In search of a music education

My keynote given at the Music Transitions and Futures Conference, The Boiler House, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on Thursday 25th January 2018.

(The conference brought together music teachers from all phases including higher education.)

My perspective on music education comes from within the school, first as a secondary school music teacher for twenty-seven years and then in preparing music graduates to teach in secondary schools.

What I can do today is to sketch something of the moving landscape that has been music education in recent years, highlighting aspects of official policy and responses to it that have led to those changes that have brought fresh opportunities as well as daunting challenges. I do this before giving some thought to the ways in which a music education might be more than learning to sing or play a musical instrument? Or if you like, I ask what kind of subject is music? Is it a subject? In this way I may or may not be able to bring to the surface some fresh thinking about the state we are in today and some possible futures.

Music Education and the Public Sphere

In recent years all those of us who invest our lives in music education have become part of what is referred to as the music education sector. There is a uniqueness about this, for no other subject of learning and given a place in the education of all children and young people is deemed to constitute a sector. We hear nothing of the history education sector, the mathematical education sector, for example.

The designation of the term sector is normally given to ‘a distinct part or branch of a nation’s economy or society or of a sphere of activity … ’ [1]

Music education then is big stuff, and thought to be culturally, socially and economically significant. Furthermore, we hear increasingly of its transformational powers, its redemptive qualities and its role in furthering the cause of social justice.

We also hear of its rapid growth as a participatory activity. In my home city of Ely, a small city, the now three community choirs flourish with one claiming an international reputation and then the Rock n Roll Ukulele group in its first year attracting more than 100 new members, most of whom have never played before. [2]

The sector’s umbrella organization The Music Education Council envisages:

‘a situation where everyone in the UK – from 0 to 100+ is able to:

  • Learn about and through making music;
  • Enjoy opportunities to make the music of their choice in a variety of settings; and
  • Experience the benefits that arise from making quality music’ [3]

Here is music education viewed as a vast arena of activity where, like sport, participation is the watchword and thought of as a facet of human flourishing.

For our government’s part, and since the enactment of a National Curriculum for music in 1992, music has been recognized as a foundation subject as part of a general education. And governments of all hues have become acutely aware that music is something of a special case. Politically, music education needs to be attended to; for apart from anything else, there are both minor and major celebrities ever ready to speak loudly in music education’s name. Sir Simon Rattle and Pierre Boulez, we recall, had played a part in settling the disputes surrounding the making of a national curriculum for music in 1992. [4]

Into the Age of Measurement

But the John Major years that followed the creation of a National Curriculum saw attention paid not to music but the nation’s literacy and numeracy, and there was concern about the nation’s moral decline and significantly there was attention paid to assessment structures, that is, the measurement of educational outcomes, leading to an intensification of school inspection and accountability. For the teaching force this meant that professional judgment could no longer be trusted if standards were to be raised. Standards were and remain closely linked to a core preoccupation of government – the need to demonstrate that attainment in subjects relevant to economic performance is high and rising, that is, those subjects designated as core – English, Maths and Science, for it is here that it is believed that the global race is won or lost. [5]

Music Education and the Political Will

With the New Labour government came expressions of ‘achieving full potential of all’, the individualization of the learner citizen through the notion of ‘personalisation’, and for Tony Blair there was to be a Cool Britannia. Culture, media and sport minister Chris Smith noted:

‘The opportunities to explore the best contemporary culture and to express individual creativity are two vital components of any education system committed to developing the full potential of all its pupils.’ [6]

And in the Education White Paper 2001 Minister of State for Education and Employment David Blunkett made a bold commitment in respect to music. There would be opportunity for all to learn a musical instrument under the flag of Wider Opportunities.

The main aim of this programme is to create opportunities, over time, for every KS2 pupil to receive a sustained period of tuition on a musical instrument or to receive specialist vocal tuition. The learning experience will allow every child to have first hand experience of live music, group singing, ensemble playing, performance and composing. The programme in schools should look to ‘normalise’ instrumental and vocal learning – so that every child considers him or herself to be a musician. [7]

 I recall that amidst 1960s optimism Wilfrid Mellers, John Paynter, Christopher Small had called for all to be thought of as artists, for all were endowed with creative capacities. To be as an artist was a part of who we are. And John Blacking in his groundbreaking study of the Venda people of Southern Africa had asked ‘How musical is Man?’ [8] Even those who were deaf danced to the music. And now all shall be musicians, an ambitious expectation placed upon music education.

