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The ‘model music curriculum’: uniting the music education community through disaffection and challenge?

The social media storm surrounding the recent announcement of a Model Music Curriculum for England has highlighted a growing malaise among music educators and researchers, with the sense that government is not listening, argues Ally Daubney.

The social media storm surrounding the recent announcement of a Model Music Curriculum for England has highlighted a growing malaise among music educators and researchers, with the sense that government is not listening, argues Ally Daubney.

You only have to look at the sheer number of recent reports published by from so many different organisations to know that music education in England is facing significant challenges.

From Music Mark to Youth Music, UK Music, the Incorporated Society of Musicians, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, the Musicians’ Union, the University of Sussex and the Music Commission, recent reports have provided substantive evidence on what’s going on across the country and highlight the significant challenges we face across all stages of music, starting from the Early Years. The recent State of the Nation report brings together undeniable evidence, using the Department for Education’s own data and evidence from across the sector, of the devastating decline in music education.

Reading across these reports, there are a number of challenges we agree on.

Funding is tight both in and out of school and, in real terms, this is diminishing year-on-year. This impacts what can be offered, to whom and for how long, and presents challenges to models of employment as many organisations move away from offering ‘teachers’ pay and conditions’ and towards increasingly insecure hourly paid contracts.

And then we have the accountability issues, with accountability measures in many Primary and Secondary schools responsible for a narrow and constricted curriculum where music is pushed out. Music in many schools is being side-lined or, worse still, removed from the curriculum completely.

Even the DfE, DCMS and Ofsted acknowledge that inappropriate performance measures such as SATS, the EBacc and Progress 8 discourage schools from including arts as part of a broad and rich curriculum. Current performance measures used to judge schools – all excluding the arts – send a message to teachers, young people and their parents that the arts are unimportant. The upshot of this is that entries to GCSE and A Level examinations, as well as to vocational qualifications and graded music examinations, are well down.

The workforce is not always valued as it should be and teachers have inadequate access to appropriate subject-specific professional development and increasingly face professional isolation.

Postcode lottery of music education is worsening

All of these factors affect what is offered, to whom and for how long; they diminish the opportunities for young people to get a decent music education. Within and beyond schools, the ‘postcode lottery’ of music education is getting worse and increasingly becoming the preserve of those who can afford to pay. And whilst we collectively aspire for music education to be inclusive of everyone, regardless of their background, ability to pay or the school they attend, we recognise that it isn’t – and this situation is getting worse.

And so to recent events. The government has concluded that the answer to all of this is to create a ‘model music curriculum’ for Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. This decision shows no attempt to acknowledge or deal with the problems multiple organisations continue to highlight through their research and reporting and the need for a model music curriculum was not mentioned in any recommendations in reports until early March 2019 when the Music Commission report was published. More on this later…

The model music curriculum has been controversial since it was first announced on 11 January 2019. The make-up of the music curriculum’s panel was called into question by 30 university initial teacher education providers as it is heavily weighted towards music education hubs, an examination board for graded music exams, conservatories and professional musicians; whilst all well qualified and appreciated within their own fields, the panel lacks people with substantive pedagogical experience in the classroom and detailed knowledge of ‘how musical learning works’. It has no representation from Early Years, despite a wealth of excellent research and work in this important area. Moreover, the panel does not include any members of the DfE’s own Expert Subject Advisory Group for Music Education which was set up when the new National Curriculum came in.

Following the announcement of the model music curriculum, academics asked for evidence that such a curriculum was either wanted or needed in England and for any evidence that a model curriculum had made a positive difference to music education anywhere else in the world. None was offered; as established at a recent short meeting with the DfE and some panel members, it is based on a set of ‘beliefs’.

In discussion between the Education Minister, Nick Gibb, and Dr Jonathan Savage on BBC Front Row in late January, Nick Gibb said he did not accept that there was any conflict of interest or ‘vested interests’ with any of the organisations being on the panel.

Lack of transparency has caused widespread anger across the sector

As so onwards to the leadership of the drafting of the model music curriculum. The awarding of the contract from this ‘competitive tendering process’ was given to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), an organisation with a rich history in providing graded music and theory examinations across the world but significantly lacking in experience of working in schools in the context of the curriculum and, in particular in this case, with the delivery of the National Curriculum.

ABRSM’s work, whilst well regarded, does not cover the ‘broad church’ of music and does not work across the breadth of music education in our schools. The lack of transparency around the awarding of the contract, including the secretive way in which this has been done, has caused widespread anger from across the sector. The successful bidder to a tender most people had no knowledge of was announced by Nick Gibb on Twitter and not, as is usual, on the DfE website. Music Teacher Magazine has recently published a response from DfE stating that ‘selective tendering’ was permissible as the tender was under £20k and as it was under £10k, it did not have to be placed on ‘contracts finder’.  I understand that both Music Mark and The ISM were invited to tender for this contract but both decided not to.

