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The Model Music Curriculum: omnishambles 101?

After two years of development, the Department for Education published their 'Model Music Curriculum' on Friday 26 March 2021

I am unapologetic in arguing that all children have a right to the best. And there is such a thing as the best.

Michael Gove, 2011

Did former Education Secretary Michael Gove have an opportunity to read the DfE’s Model Music Curriculum (MMC) before it was published initially, or indeed when subsequent unmarked revisions were released in response to errors pointed out on social media? The MMC has, amongst other problems, factual errors, sequencing issues, a focus on ‘activity/content’ over ‘learning’ and even examples of inappropriate material with racist connections (now removed); it is a wonder this curriculum has got past the eagle-eyed custodians and made it as far as publication, says Ally Daubney

The Department for Education heralded the Model Music Curriculum’s arrival in March 2021 to great acclaim: ‘New music curriculum to help schools deliver world-class teaching’.

The Model Music Curriculum is in good company – other recent ‘world-class’ proclamations made by the British Government include their response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Test-and-Trace programme and their investment in schooling.

The Model Music Curriculum is, unfortunately, a very far cry from ‘the best’. And that is a great shame, because the most powerful part of this document is the excellent ambition that:

At Key Stages 1 and 2, pupils should receive a minimum of one hour of teaching a week; this may take the form of short sessions spread across the week… Music should have a minimum of one weekly period the whole way through Key Stage 3.

The Department for Education also supports Ofsted’s view of the importance of sustained and regular learning experiences, stating that ‘Carousels are not a substitute that fits with the values of comprehensive education’.

We should seize any opportunities to galvanise rejuvenated interest in music education, and despite the significant weaknesses of the MMC the ambition of sustained opportunities from years 1 to 9 is strong and possibly the one point of universal agreement. However, the Model Music Curriculum is a far cry from ‘the best’, and as a ‘sequenced and structured template curriculum’ (DfE, 2019) I fail to see how it would be useable to any of the audiences to which it may have been aimed without significant work.

Indeed, as an esteemed music teacher wrote on Twitter this week, ‘Is anyone planning to adopt it [the MMC] as the curriculum in their schools? I think that would be unwise’. This was later toned down (‘maybe unwise was too strong a word’); however, the recently published balanced critique of the MMC by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) points out that whilst the ambition of music as a sustained part of the curriculum is welcome and praises ‘the apparent intention that it is based in sound’, there are also some significant shortcomings.

It is disappointing that the professional associations involved in the panel welcomed it so enthusiastically and without criticality on behalf of primary, secondary and special schools across the country as they deserve ‘the best’, but this isn’t it. Perhaps the ISM’s independent and honest appraisal will be a turning point…

A potted history: from inception to publication

The Model Music Curriculum has been dogged by controversy. The government’s announcement of its inception immediately followed the 2019 publication of the final report from the Music Commission (established by ABRSM and Arts Council England); the only report that I am aware of to recommend a Model Curriculum as a solution to music education’s many problems that are flagged in multiple other reports. The initial research undertaken by the Music Commission, using public funds, has yet to be published, despite being promised ‘later in 2019’.

The decision to award £4.5k to the ABRSM, an organisation lacking in experience of curriculum development in schools, to lead the development of the MMC, first appeared in a Tweet by Schools Minister Nick Gibb – a somewhat unconventional way to announce public funding. The MMC was originally meant to be published in early summer 2019 but a few months later an announcement was made that it would be kept under wraps until concerns that it did not meet the ‘required quality’ were dealt with and ‘further consultation’ had taken place. One wonders what these quality issues were, bearing in mind the published document, and the difference the intervening eighteen months made…

It is notable that no sharing of the draft beyond the panel members was included in the published development process for the MMC. This is a huge error if the intention was to get ‘the sector’ (a term I detest) to support it, and it may at the very least have meant that the multiple errors in the document were noticed before publication.

There are many complex issues to consider, which can broadly be seen as ‘curriculum’ issues and ‘political’ issues, all of which are very much inter-related. A selection of issues are raised in this article.

Is Whole Class Instrumental teaching now mandatory in primary schools?