What followed was in Howard Goodall’s view a music education renaissance. [9] Much energy went into the making of a Music Manifesto [10] promising a new joined-up policy for music education.

In due course funding followed, a £32 million settlement, was directed towards enabling children of primary school age to receive instrumental tuition as part of a group, there was the Sing Up campaign which aimed at putting singing at the heart of every primary school and there were pilot projects replicating the principles of El Sistema. At the same time Musical Futures funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation disturbed the stagnant pond that was secondary school music, seeking to address young people’s disenchantment with formal music education by introducing informal pedagogies into the classroom. The New Labour years were coming to a close with music education on the move. The Conservative government in waiting was awake to this.

In the year leading up to the 2010 British General Election the Conservative Party began taking a conspicuous interest in music education. The then shadow minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, an enthusiastic dancer of the Lambada, wrote in glowing terms of the work of a primary music teacher near to parliament in Pimlico. He also told of his own music education where at age 11 he had been introduced to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And there was talk of bringing back orchestras and choirs in every school as a priority. [11] In place of the New Labour rhetoric of creativity, innovation and the significance of contemporary culture, the voice of cultural restoration came to the fore accompanied by a commitment to new levels of academic rigour and a reaffirmation of the authority of academic disciplines. ‘It is the study of academic subjects that our nation’s economic prosperity depends upon’, said Michael Gove, and, ‘Music is an enriching and valuable academic subject. Research evidence shows that a quality music education can improve self-confidence, behaviour and social skills, as well as improve academic attainment in areas such as numeracy, literacy and language’. [12]

A ringing endorsement indeed.

But as we were to learn, some academic subjects are to serve economic prosperity more than others.

A National Plan for Music – the renaissance gathers momentum

Michael Gove had read the music education script of the New Labour years and without much ado Darren Henley, the then controller of Classic FM, was commissioned to review the situation. A National Plan for Music followed and was seen as 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. [13]

It was recognised that schools cannot 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. Music Hubs were to be the agents of change.

 Core aims

  • Instrument teaching and playing in ensembles;
  • Clear progression routes
  • Regular singing, choirs and vocal ensembles

Extension aims

  • Continuing Professional Development in supporting schools to deliver music in the curriculum.
  • Instruments:Provide an instrument loan service, with discounts or free provision for those on low incomes.
  • Experiencing music:Provide access to large scale and / or high quality music experiences for pupils, working with professional musicians and / or venues.

However, publication of the plan prompted significant criticism for its almost exclusive focus upon the primacy of compulsory performance training. With its suggested methods, ensembles, and music all based firmly in the western classical tradition, the Plan was thought to be prescribing a limited vision of musical learning based almost solely upon training in traditional modes of performance. [14] There was no mention of musical creativity, composing or the critical engagement with music. And special interest groups were quick to speak. No mention of music in the Early Years, no mention of music technology and no serious attention to the longstanding deficit in primary school provision, that is, in the education and training of primary school music teachers. And while a key principle was progression understood as movement to ever more rewarding ensemble performance, there was no thought given to the route ways to music in Higher Education.

The vision of the National Plan fed directly into the revised National Curriculum for music. As did a less than positive Oftsed report on the state of music in our schools. Reviewing evidence from inspection between 2008 and 2011 it was noted that:

The quality of teaching and assessment in music also varied considerably. Examples of memorable, inspiring and musical teaching were observed in all phases. However, in too many instances there was insufficient emphasis on active music-making or on the use of musical sound as the dominant language of learning. Too much use was made of verbal communication and non-musical activities. Put simply, in too many cases there was not enough music in music lessons. [15]

‘Not enough music in music lessons’ – a gift to the headline writers.

Music itself as the dominant medium of learning and sometimes expressed after the manner of Modern Foreign Language teaching in terms of ‘music as the target language’ became a popular slogan in attempts to revitalise classroom practice. And I note on my twitter feed just this week

“In a class of 60 minutes, the students should be playing for 59 minutes.” ~ J. Chalmers Doane #talklessplaymore

The Call for More Rigour: the National Curriculum and Exam specifications revised

A reformed national curriculum in 2014 emphasized the development of talent and musicality, performance training, the reading of staff notation and the notion of greatness and the musical canon. Throughout the curriculum’s documentation there was emphasis on the concept of ‘the best’ as defined by the western classical tradition: ‘the best in the musical canon’, ‘the works of the great composers and musicians’, and ‘high quality live and recorded music’. [16] The political Right’s longstanding call for cultural restoration which had failed to bite in the making of the first National Curriculum in 1992 was now resurgent. [17]

