How to fix Primary Music

It has recently been revealed that a prominent secondary school here in England is not teaching music above Year 8, and nestled amongst the plethora of excuses used by the head for this sorry situation was the unsubstantiated idea that their pupils had not experienced much music before they started at the school. This has kickstarted, once again, the social media battle cry of “how do we fix primary music?” because, of course, everything that is wrong with music in secondary schools must be the fault of their primary feeders. (Dramatic eye-roll).

Firstly if we want to “fix” primary music, we’d better check that it is actually broken! Ofsted recently released a report that had a lot of positive things to say about primary music, including some aspects where provision was better than in secondary. “Oh but Liz!” you might say “They only visited 25 primary schools!” That is a valid point, however this is a great deal more primary schools than many of the people calling for primary music reform have been in! It astonishes me how little consideration people give to the limitations of their own experience when making pronouncements in a public forum. If there are issues in certain schools with which you are acquainted, that is one thing, but don’t assume it is the same everywhere and that your ‘fix’ will work (or even be needed at all) elsewhere. For that matter, don’t assume that your fix will be welcome or effective on home turf either because…

Primary and Secondary education are vastly different systems. If you are approaching from the perspective of a secondary specialist thinking you can automatically fix the problems in primary just because you have a subject specialism, think again! Yes, of course there are plenty of teachers who can work very effectively across both primary and secondary schools, but the two phases require very different approaches and skill sets. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again now, and to be honest I’m starting to feel like it will be etched onto my gravestone too: the solution to “fixing” primary music is not specialist provision. That is not to say that primary music specialists do not do a wonderful job! Our primary education system is built around generalist provision because there are specific developmental advantages to children having one teacher for the entire week. If we suddenly decided to provide a different specialist teacher for every single subject, that would have a massive unintended detrimental impact on our primary pupils. “Oh but Liz!” you say, rolling your eyes, “We’re only talking about one subject here, and it’s one where a level of specialist knowledge is actually required.” Except that we’re not, because PE also gets talked about in the same way, as does MFL, Art, and any other foundation subject that is not based largely on a literacy approach. Once we do it for one subject, it opens the floodgates for them all.

A practical issue that schools who have had and lost a specialist teacher know all too well, is that the employment of a specialist teacher results in the rest of the staff becoming further deskilled with music. If a replacement specialist cannot be found, the standard of music provision at the school takes an instant and dramatic nosedive, which can (depending on the specialist’s length of service) leave it in a position where it is even worse than it was before the specialist started. Many schools will believe this gamble is ‘worth the risk’, and if they are the sort of school that treats their teachers well and has a good general reputation, they might have no issues with retention or recruitment of staff. But the main issue with the get-a-specialist “fix” is that there aren’t enough of them. If we don’t even have enough secondary specialists to fill our music vacancies how on earth are we going to suddenly come across the tens of thousands more needed to staff our primary schools too? And how would we train them, what skills and qualifications would we expect them to have? (I have written about this before for Music Teacher Magazine - there is no agreed standard by which people can call themselves a primary music specialist, and there ought to be!) A true ‘primary music specialist’ would have both musical and primary teaching qualifications, or at least equivalent experience and knowledge if not the specific pieces of paper. This then makes them an expensive option for schools, many of whom are used to paying PPA cover rates, or even minimum wage, to music teachers who do not realise or are not in a position to argue with how much their work is undervalued. So even if we were to find thousands more suitably trained and qualified primary music specialists, with school budgets the way they currently are, there may simply not be the money to employ them.

Ideas that might actually improve primary music

So, in situations where we have identified problems with a primary school’s music provision, what can be done to fix it? Obviously it depends on what the problem is in the first place, but there are various strategies being quietly used up and down the country by people who have chosen to just go ahead and fix things rather than shout about them being broken on social media.

Some strategic-thinking schools will employ a specialist but use them as a resource for training up the other teachers, to future-proof their music provision. This is an excellent model and can be really impactful when done right. Those who remember far back enough will know that the original Wider Opps scheme had exactly this kind of model in mind, and I know that there are many hubs that are still fighting to include the training of the class teacher as part of their WCET projects now, despite significant challenges. There is no reason that schools cannot organise this model for themselves internally though, if budget allows and a suitable primary music specialist can be found. The specialist support can involve all kinds of techniques including demonstration lessons, team teaching, mentoring, INSET; whatever the school requires to meet their needs.

If budget and/or a specialist is not available for training, then a well-chosen teaching scheme can be a good first port of call for getting teachers confident with teaching music. People are often snotty about fully-resourced schemes of work, as if they are in some way ‘cheating’, but given that we don’t give our teachers adequate music training during ITE, and there may not be budget, time, or expertise to offer them in-service training, then what would you rather them do, just not teach music at all?! I am a big fan of using a well-chosen scheme as the first step to improving music across a primary school. “But Liz, you would say that, you’ve written one!” Fair point! However, I don’t advocate the use of a scheme because I have skin in the game (and FYI I don’t receive commission on sales of any of the schemes I’ve written!), but because they work. Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but one of my favourite moments is when a teacher tells me they aren’t using, or have altered, part of a scheme I’ve written, because it means they have grown in the confidence and skill to be able to make their own decisions on how they teach music. It may start as a ‘painting by numbers’ sort of exercise, but over time the use of a scheme can be a powerful form of professional development.

What about the Model Music Curriculum?

“Oh Liz, here you go again!” I hear you giggle/sigh. Yes, the original purpose of the Model Music Curriculum was to improve music in schools. A few years on I think we can all agree that it hasn’t, and it stands very little chance of doing so. Even if it had been an effective and coherent curriculum which reflected best practice in music curriculum design and music teaching pedagogy, it would still have been the wrong solution for the problem, a square peg for a round hole. A lack (where proven!) of teacher confidence and skill in a practical, sound-based subject, cannot be solved by words on paper.

What about the National Plan for Music Education?

The NPME stands more chance of making a difference to music in primary schools, which is possibly why the Model Music Curriculum is clinging desperately to its monitoring procedures like a teeny-tiny barnacle on the back of a majestic whale. The decision to place schools at the heart of the plan was the correct one, but some of the advice given within the document is a little suspect (particularly its list of features of high-quality music), and in any case it is another in a long line of non-statutory pronouncements which schools can simply ignore.

Presumably music hubs will be held accountable for how schools engage with this document, but with no actual authority over schools, short term and (in real terms) reduced funding, and a dramatic drop in the number of hubs scheduled for 2024, it’s hard to see how they will be able to effect meaningful change for every single school. The proposed Lead School system may have an impact, although my early discussions of this idea with teachers threw up concerns around how these schools would be chosen, and how helpful this model will be when all schools are different and the actions taken to achieve success in one school might simply not translate across to another context. (These concerns were passed on to both ACE and the DfE at the time, so it is possible that advisory guidance may be put in place to mitigate these concerns once the new hubs are in place.)

Things that won’t “fix” primary music

I have an incredibly long list, but I can distil it all down to this summarising statement: “Shouting about it on Social Media.”

Dr Elizabeth Stafford, November 2023. Copyright © 2023 Music Education Solutions Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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