Music Education without a centre

Below is the script of my contribution to the lunchtime debate at Musicexpo, at the Barbican, London.

The questions posed for this debate reads:

Are we happy with the current state and provision for music education in the UK?

If not, what changes would need to be made i.e. what is your plan B?

How would your plan B improve education for students and teachers?

The making of a National Plan for Music was an opportunity to reshape music education through identifying ways in which fuller musical participation could be achieved, how music education could become more inclusive, how inequalities of provision across England could be addressed.

The plan set out what will be achieved, what children will experience and how progression and excellence will be driven in music education, how skills and leadership amongst music educators will be improved and how greater quality and accountability will be ensured.

Certainly ambitious and likely to be admired and envied in equal measure around the world.

It was recognised that schools can not do everything alone and that they need the support of local musical structures. Thus the vast majority of funding would be invested in music hubs. The responsibility placed upon hubs is considerable.

So is the plan working? I don’t know. I do know that it is generating a lot of activity and that it gives music education a particular trajectory.

However, we would be mistaken to think that the National Plan respresents what a music education is, what it might be or tell us anything about teaching music or being a music teacher. In fact it might be a distraction from these things.

Like other music teachers I am interested in how I decide what to teach, why I teach this and not that and how I teach it. I am interested in what questions my teaching will raise for my pupils? What questions it will raise for me the teacher? How will it help teacher and pupil together to better understand what music is? How will we together evaluate the worth of what has been experienced? How can we progress from here?

I am interested in what kind of subject music is and what the ethical demands are that a music education places upon those who teach music. I am interested in what a music education is for, what it means to be educated; what it means to be musically educated?

I am interested in making a reasoned justification for the place of music in an education.

Until these matters are properly considered music education is without a centre, fragmented and fractured.

Is there another subject of the school curriculum that is beset by so many well-meaning claims on music’s power to transform lives, to make us more intelligent, emotionally virtuous? Is there any other subject so fixated by its side-effects? But take care not to be distracted from questions about the purposes of music education and what it is.

By clarifying purpose it becomes possible to justify music as a school subject, possible to raise its status, recognise its distinctiveness, discover its relationship to other subjects, to the whole. Now there is a basis for planning a curriculum and for evaluating pedagogical approaches.

The questions that should be dominating our thinking, and that are too easily taken for granted, and that go beyond the Music Plan address the purposes of music education:

  1. What does a music education qualify people to do; what knowledge and dispositions are needed in order to make music well and to think about it critically? What do we mean when we speak of musical knowledge? Are we uncertain about speaking about musical knowledge, why are we more at ease with speaking about musical skills? What does it mean to make music well? What is meant by thinking critically about music? Is critical thinking something we wish for but have no idea how to make a reality?
  2. How will a music education induct newcomers into existing practices, into the cultures of making-music, which practices, which cultures of music making? Are all acts of music-making equally worthwhile? Really?
  3. How will a music education help children and young people to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to feel a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through a music education?

These are questions that don’t have easy answers but they should generate thought and more thoughtful action. They help to frame the subject we call music so inadequately dealt with in the Music National Curriculum with its shabby statement of purpose.

Music education doesn’t need a crusade, it doesn’t need a revolution, it needs a centre, a centre for the teaching of music that is interested in the relationship between the teacher, the pupil and what they together are learning. The National Plan may be a distraction from this.

There is a National Centre for the Teaching of Mathematics. There wont be one for the teaching of music. Instead we need to imagine one, one that is concerned with the education of music teachers, ensuring that music teachers become articulate about their values, articulate about the principles that underpin their practice and articulate about their moment by moment decisions in the classroom.

Without a centre there is a vacuum filled by commercial interests, Ofsted and political ideologies.

The imaginary centre for the teaching of music is a place to continually re-think what a music education is and what it is for. This is music education’s centre. This is Plan B.

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6 thoughts on “Music Education without a centre

  1. Jackie Schneider

    Below is a statement I have on the walls of my music room ( and on my school music blog):

    These are our music lesson values:

    Children are taught how to improve their singing, playing and composing.

    They listen to a wide range of interesting, thought-provoking, good quality music from all around the world.

    Children are treated fairly and with kindness.

    There is a co operation, teamwork, self- discipline, concentration, experimentation reflection and celebration.

    The music making improves children’s maths, literacy, language and thinking skills.

    Every child makes progress

    Now I feel a bit embarrassed sharing it because they raise more questions than they answer. I was persuaded by Ally Daubney from ISM that I needed to make my values explicit which forced me to try to get something down on paper. One of those values is seriously cynical – I do think that music improves kids skills across the curriculum but it is not primary motivation. I put it up to impress my senior management and parents. The value I feel most strongly about though doesn’t even appear because I fear it makes me sound too hippy but here goes

    The main reason I teach music is because making & responding to music is a fundamental part of being human. Teaching music is a challenge to a capitalist society that wants to divide us into producers and consumers.

    Great blog John. Sorry I missed your session.

    1. Teaching music as a challenge to consumer capitailism is a worthy basis for action in the classroom. I like the idea of thought-provoking music, unsettling music and I can imagine that your classroom is a place where this leads to curiosity, questions, interesting talking about music- A MUSIC EDUCATION!!!!

  2. Deborah Findley

    I agree. The National Plan is creating a lot of activity. It is creating an outpouring of one-off ‘glitzy’ events. Twitter is full of them. And in order to even keep music on the curriculum in schools we are deluged with a mountain of ‘advocacy’ to justify having it there. But much of this research concentrates on how music can support other subject areas such as literacy and numeracy. This opens the door for school leaders to conclude that they may as well cut out the middle man and spend their resources directly on those other subjects – the ones that they are judged on. Do we need to have the confidence to advocate for music for music’s sake?

  3. I agree Deborah. The ‘mountain of advocacy’ you refer to may well be counter-productive. Having so many well meaning witnesses may not be very helpful. I understand the need for advocacy in some circumstances. For example, if funds are required for a particular project it may well be necessary to claim potential non-musical benefits.
    But the most important task is to strengthen music as a subject, clearly framed in its own right.

    1. Deborah Findley

      Sadly we have had two head teachers within the space of a week saying to us ‘Ofsted isn’t interested in our music teaching’ in response to our offer for supporting music in their schools.

  4. Pingback: Ofsted, Myths and illusions | teachingmusicking

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