In league with a reformed National Curriculum came revised GCSE and A Level Music specifications with the official call for more academic rigour. The proposed revisions of GCSE music proved contentious with a large swathe of music teachers pointing out the unsuitability of the proposals for many of their pupils. Social media saw debate about the purpose of Key Stage 3 and its relationship to GCSE. Was Key Stage 3 to be a time in itself or preparation for GCSE that only a minority of pupils would pursue? Is the house still divided? [18]

GCSE specifications in music were compared with those in Art and Design that, unlike Music, was to be assessed wholly on the basis of course work.

In the case of Music, Ofqual, the examinations regulator, proposed ‘that marks for non-exam assessment in GCSE, AS and A level music qualifications should be 60 per cent, reflecting the balance between the practical and theoretical elements in the subject content.’

Were there no theoretical elements in Art?

Some music educators had long envied Art and Design’s easy complementarity of making and critique and the way that critical and contextual understanding was made manifest through the pupil’s processes of art-making. Why was music not conceived of in this way?

Different arts subjects have different histories, different trajectories. But could Music Education learn anything from Art Education?

Fragmentation of the school system

But now twenty five years after the first National Curriculum and little longer after the inception of GCSE Music the landscape of schooling had dramatically changed. Now a national curriculum was no longer strictly an entitlement for all children and young people age 4-14, for schools designated as Academies and Free Schools there was a freedom granted from the National Curriculum.

And in recent developments there are Multi Academy Trusts [19] that formulate their own particular brands of music education. Academies have sponsors and sponsors frequently have particular musical ambitions for their schools and their pupils, and for wider musical culture. And some of these are considerable. Where this takes the form of heavily sponsored programmes of instrumental provision, it is not uncommon for all pupils to receive two music lessons weekly in years 7, 8 and 9. Over the past five years I have observed how this works in the Isaac Newton Academy in East London Academy. The school’s sponsor is a Big Band enthusiast. All pupils are equipped with a big band instrument and each week in their big band lesson three music teachers enable the class to work in sections and all together to make big band music. Their music material is East London musical vernacular. There is another music lesson each work designated core and of a general nature and complementing the band lesson. The school’s first GCSE group, a third of the cohort, have achieved well. In West London is the West London Free School, dedicated to a classical liberal education, and like the East London school provides two music lessons weekly at Key Stage 3 and now with half of each cohort achieving well at GCSE music. No Big Band here but orchestras and choirs. And now there is the philanthropy of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber whose Music in Secondary Schools Trust believe that ‘young people’s lives can be transformed through classical music education. We offer free musical instruments, high quality teaching, and performance opportunities to over 3,700 students to improve their educational and social outcomes’. [20]

These then are the new torch-bearers, but news comes to me from my twitter feed:

‘Daughter returns from school after receiving mock GCSE results today (in August style mock ceremony) with news that many are now required to drop PE, French, Art etc in order to have additional hours on Eng/Ma. Is this normal???’

And another tweet. This one from Gert Biesta:

‘When children become a liability for their school’s performance, education has come to an end.’

In too many places music and quite unlike the London schools I have drawn attention to, music may be no more that a part of a carousel, a once three weekly experience, a half-termly experience and no year 9 experience. [21]

So is the future of music education to be built upon philanthropic models? Might such beacons of flourishing that I have highlighted spread their enlightenment? At the present time such developments would seem to merely exaggerate unequal levels of provision as school performance measures shape curriculum priorities in the majority of schools. But wait for now comes

The Music Commission and its vision for the music education sector

The Music Commission is

‘a new enquiry exploring the role of progress and progression in the formation and realisation of a musical life. Launched by ABRSM in July 2017 at the Barbican Centre and chaired by Sir Nick Kenyon, the Commission brings together new scholarly research and recommendations for policy direction, guided by the expertise and experience of the Commission panel. Its final report will be published in November 2018 and will call for significant changes to the way that governments, music organisations, schools, teachers, parents and learners think and talk about progress and progression in musical learning.’ [22]

The Music Commission takes up the dominant narrative of our times, that of ever-greater and sustained musical participation for all, and understood as the source of musical identity, feeling musically competent and being identified by self and others as a musician. David Blunkett, we recall had promoted the idea that all shall be musicians. And now a persistent rhetoric. [23]

Making Sense of Progress and Progression

So we are now asked to distinguish between progress and progression with progress, I assume, meaning the accumulation of musical learning as a part of ongoing musical experience and instruction – and progression as the longer view of finding a pathway that sustains a commitment to learning ensuring ongoing musical participation and in the Commission’s words, ‘the realisation of a musical life’. From learning to play a musical instrument as part of First Access Schemes [24] to ensemble membership to mature musical participation and perhaps, just perhaps, enrolment on a higher education course in music.

