Who controls the music curriculum?

The setting up of an expert group to devise a model music curriculum by School’s Minister Nick Gibb has caused more than a little turbulence. So much so that a letter has been written to the Department for Education protesting.

This protest has gained some media attention. [1]

A central issue in this is the question of who controls the music curriculum? And what kind of process should be adopted in the making of a music curriculum? And, now to the point, what part should a government minister play in this process?

John White writing more generally about the matter maintains that:

‘The proper vehicle for democratic control is a Curriculum Commission at arms length from ministerial interference, made up from interested sectors across society chosen for their impartiality.’ [2]

White is particularly concerned about arriving at a well reasoned set of educational aims free from political interference.

The first aim of the national curriculum devised in 2013 appears to have been written by the barely hidden hand of the then minister of state for education, Michael Gove. Since that time the hand of partisan politics has become ever more transparent and now intensified with Nick Gibb setting in place the enactment of his music curriculum through the voices of his expert panel. [3]

In their book Education and the Struggle for Democracy: The politics of educational ideas Wilfred Carr and Anthony Harnett trace the ways in which the educational system became the work of the New Right in British politics during the 1980s. [4] However, even this analysis didn’t forsee the way individual minister’s personal agendas and zealously enacted convictions would underline this ongoing struggle for democracy.

John White’s expectation that interested sectors play a part in the democratic and inclusive process of curriculum making would seem reasonable.

In its place we now see the interests of selected sectors advanced to satisfy the minister’s personal agenda and thus diminishing hope of impartiality.


[1] See for example https://www.fenews.co.uk/press-releases/24674-concerns-raised-over-dfe-s-new-model-music-curriculum

[2] https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2019/01/23/ofsted-has-turned-our-attention-back-to-what-makes-a-good-curriculum-we-now-need-better-answers/

[3] In recent times other education ministers have expressed particular musical preferences and affiliations. There has been Kenneth Clarks’s love of Jazz and David Blunket’s love of the pub folk scene. Neither of these however sought to imprint their musical personalities on the music curriculum.

[4] Carr, W. and Hartnett, A. (1997) Education and the Struggle for Democracy: The politics of educational ideas. Open University Press.

I had a model music curriculum dream

Last night I had a remarkably vivid dream. It was most remarkable for the detail that it contained. My dreams are more usually amorphous affairs.

This is what I dreamt.

The expert panel for the new model music curriculum had issued an interim report. The panel had wisely started with first principles and considered the place of music within a general education for all children and young people to age 14. An over arching music educational aim was proposed that was consonant with the aims of general education.

To musically equip children and young people to understand themselves, both as individuals and as members of a complex and rapidly changing society as future citizens in that democratic society.

The panel had assumed that the resourcing of this education would be vastly improved, and in particular, in respect to the education and training of music teachers, curriculum time allocation and physical resources.

The panel went on to outline three sub-purposes.


To equip all pupils with the knowledge, skills, dispositions and understandings to make music well.

To induct pupils into existing cultures of making-music as a source of creative and critical engagement.

 To enable all children to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom through music made well.

The panel then made what can only be seen as a bold step. They realised that before proceeding any further some understanding of curriculum was needed. This is what they proposed.

The music curriculum can be defined as a dynamic set of musical processes and practices framed within historical and contemporary cultural discourse and dialogue that comprise the material musical encounters of pupils and teachers.

And then to curriculum intentions.

By the end of Year 9 pupils will have songs, melodies, riffs, rhythms and the character-feel of much music in their heads and bodies. They will be able to recall this music at will. It will be an integral part of their learning how to make music well as shown in their technical know how, fluency, expressive control and in their musical relationships with others.

This will be achieved by introducing contextually rich music/musical material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges. Pupils will explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.

The pupil’s music making will always reach a musically meaningful standard. When this is achieved there will be value in assessing the work.

Pupils will be able to reflect on their music making and the music making of others through talk, reading and writing about music.

They will come to understand how music functions in the world, why and how it is made, how music is used and how music is given meaning. There will be a recognition that music has ‘human interest’; social, cultural and political.

Classes will work as a community of music makers and critics where the relationship between pupil, teacher and what is being learnt creates an open musical discourse.

As the panel retired to do more work they heard from the minister that a new panel would be assembled shortly. He thanked them for their work.

We are the knowledge rich music makers

Music of the Common Tongue published in 1987 has a sub-title: ‘Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music’. Here Christopher Small examines the search for identity and community of millions of Africans in the Americas through their encounter with a European tradition, taking from it what was needed to explore, celebrate and affirm who they were and who they might become. 

Small makes clear:

‘My first assumption is that music is not primarily a thing or a collection of things, but an activity in which we engage … the act of musicking is central to the whole art of music the world over. In most of the world’s musical cultures this is taken for granted without even having to think about it; it is only the dominance of the classical tradition that obliges us to state it so bluntly.’ [1]

This is 1987 the same year as Alperson’s ‘What is music?’ An introduction to the philosophy of music giving rise to wider interest in music as a social practice and David Elliot’s 1995 philosophy of music education.

