Music Education in England

An article for the briefing document of the Westminster Education Forum’s Keynote Seminar: ‘The Future of Music Education in England’. 09.12.16

600 words

We heard from numerous organisations on the day: Youth Music, In Harmony, Sistema England, Musical Futures, individual schools, individual authorities and so on. I am encouraged by Westminster Education Forum, in writing this article, to focus on relevant issues “…not your organisation’s achievements or activities”.

Yet what we had all morning was very much a catalogue of achievements and activities from these various organisations. It was insightful and it represented an enormous amount of expertise and passion.
Robin Hammerton (Ofsted lead for music) said there is “a great deal of poor practise” and that “poor organisation of music in schools is common.” Therefore something needs to change. Professor Susan Hallam said that “intrinsic and developmental arguments” are crucial for presenting the case for music education i.e. music for its own sake presented sequentially and logically from the earliest years. These are the relevant issues.
“Engagement needs to start early” Susan Hallam
We do this with maths and think nothing of it. A cultural shift is needed: money is not at the heart of the problems highlighted by Robin Hammerton. As I pointed out on the day: if one school can employ a music specialist teaching every child thirty minutes a week then every school can. It is a question of priorities.
If we expect a primary school teacher to deliver excellent maths teaching we can expect the same for music. In my experience the majority of primary teachers are musical. If we work from a first principle that ‘everyone can learn music’ then we must apply this to teachers. Something extraordinary like Sistema England is the icing on the cake; it can inspire and it can energise too but it’s not where real change is going to come from.
Richard Hallam of the Music Education Council asked ‘How do we share the brilliant work that’s going on?” This is an important question: we must find out where good practise is happening, join up these areas and share what they are doing. Who knows how many fulltime primary music specialists there are in the country? Do you? And if so what can you tell me about the quality of that provision? Real change happens from the ground up. Considering music education nationally this means teacher-training and it means the very youngest children.

Musicianship can be taught as a discipline in its own right from the earliest years. It requires a sequential, systematic approach. The voice is free and it is our first instrument. Robin Hammerton again: “If we could get the singing right we could improve the situation.” Susan Hallam stated that “group work” is crucial to high quality provision: whole-class singing. We carry our voices around with us; to train the ear through the voice is a critical step in musical development.
I did not study Music at A-level or Degree level but I have learned how to teach musicianship through songs, rhymes and fun games. This approach really works, it is cheap (the voice is free) and the best way to learn music is in a group. Any teacher who is willing to ‘perform’ as a teacher all day long can go the extra mile and develop the necessary confidence to sing simple songs with their class. Many of the songs I use in the earliest years only have 2, 3 or 4 notes in!
To teach musical practise alongside musical theory, as one should, is not the normal way things are done in England. Music is something we can all learn, we do produce fine performers but we do not educate the potential audience.