All of these moves have side-lined teachers and yet they hold significant knowledge about music education and how children learn and should have ownership in relation to this important work. Locking them out of the process, denying them agency and awarding the contract to draft this work to an organisation that do not work within the National Curriculum has provoked action. On 4 March 2019, teachers collectively raised their concerns with the chair of the panel at the Department for Education, expressing their disquiet about the model curriculum panel and asking questions about the awarding of the contract to ABRSM. Nearly 160 teachers have signed this letter to date.

Reporting is not rooted in research

And so we move onto the report from The Music Commission, published on 4 March 2019, a week after ABRSM was awarded the contract to draft the model music curriculum. The Music Commission, led by the ABRSM and chaired by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, was set up as a research study to ‘explore how to better sustain and support progress in making and learning music… bringing together research, evidence and insights from people involved in music making, learning and teaching at all levels.’ Whilst there are some good aspirations and ideas, a number of which resound with the messages from other recent research (e.g. pointing out the failings of the EBacc and accountability measures and the lack of funding), it is a shame that the reporting is not rooted in research and that the voices of those participating lack representation in the report, raising questions about whether this is ‘research’ or ‘advocacy’. Intriguingly, they commissioned a new ‘research study’ in mid-February 2019, less than three weeks before the publication of the report (which was originally announced to be published in October and then November 2018).  Perhaps the reasoning behind all of this will become known once the research report is published ‘later in 2019’.

Whilst there is much I could say about this particular report, one thing particularly stands out. It is the only report that mentions the need for, and merit of, a model music curriculum. It recommends ‘National Curriculum models for the subject of Music’ (p.6) and lays this out in more detail on page 33:

‘To this end, we want to see governments providing leadership, in partnership with appropriate education and music experts, by clearly defining quality standards and setting out more detailed guidance for young people’s development in music. This ambition would see governments convening experts and key music bodies in the development of a model curriculum for Music, as is currently the case in England, to provide much greater clarity for teachers on what can be expected of children at different stages of their musical learning.’

This report, led by ABRSM, is the only one of the many recent reports to suggest that we need a model curriculum.

Many of the problems in music education have solutions staring the DfE in the face but those with the power are blind to them. For now, we must accept that we have, instead, been awarded a model music curriculum. Having been invited to a hurriedly arranged meeting at the DfE last week with a small group of others, we needed to stand together to make this work for all children in all schools. In the introduction to this meeting, the DfE talked about the importance of children having a rich musical education up to the age of 14 in which they:

  • gain an appreciation of the history of music
  • leave Primary school able to read music
  • have opportunities to sing and play a musical instrument
  • have the confidence to progress to GCSE

This grossly impoverished view was strongly questioned by those invited to the meeting and it would be fair to say that we didn’t even get onto the question of whether we need textbooks, although we were assured that composing and improvising – missed out in the introduction – are fundamentally important. The Initial Teacher Education group will be offering the panel helpful guidance on aspects such as ‘curriculum’ and ‘knowledge’, which we hope will help the panel to deepen their own understanding of these important factors.

Everything we collectively said was noted down by the panel members and we were given assurance that our voices are important – and yet we were given one week to send anything we want them to consider.

‘Ridiculous’ timescales for feedback

It is a travesty that, in the early stages of this process and ‘before it is drafted’, the ridiculous timescales imposed do not allow opportunities to properly involve those with significant expertise in leading learning (and particularly teachers) and to hear about the diversity of music education in England inspiring young people to want to engage in music.

It is also ironic that one thing that is pulling the music education community together is collective dismay and protest from many quarters. By being outspoken and not just accepting decisions we are not happy with, we have already altered the process to get more consultation into it, albeit with only one week to produce any evidence we would like the panel to consider – which is at best unrealistic if this is to be done properly.

And so now, despite many significant reservations about processes and decisions over the model curriculum, we have to use our collective power to influence the writing of this model curriculum whilst we wait for the DfE to address the more pressing issues that would make a real difference to music teaching in the school curriculum, including:

  • reforming the accountability measures and particularly the EBacc to value the arts;
  • offering a long-term commitment to funding and resourcing of music;
  • giving a clear directive that music must be taught on a sustained basis as part of the school curriculum for all children, regardless of whether or not they attend academies/free schools;
  • assuring the proper provision of music in schools by ensuring that there are staff employed in every school who can teach the music curriculum;
  • ensuring that there are enough teachers coming through and that those in-service have access to appropriate workforce development

Clearly, we all care deeply about music education. Teachers up and down the country are going above and beyond the call of duty every single day. There is so much good work that the panel should have knowledge of before ABRSM start drafting this document so that they are not making their decisions from a position of ignorance. Everyone loses if we can’t influence this model curriculum. We need it to be brilliant and lead to high quality, relevant, inspiring and inclusive music education for all children and young people, everywhere. We have so much that unites us; now is the time to pull together and make a really positive difference to music education in all our schools.

Do what you can to make your voice heard.

About the author

Dr Ally Daubney is a qualified and experienced music educator and researcher and has worked across all phases of education from pre-school to postgraduate.

Since 2009, she has been involved in international curriculum development, Ally is author of Teaching Primary Music, published by Sage in 2017.