A model music curriculum?

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In this post, Dr Jonathan Savage, Managing Director of UCan Play, reflects on the UK Government’s announcement on 11 January 2019 that they will be publishing a model music curriculum in the summer of 2019.


One of the highlights of growing up as a young lad in the 1970s was summer holidays with my Aunty Betty in St Leonards on Sea. Aunty Betty is my mother’s older sister; she was a primary school headmistress, and, with no children of her own, she spoilt me and my three brothers rotten on our visits each year.

Amongst the treats during our annual visits to Aunty Betty were trips to Hastings Pier, to play on the penny slot machines, and the Hastings Model Village, housed within the White Rock Gardens. The model village was opened by Stanley Deboo in 1955. It was incredibly popular and featured classic Sussex houses (including oast houses and timber-framed manor houses), old parish churches, water mills, windmills and much more besides. It was a blast from the past in miniature. There are some great photos of the village here for those that are interested!

Music is already a core subject. It should form part of every pupil’s state schooling

Towards the end of last week, the Government announced they would be creating a ‘model music curriculum’. In order to ensure that all pupils are able to enjoy high quality music lessons, schools are going to ‘receive a new model music curriculum created by an independent panel of experts’. The curriculum will be published this summer (2019). It will feature what is referred to as a ‘sequenced and structured template curriculum’ for Key Stages 1, 2 and 3.

Even when set against the low standards of education policy set by this Conservative Government, this sounds like a completely daft idea that manages to score more own goals than a Fulham defence.

First, the model music curriculum statement makes no recognition of the fact that Music is already a core subject in the National Curriculum. As such, it should already form part of every pupil’s state schooling. The fact that it doesn’t is down to the weakening of the National Curriculum in academies and free schools, poor decisions made by head-teachers in primary and secondary schools regarding curriculum design and implementation (with priority being given to what are seen as ‘important’ subjects), and ill-informed Government-led accountability mechanisms such as the EBacc and Progress 8.

Leadership group with obvious conflicts of interest

Second, the constituency of the group assembled to lead this project seems questionable. Fourteen people are mentioned by name: five of these are directly linked to music services or music education hubs; two are principals of conservatories of music; there is one head-teacher, one ‘Director of Music’ (from Toby Young’s free school, by the way), and an assortment of others including the Chief Executives of the ABRSM and Music Mark. Apart from the obvious conflict of interests associated with the ABRSM, Music Mark and associated music service/music education hub leads being involved in determining how funding that they will benefit from will be distributed, I was struck by the fact that nobody who had been involved in any of the projects surrounding the previous iterations of the National Curriculum design has been asked to be involved. Similarly, there is no representation from leading subject experts in Music from any of our universities. I was also struck yesterday by the quality of John Finney’s post in which I suspect he has been able to achieve more in one dream than the whole panel will be able to deliver in six months. We ignore voices like this at our national peril.

Music education sector a cacophony of competing voices

I write this with some sadness. Some of the panel are really good colleagues and friends. However, I struggle to see how being associated with a project like this can really benefit music education in England moving forwards. The Conservative Government has proved itself as incompetent and inept in dealing with music education. The music education sector is a cacophony of competing voices and has not helped itself either. I’m sure that many on the panel would say that it is better to be on the inside informing policy than on the outside &^%$ing in. But there comes a time when principles and values have to dictate our response and I, for one, do not belief that this Government’s approach to music education deserves validation or support at any level. I would certainly ask them to take time to consider their positions supporting such a weak and ill-founded initiative.

Finally, the notion that schools can ‘receive’ a model music curriculum is questionable. Curriculum development is a rich process that requires engagement from teachers and students. It is not something that can be dropped onto schools in this way. My bet is that the model music curriculum will contain key principles and priorities drawn from the very vested interests of the organisations that are contributing to it. It will not reflect current thinking or best practice about curriculum development or design nor seek to build upon it in any meaningful way. Many of the lessons learned in previous iterations of the National Curriculum for Music underpinned by the National Subject Leads and others will continue to be ignored. Whilst some readers may consider this unfair, following Martin Fautley’s lead today I urge you to consider how things can be done differently by looking at the Irish Junior Cycle Music Specification. What we will end up with be weak and poor in comparison.

Proposed model curriculum will be limited in design, form and function

Returning to the proposed curriculum project, the word ‘model’ has at least a couple of meanings. I’m sure the Government would like their ‘model music curriculum’ to be an exemplar, something for teachers to follow or imitate. However, I have a strong feeling that the model music curriculum will fall under a different definition: ‘a three-dimensional representation of a person or thing or of a proposed structure, typically on a smaller scale than the original’.

There is no doubt in my mind that the proposed model music curriculum will be limited in design, form and function. Compared to a National Curriculum for Music, properly resourced and implemented, it’s impact will be limited and, in years to come, it will be viewed as something of a historical curiosity. It will not address the patchiness in music education in England that has only worsened in recent years. It will continue to advance the vested interests and priorities of key commercial players like the ABRSM. It will advance a model of music education that is delivered to schools by music education hubs rather than seeking to reinstate and facilitate a model of music education embedded within schools and delivered by qualified teachers of music. Properly funded, implemented and resourced, the National Curriculum for Music is the only way that we can ensure that all children in England receive a comprehensive, developed and systematic music education.

Sadly, you can’t visit the Hastings Model Village today. It was seriously vandalised on several occasions and closed in 1998. It was replaced by a lazer-style maze in 2011. The pier in Hastings, where I spent many happy hours on the penny slot machines, was bought by Sheikh Abid Gulzar in June 2017 for £60,000 (despite an investment of over £14m of public money from the Heritage Lottery Fund following a fire in 2011). It is currently shut. Now there’s a story for another day.


Header photo: Hastings Model Village © Phil Sellens. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. Original image resized and cropped


About the author

Jonathan Savage is a Reader in Education at the Faculty of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University.

He is Managing Director of UCan Play, a not-for-profit company that runs consultancy, research and training as well as providing a point of sale for musical instruments, audio and video technologies.

He is a widely published author, having published over 14 books for Routledge, the Open University Press and SAGE as well as numerous academic papers.

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