‘no, not what the kids are actually into’


Rugby station – a desolate place on a windy November morning. Thankfully the 11.13 from Euston is on time, and I duly meet up with secondary school music teacher Emily who I will be accompanying to the Music Mark Conference.

Earlier Emily had taught her first lesson of the day at School21 in Stratford, East London and now together we will be presenting Emily’s Project-based Learning approach (PBL) [1] to an over-subscribed conference session later in the day.

The time comes and some thirty delegates join us. We introduce ourselves – Emily in her second school and seventh year of teaching. Myself having taught in four secondary schools over a period of twenty-eight years and latterly teaching at university postgraduate level with my heart remaining at Key Stage 3,  and endlessly wondering how it should be as a central plank within a general music education.

I ask why the delegates have come. Was it the soft colours of the power point slides that attracted or more likely, as Kevin Rogers points out, the title of the session ‘Music Education: much more than learning to play a musical instrument’? It was this that seemed to capture interest. I regret not inviting Kevin to say more.

I asked the room whether a distinction needed to be made between musical participation (participatory music) and a musical education. Wasn’t a musical education something more than participation, more than being included, more than being engaged musically, more than gaining a musical identity, more than being a musician even, and certainly more than learning to play a musical instrument?

If music is a subject of the school curriculum then where will it sit amongst other subjects of the curriculum, and how will it relate to these other subjects, these other ways of coming to know and understand the world into which children and young people are growing? How will it be part of the whole, a subject, educationally significant?

Recent years have seen decisive shifts in educational policy in England. There has been a rapid growth in Academies, the introduction of Free Schools, Studio Schools, Co-operative Schools and University Teaching Colleges, and some of these are designated as Teaching Schools. Alongside this are shifts in curriculum orders and changes to accountability measures.

All this presents both problems and possibilities for the place of music in the secondary school.

As Professor Sue Hallam has pointed out: what was once a statutory requirement that all schools teach the National Curriculum ensuring a musical entitlement for all no longer holds in the new landscape of Academies and Free Schools. Their freedoms change all this. They are under no statutory requirement to provide a music education.

Yet, at the same time, there are emerging new commitments to music as a school subject, new ways of thinking about music’s role in supporting fresh educational visions. Whether championing traditional values or progressive futures or both of these and all things in between, some schools are clear about music as being essential to their purposes.

In Emily’s school music is part of a commitment to ‘real world learning’, ‘beautiful work’, ‘enquiry learning’ and a ‘speaking curriculum’. This is not negotiable.

The messages are clear:


And as Emily showed us, in this world of progressive 21st century futures  music thrives. Music is part of a non-hierarchical curriculum and frequently a subject enhanced by cross-disciplinary learning.

There is the case of Music and Slavery


Music and Science


The Silent Disco


The planning needs to be thorough, the teaching firmly directed towards the final perfected musical work. Self-directed learning there may be. That’s not the point.

And ‘real world’, ‘relevance’ and ‘authentic’ are not equated with ‘what kids are actually into’. It’s much more subtle than this.

The Silent Disco, and its forms of sociality, is a cultural practice as strange to the pupils as is the cultural practice of the Blues presented as historically and culturally located. These are ‘real world’ because they are cultural practices. And one purpose of a music education I propose is to induct newcomers into the world of existing and emerging cultural practices.

All this is Key Stage 3, and on balance 120 minutes of music weekly. What then?

The school accepts the inevitability of a narrowed Key Stage 4 curriculum in the light of progress8. (See https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/285990/P8_factsheet.pdf)

while harbouring thoughts of a different 14-18 curriculum through which pupils would continue to build a profile of beautiful work.

Emily is not enamoured by the prospect of the new GCSE in music and points out its foibles, misconceptions and crass recontexualising of cultural practices (See Edexel rap and beatboxing criteria, for example.).

For Emily there is another and better 14-18 music curriculum to be imagined.

But time to drive to Rugby station and Emily’s 6.02 return to London.

But where were the many other Emilys, just like Emily, breaking the mould of a moribund Key Stage 3 and finding the solutions to the problems of music education inside their classrooms?



[1] PBL, sometimes named enquiry-based learning, comes in a great many varieties. For a distinctly progressive version see The Avalon School in New Zealand http://www.avalonschool.org/project-based-learning-pbl/ .

Whatever the emphasis the concept of ‘enquiry’ is key. The enquiry question(s) sustain the line of enquiry throughout inviting ongoing conversation and dialogue.

Of course, it is not difficult to imagine how PBL could be done very badly, how it could be misunderstood, marketised and misappropriated.

Note that Emily’s is a small school. Translating this to larger schools might be problematic although there is no reason why the approach couldn’t stand alone in Music. However, a whole range of norms are disrupted by PBL – for example, a focus on expressive outcomes rather than learning objectives and what assessment and progression mean in this context.

One essential may be that teachers have very good subject knowledge. This may be the key to depth, rigour and high standards of musical work.










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