The problem of standards in music education and the loss of happiness

Philip Flood @Philip_Flood 30m30 minutes ago Camden Town, London How many teachers are using levels and sub levels in #KS3music asks @DrFautley – 95% teachers in the room raise their hands @TTMLondon [1]

It seems that music teachers’ classroom lives are governed by systems of accountability concerned with pupil progression and ways of showing this. And this means progression against non-negotiable standards, that is, levels of attainment.

But now that ‘levels’ have been officially withdrawn a window for fresh thinking is available. But before you say: ‘ah, no more levels’, ‘performance descriptors’ for Key Stage 1 and 2 come into view. Not in music yet, but watch this space.

To imagine there would be a world without the benchmarking of standards would of course be utopian fantasy. Or would it?

Are the setting of standards inevitable in music in the first nine years of schooling?

One view might be to simply focus on individual pupil musical journeys. These could be guided by a commitment to core musical values, ways of being musical and the expressed and inferred needs of the pupil. [2]

The pupil, with some guidance, would be setting their own standards, developing that all-important sense of self-identity, self-understanding and other-understanding that we see achieved through out-of-school music making. [3]

However, there is a National Curriculum for Music which sets out what is to be attained at each key stage creating age-related standards. While as yet this has not been translated into ‘performance descriptors’, there are nevertheless statutory expectations implying standards.

Ofsted exists in large part to report on standards including standards in Music. Could this be done without reference to commonly agreed standards? No, it would be perverse for Ofsted to inspect without making comparisons (as we all do) and thus define and defer to standards. [4]

To resist the need for commonly agreed standards in Music would invite questions about the status of music as a National Curriculum subject. On what basis could Music claim its position in a curriculum sponsored by the state without a measure of accountability based upon expected standards?

One solution might be for the arts, while being in the National Curriculum, to be understood differently by government. They could have statutory status while being allowed to flourish with standards emerging from local practice and always something to be negotiated, fluid, never fixed or codified. After all, isn’t this, in some part at least, the point of the arts?

Beyond the school artistic standards shift across time and place. They are negotiated, set, re-negotiated, reset and continually revised through what emerges from practice.

We might envisage music and the arts in school operating as they do in the world where there is no imperative upon ‘learning’, rather upon experiencing, knowing and valuing while still serving worthwhile educational ends. And where instead of assessment there is evaluation, an easily felt ‘taking stock’ or reviewing the situation.

We live, so it seems, with the irreducible tension between music as practiced in the world and as constrained by the school and beholden to ‘learning’ and ‘progression in learning’.

One move might be to abandon the idea of ‘assessment for learning’ altogether, detaching assessment from learning while attaching it to the quality of the music being made here and now. This is how musical practices flourishes in the world.

‘It’s all about learning stupid’, I hear you all shout as I cower to avoid the brickbats.

The language of education is overwhelmed by the discourse of learning. With each week comes a new concept associated with learning. Until the recent Music Mark conference I hadn’t heard of the concept of ‘learning behaviour’, for example.

‘Learning behaviour’: edubable or necessary part of the managerial lexicon? Both perhaps.

We should take care that ‘learning’ doesn’t become William Blake’s worm in the night destroying the concept of education.


[1] Tweet received November 25. It should be no surprise that levels are firmly in place or that music teachers are beholden to sub-leveling. High stakes in-school accountability rules and will continue to do so as long as schooling is conceived of in performative terms.

[2] For the concept of ‘expressed and inferred needs’ see Nel Noddings (2004) Happiness and Education. Cambridge University Press.

[3] A speculative comment. But see the research of Doug Lonie on self-identity in youth music making.

The idea of self-defined standards would need to take into account the way pupils measure themselves against models they aspire to and use to benchmark their own performance. The idea of ‘my own standards’ may be a fallacy. (late edit: ‘chimera’ is better than ‘fallcacy’)

[4] Of course, before the invention of Ofsted HMI monitored standards in music education for over 100 years without the help of levels.

How culture counts for music education

In my blog of November 7 I cited the work of philosopher Roger Scruton with reference to his book ‘Culture Counts’. [1] I suggested that Scruton’s conservationist perspective on culture (‘the best that …’) had been influential in recent policy making in England.

