Music education’s secret garden

This week marks the fortieth aniversary of prime minister James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech.

The speech is often viewed as a seminal turning point in education policy making in England.

Two quotes will give a flavour.

‘There is now widespread recognition of the need to cater for a child’s personality in its fullest possible way … There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills.’ [1]


‘… to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both.’ [2]

Callaghan skilfully attends to the ‘both’ seeking neither to acquiesce to the calls for a utilitarian education where it would be judged solely on criteria related to industrial productivity and economic success, nor one closer to the fulfilment of the individual in society whose life is rewarding in itself.

In the debate that followed the term ‘secret garden’ was used to indicate the way in which the education establishment (teachers, schools, unions) was unaccountable to the public sphere. For some the failure of the school system was to blame for the nation’s decline. It was time to pass education from teachers as the producers to the public as consumers and this would mean bolder government intervention in determining the school curriculum. [3]

Thus followed the moves towards a national curriculum, standards, accountability measures, managerialism, the drive for perpetual improvement and much of what now is taken for granted in the life of a school and its teachers and of course its music teachers.

The term secret garden can also be used in a narrower sense to refer to the unknown classroom practices of teachers, the music teacher’s classroom as existing behind a closed-door and never revealed.

Opening up the ‘secret garden’ of the music classroom is of course now being achieved  through the use of social media. It is fascinating to wonder just what impact all the exposure of classroom practice is having on the development of classroom music.

In a previous blog ( I cautioned against making assumptions about how this worked. It couldn’t be assumed that exposure to other’s practices would be  a catalyst for change. Indeed, far from it.

There is certainly the potential to forge online communities of music teachers gaining reassurance that they are not alone and that other teachers are on their wave length. And this certainly seems to be flourishing within particular music education movements and interest groups where a common ethos is being shared. And for the twitterati there are bursts of classroom music making to be viewed, most often the products of teaching rather than the process of teaching. At least the garden is open and we can have a peek into it.

Then there are music teachers’ blogs and like so many other teacher blogs they are much more likely to set out a quaisi-theoretical perspective, a position or simply the way they approach their teaching, a point of view, opinion or in general terms what it is that the teacher is up to, their priorities and enthusiasms. But then there are the blogs, still fairly rare as far as I can see, that describe particular classroom situations and transactions and that take us inside the classroom.

An example is the blog of Stephen Jackman who acknowledges the inspiration of another blogger, Jane Werry. Jane is generous in the way she shares on going developments in her thought and practice. (See  and see another generous spirit.)

This is Stephen.

A little bit of what’s been going on in my classroom this half term… 

Photo published for What I’ve been up to in my classroom

What I’ve been up to in my classroom

Stephen writes:

Inspired by Jane Werry’s  fantastic blog post titled “what’s going on in my classroom right now” I thought I’d share too. The new Edexcel Music GCSE  I’ve started with one of the Setworks- ‘Release’…

Can you imagine that you are there in the year 10 class? I can.

Then I was struck by Will Green’s blog describing his teaching and his pupils’ responses and with a powerful reflective tone throughout. To account for one’s own teaching in this way is not easy. It is to be admired. Here is how it begins.

‘The group enter the room looking less than wholly enthusiastic (!) They settle down with an almost perfect split down the middle of the room between the boys and the girls. This is quite normal and it begins around Year 2 (aged 6/7 years old) which I think is remarkably early. I ask them if they have done that week’s Class Challenge*. They have done it! I say ‘Off you go’ and the whole class claps a 16 beat rhythm, that they’ve invented and memorised during the week, while saying the rhythm names. It has quavers (ti-ti) and crotchets (ta). They do it quite well and nearly everyone joins in.

Next I switch on the backing track to Mary Mack**. This is a lovely traditional Scottish Gaelic song and its two parts fit together very neatly. These children have been singing it since they were in Year 4. They begin singing straight away and by the end they are doing so with some enthusiasm, though by no means lots of enthusiasm! I split the class so that it can be sung in two parts. Now they are enjoying the challenge more and it’s starting to sound good. We finish by singing along with the cheerful backing track until it stops at which point both groups continue to sing in the two parts. There is a sense of accomplishment by the end of this.’

For the full account see:

New post: Yr6_The Weekly Class Challenge

Of course, what Will has to offer may not resonate with some others (‘Oh no, not that tonic solfa-we don’t do that’.), it is an example of a music teacher reflecting on his teaching. And what a chronicle of a teacher’s practice he is constructing, creating a narrative of his professional development and celebrating his professional autonomy.

Just imagine if Will’s lesson had been observed by another and an account written to compare with Will’s. There would be the source of a valuable discussion, an idea for Ofsted.


[1] Callaghan, J. (1976) Towards a national debate: speech by Prime Minister James Callaghan at the foundation stone-laying ceremony of Ruskin College, Oxford on October 18. Education Guardian [online]. Available at http:/ greatdebate/story/0,574645,00.html [accessed: 16 April 2009]. Page 6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For previous reference to the secret garden see

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