For the music teacher in school the notion of progression until recently had meant the movement of their pupils to the next National Curriculum sub-level and if inspected the requirement to demonstrate rapid progress in learning over a time scale of twenty minutes. The age of levelling and expectations of such observable micro-progress may have past but not the demands for data showing progress. And now we hear of children age 11 placed on their flight path to desired levels of attainment at age 16. [25]

At a recent Music Education Council Seminar Mark Phillips HMI confessed to not knowing what progression in musical learning was other than the music teacher’s capacity to place worthwhile musical material/experience before their pupils.

Is it that, in the myopic concern for achieving progress and progression, sight has been lost on a different idea, musical development as seen in the changing ways in which pupils exhibit musical behaviours, the changing ways in which they think about it, talk and write about it, think about it critically? Musical development as musical enculturation in dialogue with music taught.

Will all becoming musicians include learning to think about music critically? Could a music education be more that learning to play a musical instrument? Is it something more than musical participation?

The Lost Dimension of the Music Curriculum

The English National Curriculum for Music 2013 opens with a ‘Purpose of study’ statement. Here we read ‘As they [pupils] progress, they should develop a critical engagement with music…’ [26]

I wonder what is meant by ‘critical engagement’?

To be critical is to be thoughtful, discriminating, analytical, reflective, evaluative, knowing, insightful and a symbol of becoming wide-awake to the world; musical experience calls for this. It calls for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated. It calls for a recognition that music has ‘human interest’; social, cultural and political. Without criticism music ceases to be a subject of significance.

I will present two classroom scenarios.

Who will start the conservation? [27]

This was the question asked by the teacher at the beginning of a year 8 music lesson. So what was the conversation to be about? The class had entered to Mars from Holst’s The Planet Suite. They have settled quickly and attend to the music. White boards are given out and pupils are asked to write down a question they would like to ask another pupil, their teacher or their visitor (me) about the music. And so now the question from the teacher: ‘Does anybody want to start the conversation?’

The first question is asked of the teacher:

Q: ‘Why did you pick this piece of music?’

A: ‘It is a piece to react to; a piece to feel and think about. It’s a piece to respond to.’

Second question from Holly to Samantha:

Q: ‘What is your favourite part of the music?’

A: ‘I like all of it. And you want to know what is going to happen next.’

Q: ‘Have you ever heard music like this before? …’

Now the Star Wars connection comes out and is in play as part of the conversation.

Then, an interesting turn:

Q: ‘Was this music composed by a boy or a girl?’

A:  ‘Boy, it’s loud and dramatic.’

Q: ‘What was going through her mind when she composed it? …’

Back to Star Wars:

Q: ‘Do you think this music is scary?’

Teacher intervention: ‘Let’s listen again, how does it start?’

Pupils: ‘Really low notes’ ‘it folds in and folds out’ ‘tapping’.

The teacher links these responses to earlier pupil questions.

Now composing as a whole class with each inventing a response and learning to listen to each other through their whole class musical dialogue.

Thinking differently in the time of Tsunami and the Arab Spring

As an undergraduate David had been schooled in critical musicology. With this in mind the opportunity was grasped to test out ways in which a class of year 8 pupils could be challenged to think about music differently, how their habitual ways of thinking about music might be disturbed. A sequence of music lessons with composing at the centre were presented to pupils as an enquiry structured by the question: what does music mean? David provided his class with what he referred to as provocative scenarios. His intention was to stimulate the student’s curiosity and questioning, as they embarked upon their composing. David writes about making music together as a whole class:

‘All students sat in a circle playing barred instruments. The first third of their piece we created used the Japanese semi-tone major 3rd scale on B (B-C-E-F-A). Against the backdrop of a pianissimo rolled E, an F was gradually faded in and out, exploring the initial tensions of the tsunami. The B-C was then added to emphasise the nervous mood. All the notes gradually underwent a crescendo and were sustained fortissimo for a few moments before a sudden silence. A similar process was repeated, this time using a second, more blues-like Japanese scale. The familiarity of the sound led one student to interpret this section as the reaction of the international community.’[28]

And now another pupil has the idea of using the two scales at the same time. And so the lessons proceed in dialogic fashion, with the teacher skilfully leading the way provoking thoughtful questions that challenge assumptions about music and its meanings. And now the introduction of the composition task: to make a soundtrack for a montage of images of the recent Egyptian revolution using the Japanese scales. Why Japanese scales, some pupils ask? More dialogic work follows, with more thinking nurtured by the teacher’s gently teasing responses.

