do any of the issues above ring true for you? Are there any issues that have been missed? Share your thoughts via our Twitter or Facebook page.

We are looking for 4 ‘master teachers’ to run workshops at our forthcoming First Access Forum, which takes place in Birmingham on 9th June 2017. We are looking for teachers who can demonstrate excellent practice in First Access, Small Group, or 121 instrumental teaching.

The successful candidates will be offered a free delegate ticket for the event. Contact us using the ‘Get in touch’ link in the menu bar above for more information and application process details.

In light of the wave of recent terror attacks, including yesterday’s attack on London – apparently masterminded from my home town of Birmingham – in light of Brexit, and in light of Donald Trump’s election to the most powerful office in the world, it can sometimes feel that our sector’s fight to secure the future of music education here in the UK is an insignificant and almost time-wasting issue.

However, in common with most educators in Britain, I have recently completed Prevent Training, an initiative provided by the government to help people working with children & young people spot the signs of radicalisation. This training shows how young people can be isolated from the good influences around them, and, driven by a sense of belonging, can become embroiled in groups and with individuals who can groom them to become tools of destruction.

What struck me when undertaking this training was how music could be used as a tool to prevent the feelings of isolation which may lead to radicalisation. Music gives young people an outlet to express feelings that they cannot verbalise. Musical ensembles and groups provide social interaction with like-minded individuals, giving young people somewhere to go and use their passion creatively. Children and young people already use the music they listen to as a means of social identification, so participating in musical activities can be a brilliant way to give young people a sense of belonging. Music encourages tolerance, cooperation, understanding, and empathy. Music makes us human.

Of course this is, I am sure, a terribly simplistic view. I have no doubt that many people on the internet are queuing up to tell me so right now. However, I truly believe that it would be a terrible, perhaps even a dangerous thing, if music once again became the preserve only of those who can afford to pay. If children from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot participate in music it becomes yet one more thing that they are excluded from, increasing feelings of isolation and potentially raising the risk of radicalisation.

I’m not saying that music education can change all of the world’s problems.
But isn’t it worth a try?


Dr Elizabeth Stafford
23rd March 2017

ed show

Join us at #EdShow17 to discuss how we can help you to develop music in your school. Find out about our CPD courses & qualifications, browse our resources, pick up your free instrument, and enter our competition to #winagin

The Education Show runs at the NEC Birmingham from 16th-18th March.

Download the Curriculum Music Conference programme here: CMC-2017-Timetable

Visit our ‘Courses & Events’ page to book your place.