Peripatetic music teachers – ‘peris’ – are the unsung heroes and heroines of music education. It’s time to recognise and value their contributions, argues Nigel Taylor.
I recently read an article on tes.com entitled ‘Behold: the dying art of the peripatetic music teacher’.
What struck me about the article was that it was a) written by a headteacher and b) it concluded with the phrase in praise of these teachers: ‘It takes a remarkable person to be able to do that. Please: let’s have more of them.’
Reading the article was a breath of fresh air, and it prompted to me to also write in praise of ‘peris’ – the commonly held role title, amongst many, for peripatetic music teachers.
Now, I’ll declare an interest.
In almost 40 years of working in the music education sector, I have always been professionally close to peripatetic music teachers.
For the first five years of my career I was a school teacher (in two schools) and worked alongside some great peris. For the next 28 years I was severally a head of music service, County Music Adviser, Head of Cultural Development (and Ofsted inspector) amongst other things, employing peris, training them, supporting them, and even inspecting them.
In the last seven years, as a freelance independent consultant, I have continued to meet with them, individually and in teams.
In all these years I have been constantly reminded of how much peris love their job and enjoy the work they do, how skilled they are, and how much passion they have for the music education of their pupils. On the whole I’ve met some pretty remarkable people, musicians and educators.
Children’s musical progress has been sacrificed on the altar of ‘outputs’
I know it’s not universal amongst the whole workforce. Every barrel of apples has a small number of bad ones (and I’ve had to deal with some of them). You’ll have them today in your school, your organisation, your community.
But in an eco-system that had crept up unrelentingly over the last 20+ years (and maybe more) where a micro-economy in music education now firmly holds sway, children’s musical progress has been sacrificed on the altar of ‘outputs’. And peris have been amongst the most to suffer as a consequence.
These ‘outputs’ are, put simply, primarily the number of pupils judged by the Department for Education, through Arts Council England, to have started to learn an instrument through Whole Class Ensemble Teaching (WCET). There are other outputs, but WCET numbers appear to be pre-eminent amongst them.
Progress is a vague ‘core role’… poorly defined, hard to measure
And there’s the rub. If the key measure of success is WCET numbers, then music organisations (music services and others working in music education hubs) will focus their attention on WCET numbers. More attention on WCET. Less on ‘musical progress’.
Progress is a vague ‘core role’ in the current National Plan for Music Education. It’s poorly defined, hard to measure (well, not measured in any meaningful way by the National Plan) and actually not considered as an ‘output’, let alone an ‘outcome’ in sufficient detail in the national data return anyway.
It’s the same as schools being judged by Ofsted pretty much solely on Maths, English and Science in the last few years.
What did schools do? They focused all their efforts on Maths, English and Science to the detriment of other subjects. I hope that the new Ofsted inspection framework in place since September 2019 is starting to have an impact on schools, and will encourage them to reconsider the curriculum and its breadth and balance. The jury is out.
Meanwhile, thousands of peris have felt the cold wind of the unintended consequence of the National Plan for Music Education in which ‘musical progress’ was never considered in any level of detail, in combination with a micro-economy where too many senior professionals were, and still are, beguiled by the mantra of ‘knowing the cost of everything’ – but perhaps ultimately knowing the value of little.
A toxic chemistry, compounded by other difficulties: for example, local authorities going into financial free-fall, and the schools sector becoming constitutionally ever more fragmented.
Many instrumental and vocal teachers have been made redundant, or had their terms and conditions denuded, or had their backs put to the wall to take on ‘zero-hours’ contracts or similar, because of this chemistry and especially a cost-driven approach to music education.
I’m not pretending for one moment that everything in the past garden was rosy. There were many faults and problems, not least the ‘exclusion’ of young people who didn’t fit the system, or the lack of access and inclusion for many children and young people, or the patronage of county music advisers who gave some schools large resources of teaching and others nothing, or kids having to ‘pass’ a ‘Bentley Test’ to access instrumental tuition, or simply not enough resources to ensure an egalitarian community.
However, why is it that fewer children and young people achieve higher levels of attainment in music now (whether it be GCSE, A-level, or instrumental and vocal studies) than in the past? It’s complex, culturally, educationally, financially and, and, and….. But, still, why are fewer young people making good musical progress than in the past?
Music education organisations: think and plan for musical progress
I want to make a plea: to schools, to the authors of the new National Plan for Music Education, to music education organisations.
Think and plan for musical progress.