A number of examples come to mind. There is the newly made National Curriculum for Music with the call of the canon and its great composers. And then the newly formed GCSE for Music with its centrally determining 1700-1900 Area of Study making other areas of study indeed ‘the other’. [2]

But wait a minute, there are other ways of thinking about culture. The anthropological perspective, for example, sees culture as ordinary and embracing the whole range of lived experience. This means less attention paid to cultural objects, canons and works of art detached from time and place and, in the case of music, more interest in the ways in which music is lived out in different contexts by different people and where music is thought of as a practice rather than aesthetic object. From this perspective Scruton’s ‘culture’ as ‘the best’ is at best partial and at worse hegemonic.

The idea of ‘the best’, and if this means as I think it does, ‘the one best’, moves away from diversity and the possibility that different musical practices might be to a considerable extent incommensurable and requiring different kinds of value judgments.

‘The one best’ gives rise to a restrictive hierarchy of works, a ‘one best’ way of listening to music [3], of analyzing music, of defining creativity, of finding music’s so-called intrinsic value, of championing certain forms of complexity over simplicity, the abstract over the concrete, the transcendent over the material, the unworldly over the worldly, the beautiful over kitsch and so on.

Or to take another perspective: according to Zygmunt Bauman we live in the age of Liquid Modernity where nothing is fixed or stable. [4] Everything is fluid, changing and temporary. In this view culture can be thought of as being in flux and in the case of music without boundaries defining genre and tradition, in an endlessly fluid state of becoming something different. It is no longer possible to create new styles of expression, instead we see the past endlessly reused and for pastiche to be the most obvious means of expression. Amy Winehouse’s use of Klezmer is an example. This is not fusion but ‘mashing’. [5]

Now we might imagine a GCSE Area of Study opening up questions about contemporary musical practices and their provenance and a curriculum opening minds about culture and the struggles to claim it. [6]


[1] Roger Scruton (2007) ‘Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged’. Encounter Books: New York.

[2] See Chapter 8 ‘Musical Ideologies, Practices and Pedagogies’ in Debates in Music Teaching (eds.) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Routledge: London. Here Gary Spruce and Francesca Matthews discuss the dominant ideology of western art music.

[3] See below the case of ‘Proper and Improper Listening in the Draft GCSE for Music’, Blog August 27.

[4] Zygmunt Bauman (2007) ‘Liquid Modernity’. Polity Press: Cambridge.

[5] I am not sure about this. We may need a category somewhere between fusion and mashing. Any ideas?

[6] For a comprehensive consideration of the history of the idea of culture see

Style alienation and existential interest in the music room

It was good to see Musical Futures following in the path of William Byrd in promoting singing. [1]

Byrd’s third point – ‘It doth strengthen all parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes’ is part of the more general recommendation that singing provides a health benefit. And this is running through the MF advocacy too.

But it is MF’s first point that is perhaps of greatest interest, the proposal that singing supports wider musical understanding.

‘In our Find Your Voice pilot in 2013 77% of secondary teachers surveyed stated that they had applied the vocal strategies across their entire curriculum, encouraging students to vocalize first and move onto instruments after. This aided musical understanding as students were internalizing the music, listening to and singing it first.’ [2]

This will be ‘music’ to the ears of The National Curriculum Working Party for Music 1990; Ofsted 1993, 1995, 1996, 2009, 2012; A National Plan for Music Education, 2011 and many more.

The students are learning to think and feel with their voices, together with others, learning to shape musical ideas in minds and matching inward feelings with outward expressions, assisting in the development of thought-laden musical behaviour. [3]

So herein lies a longstanding and impressive justification for singing.

Singing as social-intellectual tool.

But now I want to tease out a second justification.

In last week’s blog I hinted that one way of thinking about children’s interests was to see these as evolving through four phases. [4]

Kieran Egan refers to the phase embracing the middle years of schooling as ‘the romantic’ when children are keen to gather facts about distant matters yet which relate to matters close to home. While Egan may not have singing in mind, singing does draw in words, sentiments, narratives and facts. In the song it is the words that count. As Graham Welch has pointed out, young children often abandon attention to pitch as they search for meaning in the words of their song. [5]

Singing can capture interest and this is seen in the songs children choose to listen to, choose to sing, and in the lyrics they themselves compose and of course in the vocal material teachers select.

In last week’s blog I made passing reference to a year 9 class singing, dancing and drumming an apartheid song of the teacher’s choice. My suggestion was that, although initially musically strange, the human interest in the song served to create meaning and so render it ‘relevant’.