In Years 3 or 4, it is recommended that each class should start a whole-class instrumental programme lasting a minimum of one term. The mandatory term will be supported by teachers from the local Music Education Hub. Opportunities for development should continue beyond the mandatory term (MMC p4, my underlining)

This mention of a ‘recommendation’ and also a ‘mandatory term’ for a whole-class instrumental programme in primary schools is confusing. If this is ‘mandatory’ (of which there is no mention in the non-statutory National Plan for Music Education (NPME) or the statutory National Curriculum, is this wholly funded by the ACE grant to music education hubs?  Who is held to account when it does not happen – schools or music education hubs?

And what happens when schools cannot afford it? Increasingly, schools are expected to pay towards this provision. The financial provision for music education hubs to fully fund this in every school is often not possible, despite this term of instrumental learning being defined in the NPME and linked to the grants awarded to music education hubs.

The declaration that the mandatory term ‘will be’ supported by teachers from the music education hub also raises questions, as, for example, some schools do this very successfully in-house and others choose not to engage at all. Whilst it is a good aspiration for schools and music education hubs to work together, the wording of this within a non-statutory document is somewhat confusing. The ambition stated in the NPME is that whole class ensemble tuition is provided ‘ideally for a year (but for the minimum of a term)’.

Perhaps this gives an indication of the direction of travel for the long overdue NPME2.

We must be mindful that the ultimate responsibility and choices over music in any school lie with the Headteacher and the word ‘mandatory’ in this statement needs urgent clarification.

Music education hubs – rebuilding for the future

Musical learning is gloriously diverse and is negotiated and facilitated within a constantly changing intricate web of formal, non-formal and informal situations, in which we all play important roles. The musical learning opportunities provided by the infrastructure of music education hubs, bringing together multiple organisations to augment and support the statutory responsibility of music schools are integral to this musical landscape.

Many cultural organisations have taken a significant financial hit because of the Covid-19 pandemic and as they fall away, so do the opportunities available for young people’s musical engagement. Throughout the past year, Music Education Hubs have placed a significant and much-appreciated focus supporting colleagues financially and emotionally. The sheer effort of this has been enormous and it is humbling to see so many individual organisations going ‘above and beyond’ in so many different spheres. The lifelines to keep many organisations afloat are coming from multiple sources, including vital loans and grants, such as those from the Cultural Recovery Fund, providing funding for the immediate problems and some tentative hope for the future. The stress for organisations leading music education hubs has been compounded by the very late confirmation from the DfE of cuts in real terms to their funding allocations in this next financial year. Consultation for restructuring has recently started in at least one music education hub.

That this funding confirmation came less than two weeks before the end of the financial year and aligned with the announcement of the Model Music Curriculum seems more than coincidental…

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked destruction on musical opportunities provided by organisations linked to music education hubs and many other organisations too, and this is ongoing. The lack of clarity from the DfE around the conditions for safely making music together is making it very challenging in many situations. Simultaneously, the response from those involved in music education has brought about great innovation as music education has been constantly reimagined. Whilst the future will probably involve a hybrid model of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, there is no getting away from the uphill climb that many music education hubs, schools and other providers face to get infrastructure, levels of engagement and vital income to anywhere near pre-Covid levels. This may yet be further impeded by squeezes on other regular sources of funding and support. We already have huge inequalities in music education and a widening gulf between those who can and can’t get involved and stay involved in music education, exacerbated further by this Covid-19 crisis.

The MMC brings new responsibilities for Music Education Hubs as a compulsory funding condition. As things stand, this could divert attention and funds from rekindling opportunities for young people to re-engage in music education. The music education hubs’ involvement in the MMC was not built into the originally submitted business plans for this year’s funding, and the funding has decreased in real-terms. Organisations leading music education hubs need full support and ‘permission’ to be able to focus on rebuilding their central business – engaging children in musical learning through programmes that augment and support the statutory school provision. They need to be able to do this without the additional distraction of this new responsibility to promote the non-statutory Model Music Curriculum.

Issues, tensions, solutions?

