Dr Jonathan Savage, Managing Director of UCan Play and Reader in Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, was invited to discuss the Government’s plans for a new model music curriculum with the Rt Hon Nick Gibb, Minister of State at the Department for Education, as part of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme on the evening of the 31st January 2019. You can listen to the discussion here.

Jonathan’s key message was that there is a crisis in music education and that this initiative is the wrong response at the wrong time.

Research done by the Musicians’ Union with UCan Play (to be published next month), shows that there is a 37% reduction in the study of music within primary schools this year compared to last, and a 28% reduction in secondary schools.

Research from the Association of School and College Leaders shows that A level music is being abandoned faster than any other subject due to funding pressures and small cohort sizes that some schools and colleges say they can no longer support. It dropped 38% between September 2016 and September 2018 according to research done by the University of Sussex.

OFSTED have also expressed their concern that children make their GCSE choices in many schools just four terms after beginning their secondary education. Jonathan’s argument is that schools make students specialise too soon and too early. The notion of broad and balanced curriculum for all students is in danger of being lost in the educational experiences of many children.

A little more money for music education hubs and a model music curriculum are not the answer. Richard Morrison’s piece in The Times (£) highlights that hub reach c.700,000 students with their work, yet there is a total of 8.7 million students in school today. Therefore, music education hubs impact on only 8% of children.

Prioritising, supporting and funding music education in schools has to be the priority. It is still a core subject in the National Curriculum and should be delivered by a qualified teacher of music, with appropriate resources and time within the timetable in every school to every child to the end of Year 9. Headteachers and Governors who fail to provide an adequate music education for their students should be challenged and sanctioned if things do not improve.

During the discussion, Mr Gibb made it clear that the model curriculum would not be statutory and there was no funding attached to the project for delivery or CPD. In an un-broadcast part of the interview, he also talked about the content of the curriculum that he would like to see. He mentioned the importance of learning to read music and also listening to the classics. He listed a number of Western classical composers whose names all began with B – these included Beethoven, Brahms and several others! He also praised the work of the Northampton School for Boys which, he said, had an exemplary music provision including over 20 choirs and musical ensembles. Jonathan agreed that there was outstanding work going on in many schools but that this was not consistent across England.

Jonathan argued that the last thing the music education community needs is a one size fits all curriculum, designed in London and wheeled out across England. It represents a poor model of curriculum development, it would fail to recognise the importance of the relationships between teachers and students in curriculum design, it would not draw on an individual teacher’s passion and interests in Music, nor would it reflect the localities within which it was taught.

Jonathan agreed with the Minister that there were some great people on the panel with a huge wealth of experience in music education. However, the panel does not have the required experience related to the teaching of music in schools. Regardless of his individual qualities, it is quite staggering that the only secondary school teacher of music on the panel is the one that works at Toby Young’s free school. There is no primary school teacher representation on the panel.

The panel also contains organisations with vested interests. Mr Gibb didn’t understand this point. He argued that there is no funding attached to the project hence there can be no commercial benefit from companies like the ABRSM being involved. However, Dr Savage argued that involvement and influence in the project now gives a competitive advantage to those involved in terms of future commercial activities. This is not fair on other organisations particular when the criteria for the panel selection remains hidden.

There wasn’t time in the broadcast to quote the work of others, beyond mentioning the excellent work being done by the Love Music Trust and the Leicestershire Music Education Hub in the design of their own local primary music curricula.

Given more time, Jonathan would have liked to quote a couple of comments from trusted colleagues. Firstly, Emily Crowhurst from School 21 in Stratford tweeted recently:

“[This is] so disempowering for music teachers across the country. Countless expert teachers already craft rich music curriculums with expert understanding of their context. Chat to them if you want to learn about & how to deliver a powerful music education FOR ALL”.

And in terms of advice, Jonathan would urge the panel members to be wary of political interference. Nick Gibb is setting in place an enactment of his music curriculum through the voices of his expert panel. To quote John Finney, ‘we now see the interests of selected sectors advanced to satisfy the minister’s personal agenda and thus diminishing hope of impartiality’. This is not good enough our children and their teachers.