Secondary Music Teaching: A thankless task?


I have great admiration for my secondary music colleagues. I have taught in many secondary schools as a vocal teacher and choir leader, but only in primary as a music curriculum teacher. Being a peripatetic or a primary music coordinator (and sometimes a peripatetic music coordinator!) has its challenges, but I often think that secondary music teachers really have it tough!

All music educators experience the joy of interacting musically with their pupils. There really is nothing better than the buzz you get from performing or creating music with like-minded pupils. At primary one by-and-large encounters only enthusiasm for music (maybe with the exception of singing in Year 6 post-SATs!). As a peripatetic, pupils are mostly self-selecting and therefore usually pretty motivated. In secondary curriculum music however, I have seen how challenging it can be to maintain the interest of a Year 9 (or in some schools Year 8) class who have already selected their GCSE options, and not chosen music!

With the EBacc looming, it won’t just be Year 9’s who struggle to see the value in music. Senior Leaders will have to think extremely carefully about the place of the arts in their schools, under increasing pressure from the government, the DfE, the local authority or MAT, and from parents who want the ‘best’ school for their child. Whilst those of us in music education can cite countless studies proving the ‘value’ of music in terms of transferable skills and academic achievement (how irritating that we even feel the need to justify music in such terms), the stark reality is that for many schools this evidence will be too ‘soft’ to counter the ‘hard facts’ of league tables and ‘core’ GCSE results.

It’s not just GCSE choices and political agendas that secondary music teachers have to deal with. The sheer amount of commitment they are expected to put in to extra-curricular activities is staggering. I know many music teachers who run an extra-curricular activity every lunchtime, plus a couple of after school clubs, and then there are evening concerts and events several times a term. Let’s not forget that many of them are also managing teams of peripatetic teachers, with all the timetabling and administrative responsibilities that entails. How do they do it?!

Some music teachers are lucky enough to work in large departments with multiple colleagues to support them, but many are (literally sometimes!) one-man-bands without a single other staff member in their school who ‘gets’ music. I know several schools who actually have no full time music teacher at all, just a part time teacher working a couple of days a week. No wonder the last two Ofsted Music Reports referred to the ‘professional isolation’ of music teachers (primary as well as secondary).

The joy of music-making is a powerful thing, and keeps many a music teacher and their pupils going through good times and bad. The impact a great music teacher can have on their pupils should not be underestimated – I bet all of us in music education remember the name of our music teacher*, as do many people who don’t work in music at all! We should celebrate the hard work and dedication of our secondary music colleagues, and not let shifting educational and political agendas get in the way of the wonderful, necessary and inspiring work they do every day.

Elizabeth Stafford

June 2016

*Mrs Russell and Miss Lakeland, I pretty much owe you my entire career! THANK YOU!