It is anticipated that supporting resources and opportunities for Continuous Professional Development will be created by numerous partners, both at a local level amongst school cluster groups, music education hubs and also by national partners across the music education sector. This will provide further support for teachers in the delivery of the curriculum


In the increasingly commercial world in which we live, it is no surprise that there is an ambition from the DfE that ‘products’ to support the MMC will be developed. Watch this space for the MMC ‘pupil textbooks’ and ‘teacher resource packs’… However, the idea of curriculum flexibility would completely disappear with publication of these.

It is widely acknowledged that not all schools, primary or secondary, have a strong music offer, and that in some schools it is completely missing, whilst in others it is well supported. High stakes accountability measures such as the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and SATs put schools under considerable pressure and this often results in the curriculum narrowing. This – and any other curriculum ambition – will always be very limited because of the accountability issues.

Much work around music curriculum and professional development is already available in a multitude of ways. Fully-resourced commercial schemes (‘models’) such as Charanga, Kapow and Music Express, which all align fully with the National Curriculum, offer opportunities for primary teacher support, and many music education hubs fund these schemes for their schools already. Given that we already have fully resourced models, it is baffling to think what the MMC adds to this landscape. Likewise, the expectations around the professional support for the MMC that music education hubs must provide ‘as appropriate’ needs urgent clarity from Arts Council England. The thorny issues around accountability for promoting this non-statutory MMC in schools, echoes with the aforementioned situation of music education hubs being accountable for the delivery of whole class instrumental programmes.

There are also multiple formal and less-formalised teacher networks to be found in school clusters, music education hubs and in partnership with universities involved in pre-service and in-service teacher education, which add to the professional isolation that is often talked about, particularly in one-person departments. There are some excellent examples to draw upon that are responsive to local aspirations and needs, and demonstrate strong contextual understanding. Curriculum development seems to work most effectively where there is ownership of the decisions and it is contextually located – these pupils, these teachers, this school. Understanding and expert/enlightened guidance can empower teachers and pupils to think about their own specific context, explore their values, interests and motivations and work out innovative and appropriate ways to go forward musically that are meaningful and impactful within their community. The ‘deficit model’ approach taken by the MMC is a far cry from this and will most certainly not ‘reduce workload’; another DfE aspiration noted in the MMC press release.

It will be interesting to see whether Music Education Hubs or others will be funded to develop CPD and/or materials around the MMC, or whether, as has so often been the case with previous statutory and non-statutory guidance, no additional funding is forthcoming. By making the ‘support’ of the MMC a condition of funding for music education hubs, it seems the DfE are trying to secure roll-out but this in itself is messy. And if there is additional funding forthcoming, will procurement be open to all, or given to the government’s small group of preferred organisations, as has been the case in many instances in education? A much more appropriate way would be to fund musical development in schools per se, so that schools and teachers can do what is best for them and their pupils – noting that this is unlikely to be the use of the MMC. However at the moment the ‘unfortunate’ press releases around the MMC, suggesting that the £79m hub funding is for supporting the ‘new curriculum’ (another misleading statement) must be causing Music Education Hubs more than a few headaches…

Perhaps our best pathway forward as educators is to focus on the final sentence here – ‘delivery of the curriculum’. Ofsted has helpfully reminded us that a school’s obligation is to provide a curriculum ‘at least as ambitious’ as the National Curriculum; they are not obligated in any way to use this non-statutory Model Music Curriculum. Inclusion should be a bedrock of our society and of course, our education system, and any curriculum we choose to embed surely must have this at its core, opening up and sustaining opportunities and possibilities for all young people.

There are other ways to forge a better path

In the Early Years ‘sector’, publication of the DfE’s reissued non-statutory guidance Development Matters (2020) was met with widespread dismay and as seen as political interference in order to move practice in a particular direction.

