Where is music education going?

The writing has been on the wall for a while. The publication of the Model Music Curriculum, the subsequent shoehorning of references to this into a findings report of a consultation that took place before it was even published, and the linking of this curriculum to music hub funding conditions for two successive years all suggest that the new National Plan for Music Education will be built around this non-statutory document.

Is this necessarily a problem? That rather depends on how you look at it. For one, the NPME is another non-statutory document. The only people who actually have to pay attention to it are the people who are bidding for funding to deliver it. We know that historically the previous plan had low engagement from schools, with many not even knowing of its existence. And since then many more schools have become academies freed even from the shackles of the statutory National Curriculum. So we might find that the only impact this new plan has is a change (or not) in the range of external projects and services available to them through their local music hub (which may also be led by a different organisation since the bidding process is apparently going to start again from scratch for the new plan.)

The previous plan did rather ignore music in the curriculum, giving hubs a responsibility to provide training for school-based teachers only as an extension role afterthought. We know that – for primary schools at least – training is one of the things that can make the most difference to the quality of music education on offer. So if the inclusion of the MMC into the NPME includes a mandate to provide training for school staff, then that might be considered a welcome initiative. (Providing of course that the new music hubs have the right staff in place to provide this training, or the funding to source this from external curriculum experts.) However, if the support for curriculum – whether training, resources, or direct delivery by music hubs – has to slavishly adhere to the requirements of the MMC, which the recent funding announcement for the current plan strongly indicates it will, that is where we are going to have a problem.

The Model Music Curriculum is what one might call a ‘Graded Exams’ approach to curriculum music. It reads very much like the process you would go through to hot-house individual students through graded performance exams and prepare them to take Grade 5 theory. I think this is perhaps why some instrumental colleagues are quite keen on it, coupled with the fact that it is already generating more work for instrumental teachers in schools, which is always a good thing, especially after the terrible two years visiting teachers have had! However, consider all the negative feedback about WCET (Wider Opps as was) and how instrumental teachers at the start of this initiative told us it ‘didn’t work.’ As someone who served on the leadership team of the government’s KS2 Music CPD Programme (the national training programme for Wider Opps teachers) I can tell you that we had to do extreme amounts of work over several years to get the message across that the reason WCET ‘didn’t work’ was because it wasn’t an instrumental programme, it was a curriculum programme. The instrument has to be seen as the conduit through which musical learning takes place, not as the centre of the learning, and in taking this approach, these programmes then become highly effective.

You cannot deliver the national curriculum through an instrumental approach such as that set out in the MMC, it just doesn’t work in real classrooms. And you can see that in the document without even trying it in practice. The listening strand is just a bank of pieces to listen to, with seemingly no understanding of how important it is to properly develop the skill of listening progressively to develop musical independence. (But then the graded exam approach traditionally takes a mster-apprentice model, so why would we need our pupils to become independent?) The composing strand ignores decades of scholarship and widely accepted pedagogy on the function of composing in the curriculum – to explore ‘how music works’ – and instead frames it as a theoretical exercise which stifles creativity in favour of composing within precise parameters which result in music that is easy to notate (oh so important for passing Grade 5 theory.) The singing strand is perhaps one of the MMC’s saving graces (if you ignore the dodgy repertoire suggestions) but only in KS1 is there any indication of the use of singing to develop aural skills and musical internalisation, which is crucial to the development of the whole musician, and may be the only way that children who don’t own instruments can engage with music. (But everyone doing their instrumental grades has their own instrument, so why would they need to use their voice beyond learning some songs by rote?)

Through the KS2 Music CPD Programme, and through training and development provided by forward-thinking exam boards such as Trinity College London, the message has been spread to instrumental teachers that a more holistic approach to music is required, particularly in WCET but also in small group and 1-2-1 teaching contexts. The message for almost 20 years now has been of the importance of expanding the instrumental learning experience beyond just tutor books and sight-reading tests, and instrumental teachers on the whole have been really up for and excited by this. But the MMC threatens to turn the process the other way round, to reduce the curriculum down to a traditional approach focusing on instrumental learning that even the majority of instrumental teachers have moved beyond!

So if we are to see a big push to include the Model Music Curriculum as the core of the National Plan for Music Education there could be several consequences. Schools may vote with their feet and just decide not to engage – this is already my experience of now having delivered ‘Understanding the Model Music Curriculum’ sessions to thousands of teachers over the last 12 months, particularly once they know that Ofsted is not expecting to see it. Schools may engage and then find that their staff are trapped in a never-ending cycle of training in order to get them ‘up to speed’ with a curriculum that is highly specialised, and which they may never be able to fully implement. Schools with confident teachers may engage and then realise (or more worryingly not realise) that their curriculum provision has become narrower and less inclusive. Or schools may outsource music entirely to specialists – and perhaps this is the aim.

If the MMC is really only deliverable by a specialist using extensive, expensive instrumental resources and theoretical knowledge, Music Hubs may have a more secure future in the education market. (The provision of instruments here is the key element – hubs have buying power beyond that achievable by schools or freelance music specialists, and therefore provision which includes access to instruments becomes the most attractive product.) Once hubs are fully integrated into the curriculum then over time, centralised funding can be reduced in the knowledge that schools will feel compelled to continue to purchase this provision through their own budgets. And so eventually the system can run itself without additional funding…

A few things to say before I finish. My predictions above may be entirely wrong – that’s the nature of predictions and only time will tell! I’m a big fan of Music Hubs, and the Graded Exam system! I am not a big fan of the Model Music Curriculum, but I support schools’ right to choose it, just as they can choose Charanga, or Kapow, or Music Express. I just don’t think choosing a ‘traditional’ instrumental graded exam approach to the curriculum, delivered by external specialists, is necessarily going to benefit schools and pupils in the long run.

Dr Elizabeth Stafford 15th February 2022

A panel discussion on the Future of Music Education is being held at the Curriculum Music Conference next month, chaired by Marie Bessant, and featuring panellists Deborah Annetts, Dr Ally Daubney, and Gary Spruce. More information is available here.