Neither scenario is commonplace in our school music classrooms and they may well offend the school of ‘talklessplaymore’. The kind of contextual richness in David’s classroom is not typically found, complexities are rarely embraced and the demands of school assessment structures frequently bring about the early closure of what is there to explore.

Critical engagement thought of as arising from a critical pedagogy is of course not a lost dimension of the curriculum, it is a yet to be one and one that might provide a fresh synergy between music in the school and music in higher education.

 I ask: Is there an ‘all shall be musicians’ –‘all shall be musically educated’ gap?

Final thoughts

In the twenty-five years since the making of a National Curriculum for Music, music education has established a strong public persona and politicians have learnt to engage with it, seeking to support it and to ideologically shape it. From the promotion of innovation and a move to greater cultural democracy under New Labour, Michael Gove and subsequent Conservative policy placed the neo-conservative nation-culture-social cohesion view of culture to work alongside neo-liberal marketisation and the fragmentation of the system. At the same time the music education sector abounds with energy and initiatives alongside the intensifying of commercial interests and an endless chattering of stakeholders. And in Zymunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity [29] there appears to be no end to what comes along and that melts into air amidst the wild profligacy of our times. I pose three questions in what Kathryn Zeerson has referred to as the best and worst of times for music education:










[4] See ‘From the Nervous Nineties towards ‘’a long overdue renaissance’’’ in Rainbow, B. and Cox, G. (2006) Music in Educational Thought and Practice, The Boydell Press: Woodbridge.

[5] The rhetoric of the global race emerged during the 1990s and became firmly attached to education.

[6] Smith, C. (1999) Forward to NACCE (1999) All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Cultural Education. London: Routledge.


[8] Blacking, J. (1973) How musical is man? University of Washington Press.

[9] See ‘From the Nervous Nineties towards ‘’a long overdue renaissance’’’ in Rainbow, B. and Cox, G. (2006) Music in Educational Thought and Practice, The Boydell Press: Woodbridge.

[10] See

[11] From a now deleted website

[12] Sources lost


[14] See, for example,

Spruce, G. (2013) ‘The National Music Plan’ and the taming of English music education. Arts Education Policy Review, 114/3, 112–118.

Bate, E. (2016) ‘Justifying Music in the National Curriculum: The Habit Concept and the Question of Social Justice and Academic Rigour’. Dissertation, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Music.


[16] DfE (Department for Education) (2013), The National Curriculum for England, London: DfE. Available online at

Bate, E. (2016) ‘Justifying Music in the National Curriculum: The Habit Concept and the Question of Social Justice and Academic Rigour’. Dissertation, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Music.

[17] See Shepherd, J., and Vulliamy, G. (1994), ‘The Struggle for Culture: a sociological case study of the development of a national music curriculum’. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 15 (1): 27-40.

The Govian return to a traditional education pulls what levers it can. Apart from the specified curriculum which in the case of music consists of general statements and at present is beyond the interest of Ofsted inspection, there are examination specifications and controllable by government agencies, and which tend to have a ‘wash-back’ effect on earlier key stages. There are also agencies in the field that promote the desired changes. The ABRSM 100 pieces of classical music for primary schools is an example.

[18] This is a reference to a review of music education by Keith Swanwick in 1977. See Swanwick, K. (1977) ‘Belief and Action in Music Education’, In Burnett, M. (ed), Music Education Review. A Handbook for Music Teachers, Vol. 1. London: Chappell. The division was between child-centred and subject-centred ideologies of the time. A similar tension may still be prevalent.





[23] It is common to see on social media images of children being assigned musician identity.


[25] The tracking of pupil’s progress is a dominating concern for schools in a high stake system of accountability.

[26] DfE (Department for Education) (2013), The National Curriculum for England, London: DfE. Available online at

[27] This is an account of a music lesson in a school in rural Essex.

[28] This is taken from David’s in-depth study undertaken as part of his PGCE course.

[29] Baumann, Z. (2005) Liquid Life. Polity Press: Cambridge.