The key concerns raised by a coalition of 13 leading Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) organisations included the unclear and inconsistent pedagogic approaches, which are not supported by the sector’s professional and academic knowledge base; inadequately addressing issues of diversity, inclusion, anti-racism and the decolonisation of the curriculum; not reflecting the principle of  learning in the early years; bringing in wholesale changes rather than evidenced improvements, and ignoring much of the well-established and valued EYFS; omitting key practices; misunderstanding and misinterpreting the ‘Characteristics for Effective Teaching and Learning’, and viewing learning as a deficit model, through failing to recognise children’s capacity as active learners. The new guidance also fails to recognise the overlap between children of different ages and stages of learning, and ignores well-established understanding of child-development (paraphrased from the collective response of the 13 organisations).

Many aspects of the above resonate with justified criticisms of the Model Music Curriculum. In response, an alternative non-statutory document has been produced by 100 Early Years professionals from multiple organisations, bringing many different perspectives on early childhood and yet the commonality they have found from putting the child at the centre has made this possible. The coalition’s recently published non-statutory guidance ‘Birth to 5 matters’ is detailed and enlightened, sitting juxtaposed to the DfE’s new non-statutory guidance. Whether or not we agree with the content, it is clear where each suggestion comes from and is linked to a considerable range of scholarship. Expertise was clearly valued and the contributors to each section are clearly identifiable and open to discussion and critique. It is considered, negotiated and flexible, demonstrating the positive impact of a strong model of collaborative and transparent working processes based on collective values. In contrast, the Model Music Curriculum appears incohesive and there is no attempt to help teachers understand where the ideas have come from and how/why they work.

Above all, this Birth to 5 Matters work is a timely reminder that children don’t start school as empty vessels and they bring with them rich and creative music learning experiences gathered through their lives that need to be recognised, built on and extended through their schooling.

Moving on from the omnishambles – ways forward

As exemplified in the 2009 political comedy series The Thick of It, the coffee beans are ground, the cup is overflowing and we all know what happens in-between, so where do we go now? Here are six initial suggestions.

  1. To move forward, we need respectful, principled and trustworthy leadership, ambition, meaningful and extensive collaboration and open critique. Music education occupies an uncomfortable space that often appears tribal, and the MMC has unfortunately contributed to deepening the rift. We all need to put young people’s musical learning at the centre and stop putting vested interests first. The deliberate effort by professional associations involved in the MMC panel to sweep the significant issues of the MMC under the carpet is disingenuous, particularly having accepted it as a usable, strong and useful model on behalf of us all despite the significant weaknesses. Perhaps now there is a more balanced critique circulating from a different professional organisation, this will be able to move on.
  2. It is important that dialogue is opened up with the authors of the Model Music Curriculum if we are to be able to move forward together and understand the decisions made. Recognising and addressing the weaknesses (through, for example, using this MMC version as a draft and then asking the DfE to at least make it fit for purpose) would be a good starting point, although their current ‘updating and reissuing in secret’ strategy does nothing to aid transparency and trust (there is an interesting parallel here with some international research carried out by Francesca Christmas and summarised on Twitter).
  3. This non-statutory Model Music Curriculum is a distraction from good work on curriculum and professional development that was already taking place in some places; we need to focus on creating more flexible, sustainable and impactful ways to support musical learning for all. At the same time, we need to recognise and acknowledge that teachers and schools have other priorities right now and we should support them in every way we can to achieve these as they work with their unique communities in these challenging times. The UK is just emerging into another ‘new normal’, still reeling from the devastating effects of the most recent phase of the Covid-19 global pandemic and it has been the hardest of years for this generation of teachers, pupils, families and society at large.  We all need to be compassionate, understanding and supportive.  The rhetoric and over emphasis of ‘catch-up’ in education is unhelpful and potentially damaging. As for music education, the impact of Covid-19 has been – and continues to be – devastating.  And yet the fundamentally important role of music and music education in these unprecedented times is uncontested.  Releasing a Model Music Curriculum at this point in time shows incredible insensitivity from the Department for Education and shows little regard for already over-stretched teachers whose professionalism and dedication continue to show that schools are not just places of education but central to our communities.
  4. Teachers need to be empowered to take ownership of their curriculum with their special and unique communities, whatever their starting point. This is where our vision and ambition for music education for all should start from.  The ever-widening inequalities in our society have been laid bare over the past year. This a one-size-fits-all model with inconsistencies, mistakes and poor conceptual underpinning should not be the starting point.  Any curriculum needs to be inspiring, relevant, meaningful and accessible to all.
  5. Musical learning is evolving and we need embed this where appropriate and desirable in the educational opportunities offered within and beyond the classroom. There is no recognition in the MMC of the ways in which music education and musical learning have evolved during the pandemic (or in the many years leading up to this), and fails to recognise the potential for these to flourish in the future.  It is important that this is given proper consideration and recognition, in individual contexts and collectively.  We need to encourage schools to create, resource and deliver a flexible curriculum to build a stronger future and opens up opportunities for all pupils and teacher in their own context which open up, rather than shut down, a range of pathways and qualifications now and in the future. Unfortunately, the Model Music Curriculum is narrow in its ambitions of music for all.
  6. Full support should be given to the music education hubs to focus on rebuilding their central business – to provide the musical infrastructure which transcends schools and supports and enhances inspiring music learning opportunities for all young people beyond the statutory provision in the school curriculum.  The late addition of their role in the promoting the Model Music Curriculum as a compulsory funding condition diverts their attention, funding and resources away from bringing musical learning opportunities back to more children and young people at a time when they really need innovate their work and focus on securing their future beyond this current one year of funding.