But now I have an example to puzzle over.

Schubert’s Erl King. It is an art song and for many children will sound strange and likely to alienate. But it has a griping narrative, literally a matter of life and death. No shortage of human interest. So quite a tension here between potential stylistic alienation and existential interest. [6]

Give it a try and why not create talking points about the tension between style alienation and existential interest. That sounds like a move in the direction of a critical pedagogy which our music education so desperately needs in view of our current nihilistic times.

So what of a second justification?

Singing and the song as bearers of culture.

Thus, singing wont only be for the benefit of those who receive it (it’s for the kids) but also for the enrichment of our musical culture and its transformation. It might even be about a conversation with the past.


[1] See: and
[2] ibid.
[3] However, it is not possible for singing to claim a monopoly on learning to think music. Physical movement, for example, has a strong claim too, and this could include the physical movement involved in playing an instrument.
[4] See:
The BBC ten pieces will no doubt be working with pupil’s interests at the ‘romantic’ phase.
[5] Welch, G. (2006) Singing and Vocal Development. In G. McPherson (Ed.) The Child as Musician: A handbook of musical development. New York: Oxford University Press. pp.311-329.
[6] Those who know Lucy Green’s theory of musical meaning may discern my teasing away at it here. Schubert’s Erl King does have an arresting piano motif that could be a source of sonic meaning distracting from any negative delineated meanings. This might prompt the teacher to work with the motif in a déjà vu-like way. See my blog October 10, 2014 The hidden hand of Edvard Grieg.

Music education and relevance to the interests of the kids

‘’It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it. What we teach in school, what subjects we encourage in universities, and the methods of instruction, are all subject to one overarching test: what do the kids get out of it? And this test soon gives way to another, yet more pernicious in its effect, but no less persuasive in the thinking of educationalists: is it relevant? And by relevant is invariably meant ‘relevant to the interests of the kids themselves’.’’ [1]

Thus writes Roger Scruton, philosopher of both conservation and political conservatism. He has written on the aesthetics of music, on beauty, sexual desire, environmentalism and much more. His thought has surely been influential in the making of recent educational policy.

For Scruton culture is the ‘best that has been thought and written’. Culture is a form of knowledge. Culture is civilising. Learning to appreciate the best involves learning the right feeling. [2]

We need not subscribe to Scruton’s clearly argued position on culture, aesthetic value, the significance of the canon etc. to raise questions about the current enthusiasm for music education to be ‘relevant’ to the interests of the kids themselves’.

It seems that what is meant by relevant to the interests of the child in the case of music is relating to the music that chimes with the child, the music that they easily identify with, see themselves in. The music that readily confirms who they are, the group to which they feel they belong, the music they come to school with in their heads, their lived experience

Another perspective on what interests a child is given by Kieran Egan who shows how children’s interests are centred differently at different stages of development. [3]

First comes the mythic stage when children respond best to stories. Then the romantic stage when children are keen to gather facts about distant matters yet which relate to matters close to home. Next the philosophic stage, a time for developing generalisations and principles and finally the ironic stage, a sign of the mature mind, where focus shifts to the exploration of those instances which do not obey the rules.

In this view a child’s musical interests live alongside other interests and ways of understanding. Young children enchanted by music telling the story of the Pied Piper and year 9 drumming, dancing and singing an apartheid song are examples.

For Egan, it is the development of human interest that is important where ‘relevance’ is a matter of connections made and this can be with what is strange, alien, unfamiliar as well as familiar.

Scruton maintains that education is for affirming, sustaining and growing a particular set of cultural values. It is duty bound to maintain a conversation between the past and present and that while teachers love their pupils, they love knowledge more. Education is subject centred not child centred. The example of engaging with what is of human interest above is unlikely to persuade.

However, while we may not agree with Roger Scruton, we ought to be able to articulate something more than ‘it’s for the kids’.

After all music education is hardly ennobled if we think it is only for the benefit of those who receive it.


[1] Scruton, R. (2007) Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Encounter Books: New York. p.28.

[2] Chapter 3 of Culture Counts is titled ‘Knowledge and Feeling’ and deals with the goals of knowledge, types of knowledge, ends and means, knowing what to feel, teaching virtue, conserving practical knowledge and answering the critic.

For a fascinating debate on ‘culture’ see

Scruton’s concept of culture is distinctly at odds with the anthropological concept of culture.

[3] See