Research and music’s status in the curriculum

‘Given the research evidence, why isn’t Music central to education policy? What should we be doing better to get that message out?

Why are we not a “Core” subject?’

Questions asked by Matt Allen. (See

The research evidence on the power of music is growing by the day. Active music making, assuming that it is regular and of high quality, can contribute to the enhancement of a range of non-musical capabilities and lead to other beneficial outcomes. This is broadly what the research says that I think Matt is referring to.

In this view Music in the curriculum is able to go beyond itself and serve aspects of general development and well-being.

Policy makers, by which I mean the current government, while acknowledging this, move quickly to the value of the subject itself, to its place in the order of things. They don’t dwell on how it is a servant to other subjects or other things, but as a subject of the curriculum that has never been ‘core’ and which is destined to remain non-core while at the same time being accorded value.

This is very much how it has been since the advent of compulsory education in 1870. In some exceptional cases headteachers and some former Local Education Authorities have given core status to music and the arts and where they have seen this as a central tenet of a liberal education. David Hargreaves attempted this in ILEA in the late 1980s, for example and today, some headteachers are committed to all pupils having an arts option at Key Stage 4 in spite of the Ebacc. This kind of enlightened view of an education in which the arts are considered as a significant aspect of human being continues to exist.

While research on the power of music is heartening (and a life blood to organisations seeking funding) it may ironically serve to undermine the case for music as a subject discipline, acting as a kind of distraction from music’s core purpose of providing a unique way of understanding the world into which young people are growing. From there many good things are likely to be accrue, many of those benefits claimed by the research. Getting this the right way round, in my view, is important.

Chris Philpott makes the distinction between hard and soft justifications for music in the book ‘Debates in Music Teaching’ and shows what a powerful thing music is, and not in the way that the research referred to above does. Its power lies in the way it is in culture and society as a significant form of meaning making. (By the way the work in the book Debates in Music Teaching is also research. Philosophical enquiry is a form of research.)

Following James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in the late 1970s and the steady moves during the 1980s to form a National Curriculum the concept of Core and Foundation subjects was established. Despite some making a case for a curriculum that was not hierarchical, the Core-Foundation division easily won the day. Nothing much has changed since then except the coming of the EBacc, a throwback to the School Certificate subject grouping of the mid twentieth century. So all the research in the world showing ‘the power of music’ and its contribution to human well-being and the making of smarter pupils is insignificant in the face of an ideology that champions the core, defines ‘academic’ in a narrow way and that sees STEM subjects as giving citizens economic advantage.

There is talk of giving school leavers an app that will provide government with information about the amount of income tax paid by the individual correlated with the subjects studied. Thus the value of a subject can then be directly liked to its value – its economic value that is. (By the way, it remains unclear whether there is a relationship between the study of the arts and the success of the creative industries.)

So music is not a Core subject. This is not to say that it has been and will continue to be valued as being worthwhile and in some places giving the appearance of being central to the school’s work – ‘core’ in a metaphorical sense.

I am a governor of a primary school which has three music graduates on the staff, a subject leader for music, a year 4, 5, 6 choir of over 100 (a third of the cohort), all year 3 engaged in First Access, all pupils experience Steel Band etc. and regular music lessons . At governor meetings there is no mention of Music, just improvement plans, targets and data, ways of presenting data, FSM success ratios etc. And in this discussion it is the childrens’ reading, writing and maths that is, well THE CORE.

Music is not central to education policy because Maths, English and Science are, because there are international league tables based on these subjects. (The latest positions coming shortly.)

Perhaps this might change.


2 thoughts on “Research and music’s status in the curriculum

  1. “Perhaps this might change.” … or perhaps not. Part of my work recently has been facilitating class music to Yrs 4, 5 & 6 in a little primary school in a ‘disadvantaged’ area, that has grown out of an infant school – the oldest are the first Yr6. In the 18 months I’ve worked there I have witnessed a transformation in behaviour and attitude to learning in my lessons that has been truly remarkable. I wouldn’t want to claim all the credit (!) but the class teachers and I are convinced that the music programme has been a significant contributor. However, the school’s finances are in trouble, and the new acting Head – mindful of a likely OfSted inspection – is (understandably) panicking. The decision is to remove the Music programme completely. The realities of schools struggling with tightened budgets mean that Music is still too often seen as a luxury …

    The Head in question has never visited the Music lessons. This is what I’m writing to him:

    ‘Dear …

    There is a scene in Roland Joffé’s 1986 movie ‘The Mission’ when Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) – who has been sent to South America by the Vatican to ensure that, for economic and political reasons, the Mission is closed down, by brute force if necessary – is shown the reality of what this decision will do. Touring the settlement, he hears some sublime singing – children’s voices – and enters the chapel. The music is overwhelming, and in a brilliant close-up the actor conveys the most moving set of conflicting emotions: whilst being transported by the utter beauty of the children’s singing, his face struggles to mask the agonised understanding of what it is that he is about to kill off.

    You have a decision to make, and I do not envy you. I understand that Brackenbury School’s finances are in disarray, and that you are under enormous pressure to turn things around. In education there are never any easy fixes for the challenges we face in schools, especially in times like ours when scrutiny is merciless and funding scarce. You have chosen to cut the Music provision from Sussex Music School – on paper this must present itself as an obvious first move. But there are many kinds of cost, and I can tell you now that this will be completely devastating for the children. In the short time we’ve been working in the school I have seen the most profound transformation in the classes I teach – just last Friday, I had the warmest experience, on seeing the evidence on the astonished faces of their class teachers as to how much learning music means to Years 4, 5 & 6. Ask them – ask their teachers, ask the children, ask their parents – because without doing so, you won’t get the full picture.

    I’m not claiming that my music lessons sound as wonderful as the music in the film (!). But the kids are on their way, they’ve started to get it, profoundly … Here’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, also last Friday, on the Graham Norton Show:

    “The thing that really resonated with me is this thing about how music can empower and liberate kids, which is why it’s so important that we keep it in our schools … Something that I don’t get, and which the Government doesn’t seem to understand, is that if you empower children through the arts, every penny you spend on it comes back ten times over.”

    Hyperbole? Rhetoric? Sure, but he has a point. I’ve seen it on the children’s faces, heard it in their playing and singing, observed it in the way they bound into the room when they know it’s Friday and there I am.

    The Cardinal at least hears the singing first … Won’t you come and join us at some point?


    Robbie Mitchell
    Music Teacher

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