Of course, all the time the high-stakes accountability measures remain in place in primary and secondary schoools, music education will continue to be side-lined in many schools so any model curriculum – even one that could pass as ‘beyond a draft’ doesn’t really stand a chance of making a positive difference.

Happily, though, we have got some very strong and authoritative teacher voices emerging that have a strong understanding of the complexities of curriculum, pedagogies and assessment, and the recognition that ownership and contextual understanding of curriculum development is critical.  Next time there is money and support available for developing musical learning, let’s use it well. We need transparency, professional trust and teachers fully involved, not shut out of the process. Imagine the positive difference that could have made…

Secondary music teacher Nick Hughes has some very valid views about developing music education:

‘It’s becoming clearer to me that having a ‘model’ produced by the DfE is a bad idea, no matter the content. It devalues the profession by reducing autonomy, and that’s vital for many reasons.’

Above all, we need to develop a culture of engagement in meaningful professional learning, offering practitioners voice and agency. In a sense, the MMC is a distraction, even as a ‘reflective tool’ and instead we could seek to work in more meaningful and innovative ways to promote musical learning in the myriad of contexts in which it exists, as many organisations already are. Those of us in the privileged position of working with teachers need to make good use of time and resources to support them well. Personally, I suggest we ‘park’ the MMC and start instead with values and aspirations, paying close attention to motivation, context, ownership, meaning and ambition. The National Curriculum gives us the flexibility and permission to bring a meaningful and enriching curriculum for all children and young people to life.

I want to finish this article with an extract from a blog by music teacher Emily Crowhurst, who offers us all ambitious and inspiring ways forward, through developing a ‘thinking first’, not a ‘content first’ curriculum design model.

A thinking first curriculum enables a rich, authentic and purposeful curriculum to thrive, driven by values, practices and context. Not one single curriculum for the whole nation, but tailored curricula, crafted by teachers, that work flexibly within and with their community. Not by dumbing down or bending to students’ whims, but by acknowledging, utilising and recognising the different ways a curriculum can be designed, developed and deepened.

We are privileged as school music educators to be able to not only teach, but make curriculum. It’s scary and it’s hard, but every single one of us can develop in this with the right processes to inspire a thinking first curriculum.

Emily Crowhurst

About the author

Dr Ally Daubney is a qualified and experienced teacher, researcher, teacher educator and musician.

Through her portfolio career, she has taught all ages and stages of education from pre-school to postgraduate and worked as a class and music teacher in primary, secondary and special schools and also as an instrumental teacher. For the past 12 years she has worked with a world-leading university on international curriculum and assessment development.

Ally is the current co-editor of the British Journal of Education and the author of Teaching Primary Music which led to the award-winning Primary Music Toolkit.

She is co-author with Professor Martin Fautley of many freely available frameworks and resources around the development of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

Ally acknowledges that her own limited experiences in music education and life place significant limits on her peripheral vision in all matters relating to music education.