Why don’t Primary Schools teach music?


I see you clicked on my provocative title! Well done! I look forward to receiving the Twitter comments from all the people who just read the title and then went nuclear! We can all have a little giggle at their expense over the next few days I’m sure…

At every music education event that I go to, and almost every time I open Twitter, someone is complaining that ‘most primary schools don’t teach music.’ As someone who spent three years of their life as a researcher, this immediately concerns me as I know that there is as yet no empirical evidence to support this theory. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about schools who don’t teach music, but there are no underlying reliable nationwide figures to ‘prove’ that this is the majority of schools.

I also hear regularly the cry of alarm ‘most schools don’t even have a music specialist’ as if this were a bad thing. However, not having a music specialist does not mean music is not being taught, or that it is not being taught well. And conversely, having a music specialist does not necessarily mean that music is being taught well, since there is no agreed set of criteria to become a ‘music specialist’ beyond simply calling yourself one. Even if you have a great music specialist, this is not the most sustainable model for music teaching. It relies on the budget to pay for this specialist teaching being available every year, and it also results in the rest of the staff becoming de-skilled with teaching music. If the budget is squeezed too far not only do you lose your specialist provision, but also you don’t have the skills to replace it in-house. So ‘not having a music specialist’ might actually be a good thing if you have committed and enthusiastic class teachers including music in their timetable instead.

I think what I find most disturbing about the above suppositions is that they are often delivered in a tone which suggests that schools are somehow at fault for ‘not teaching music.’ However, it is important to remember that schools don’t ‘avoid’ teaching music out of malice, or a desire to harm our children’s education! There are two key external factors which have caused some schools to abandon music teaching.

  1. Inadequate training in ITE / ITT
  2. A lack of attention from Ofsted / DfE

It is well-known and often discussed that the majority (and in this case there is empirical evidence to support that claim) of Initial Teacher Education / Training provision does not provide adequate support for the development of music teaching skills. Therefore, through no fault of their own, the majority of NQTs begin their careers without the skills or confidence to teach music, joining the ranks of seasoned teachers at their schools who also lack those skills and confidence as they came through the same system! And so the problem perpetuates! There is at present no national agreed provision or plan for in-service teacher training, therefore it is up to individual teachers and schools to decide whether or not to source training for music teaching, which relies on availability, budget, and time. (I should point out that the lack of adequate music provision in ITE / ITT is similarly nothing to do with providers’ desire to harm children’s education, but has everything to do with the next issue that we will discuss below).

For years, decades, Ofsted and the DfE have driven schools into the position of prioritising ‘core’ subjects at the expense of all other subjects, through inspection foci, league tables, SATs data and so on. In 2013 Ofsted attempted to palm off the responsibility for curriculum music onto hubs, after successive triennial music reports showed no improvement in the teaching of music. Unsurprisingly there was an outcry, but gradually hubs, with the support of ACE began to attempt this role, despite it not being in their original remit. However, despite hubs’ best efforts, the rumblings about schools not teaching music or ‘not engaging’ with their hubs continued. Of course, this was entirely predictable, as it is not a statutory requirement for schools to ‘engage’ with their music education hub (nor should it be). In addition, schools were already being sent the message directly from the DfE and Ofsted (intentionally or not) that music was ‘not important’ in comparison to the core subjects, thereby undermining the work of the hubs.

But recently, there has been a change. A marked change. In fact, I would say a cataclysmic change – but in a really good way! And you know what has driven it? Ofsted!

In an entirely predictable turn of events, the change in the inspection framework now means that schools are not being forced to focus just on the core subjects, and this has opened up a whole new world of music provision in primary schools. Our Dive Deeper into Music courses are selling out everywhere, and are attended by a significant number of Head Teachers as well as music subject leads. Schools are ready and willing to embrace music teaching, and keen to seek out the tools and methods to do it. Most schools we have engaged with are delighted that they are finally able to take music ‘seriously’ as a significant part of the curriculum. They recognise that there is a skill and confidence gap in the workforce as regards teaching music, but are actively looking for ways to overcome this now that they have the backing of Ofsted to do so.

Of course there is still work to be done, but this change to me exemplifies the fact that schools aren’t ‘deliberately’ not teaching music. They have simply been scrambling to please Ofsted and the DfE for fear of the consequences. Now that the ‘Deep Dive’ process is in full swing, schools are able to ensure that their broad and balanced curriculum includes music without fear of the consequences. So please, let’s stop ‘bashing’ schools for their ‘failure’ to teach music! Let’s be sure of our facts, and where there are schools that are struggling, let’s offer support, advice, and guidance – for which I guarantee they will only be grateful!

Dr Elizabeth Stafford. January 2020.

If you are a school that is beginning or developing your music teaching journey under the new Ofsted framework, HERE is a list of services that we provide which you may find helpful

Our next Dive Deeper into Music course takes place in London on Wednesday 18th March 2020. Further information and booking can be found HERE.

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