Not just the numbers of kids starting WCET, important though that might be. But what needs to be in place for young people to make genuine musical progress over time (maybe over three, five, ten+ years because that’s how long it takes to nurture such progress). Amongst that is a specialist workforce needed to support, secure and lead that progress with your children and young people, along with the support of schools, parents/carers, and peers.
A good start would be to have a vibrant music curriculum in every school. Wouldn’t that be great?!
But it can’t stop there. Upon it must be built programmes which allow children and young people to explore and to learn instruments (incl voice) and composing and improvising in systematic ways, over time, to make musical progress.
This will need a workforce equipped with the specialist skills and knowledge to stretch and challenge young people, and the resources including time, to enable it.
One-off projects will lead nowhere unless musical progress is considered
There are some organisations (even some national organisations) that sometimes still give the impression that musical progress will happen somehow by osmosis, or by doing some workshops, or by doing a project.
Well, after 40 years in the music education world, I think I can say without fear nor favour, that one-off projects might give kids a great time, a taster, a first access, but ultimately they will lead nowhere unless musical progress (and not just progression routes) is considered and planned for over time, and certainly much more than a term or a year.
It needs resourcing. It needs a workforce.
The vast majority of peris I have worked with, or come across in my career, are exceptional people, wanting to do their very best for children and young people in music education. They are passionate about music, their instrument(s)/voices, learning, progress and performances.
But they can only do it, if there is an educational will to consider what ‘musical progress’ is, and especially beyond first access and ‘projects’.
Yes, there is much more to be done with training, CPD, mentoring of our colleagues, but it irks me to hear that so many professionals in positions of influence easily write off these very many fine people, as a ‘cost saving’ in difficult times. Worse still, not knowing, or caring, what ‘musical progress’ means or sounds like.
I include Ofsted in this mix of un-knowing.
I once had the displeasure of acquiring a particular new ‘line-manager’ (on whom I would never bestow the sobriquet of ‘boss’). This was a person who showed all the signs of despising music; for what reason(s) I do not know.
Perhaps, a person who possibly had experienced a terrible music education themselves. A person who having risen to become a headteacher then joined the hierarchy of the local authority, which subsequently went into bed with a private company to take over education services, including music.
Bear with me.
That same person rose through the ranks through the new private company very quickly and discharged their duties with a zealous ‘£-first’ ‘sweat the assets’ mentality; trying to squeeze the peris employed in the music service, trying to implement terrible terms and conditions and pay on them, and on new recruits, and not considering what ‘musical progress’ meant, let alone ‘educational progress’.
How many young people are denied musical progress?
Put simply, that person didn’t seem to care for music, nor music education, nor musical progress. Only money appeared to be of value.
I tried to fight it on behalf of children and my staff; it didn’t end well for me. But that’s not the point. The point is how many children and young people were, and are, denied musical progress because of the insidious ‘cost of everything – value of nothing’ thinking that increasingly permeates the culture of some organisations and sees music education solely in terms of outputs?
So this article is in praise of peris. As the headteacher in the tes article says: ‘It takes a remarkable person to be able to do that. Please: let’s have more of them.’
If you are not a peri, spend some time talking to one (or even a few).
Ask them what they do. Let them tell you what they do. Let them show you what they do. Let the kids tell you what they do. Let the kids play and/or sing, or compose/improvise, to show you what they are doing. Get to know them.
Consider not just what they teach, but how they teach, and why they teach it. Think about their work chemistry and its conditions. Above all, talk about musical progress and what it means for that child, or that group, or that class. And what they are doing towards supporting it, leading it, securing it.
No one is perfect. No headteacher is, no teacher is, no peri is.
But they can do amazing things for young people, that can still resonate even 40 years later.
About the author
Nigel M Taylor has enjoyed a long career in music education, initially as a secondary school teacher, then head of music services, county music adviser, Ofsted inspector, and assistant director of education for a large local authority.
He has been chair of the Federation of Music Services, was the founding chair of Music Mark, and continues to be a member of the UK’s Music Education Council and the Incorporated Society of Musicians.
He now works as a freelance music education consultant with national organisations such as Arts Council, ABRSM, Music Mark and The Music Commission, along with a number of music education hubs throughout England.
He is currently chair of the board of Trust Music, a local music education charity in Bolton, and is a trustee of the Bolton and Farnworth Multi-Academy Trust.
Nigel has also sustained a profile as a conductor here and in Germany. In 2020 Nigel marks 40 years working in music education.