In 2012, and quite by chance, a visit to my sister in the North East of England coincided with the Durham Miner’s Gala.  So, on the train to Durham, down the hill from the railway station and as the street narrowed there was the banner of Thirslington Miners’ Lodge, their brass band and a tightly packed crowd together ‘musicking’.  Here and now the music being lived, giving meaning to the lives of all those gathered. As the band came to the end of their piece they created a rumble effect, low quiet trilling and a signal to the crowd to urge the band to reprise the piece just played which of course they did to the delight of all. Meaning being made through acts of ‘self definition, an exploration, an affirmation and a celebration of one’s identity, of who one is’. [2]

Later I followed the band in procession to the cathedral – the preacher the turbulent priest Giles Fraser and we sang Jerusalem. I had heard it earlier in the day on TV coming from Trent Bridge cricket ground used as part of the pre-match phantasmajorics. And then I thought about how Parry’s setting had first been used by a Women’s Peace movement during the First World War and it will be heard again at the Last Night of the Proms. On each occasion understood differently, the music living within webs of meaning as Chris Philpott would say. [3 ]

A conundrum for me in the thinking of Small is his insistence that musicking has no moral dimension. It is not a matter of good or bad musicking. There is just musicking. The idea is ethically neutral.

Small’s insistence that musicking is to be seen as being beyond ethical consideration is out of tune with much contemporary philosophy of music education which sees music education as being essentially ethical in nature. Wayne Bowman, arguing for thinking of music education as induction into a set of musical practices points out that musical practices like ‘Human practices are places where we learn and rehearse right action: where we learn to formulate and address the fundamental human question, what kind of person it is good to be, what kind of people we wish to become. Practices, musical and others, are where we learn our most important lessons about who we are and who we aspire to become. On this account, human practices [including musical practices] are profoundly important ethical resources.’ [4]

But what could we take from Small into a music education that is in the institution of the school and sponsored by the state?

A little time ago at the  ISM ‘Guide to Progression, curriculum and assessment’ day we had plenty of opportunity to talk and think around the topic in the light of a new National Curriculum. This involved thinking about the values and vision that we hold for music teaching at Key Stage 3 (age 11-14).  

Before I sounded forth in our small group discussion I did say that I had had a long time to think about this. I should have added that I have enjoyed the privilege of bringing together the ideas generated by the classroom research of secondary school music teachers. This has involved a dialogue between my evolving ideas, their ideas and reflection on the realities of the classroom, what works and what might work better. And what is thought to be worthwhile in the name of a music education. Somewhere in this is the voice of Christopher Small.

1. Each class is thought of as a community of music-makers. The class take it as given that they will be sounding out music together for much of the time as singers and players. They will learn to ‘face each other’ musically. [5]

2. Great store will be given to the climate of the classroom where every person will be heard musically and known as a shaper of the curriculum that will unfold. This will involve establishing ‘voice protocols’ that contribute to the social dynamics of the classroom, the subtleties of pedagogy and the growing trust created between teacher and pupil, and pupil and pupil.  

3. The teacher will be instructor, facilitator and mediator. By mediator I mean that the teacher is respected for knowing good musical places to go, for being ‘the more knowledgeable other’ and the bearer of culture. The teacher brings to the classroom what will take pupils to musical places unimaginable.

These will be powerful stimulants all with human interest, provoking enquiry, curiosity and questions that will have no answers as the conversation continues, and as meaning is made through a relational pedagogy where teacher, pupil and what is being learnt enable all to say ‘this is who we are’. 

And we are the knowledge rich music makers with a window into beauty and truth.


[1] Small, C. (1987) Music of the Common Tongue. John Calder. Pages 50-51.

[2] Small, C. (2011) Prologue: Misunderstanding and Reunderstanding, in (eds.) Felicity Laurence and Olivier Urbain, Music and Solidarity. Transaction Publishers. Page (xi)

[3] See chapter 4 ‘The Justification for Music in the Curriculum’ in (eds.) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.

[4] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/scholarly-paper-the-ethical-significance-of-music-making-by-wayne-bowman/

[5] On ‘musical facing’ see https://jfin107.wordpress.com/through-the-lens-of-levinas-practices-of-facing-in-the-music-classroom-and-beyon

2019: the year of curriculum intent

A happy new to my readers who now populate 124 countries of the world. Music education would seem to have a global speak.

In 2018 I have had something of an obsession with the question of knowledge and its complexities in the case of music. There are some twenty blogs on the topic. There will a good amount of repetition no doubt. However, attention to the nature of musical knowledge has never been more critical in view of the official way in which knowledge is being conceptualised as part of curriculum reform in England.

The Greeks had some twelve words for knowledge. The Germans and French have at least two and in all three cases the distinction is made between a scientific form of knowing, knowing that something is the case, and other forms of knowing. The Greek words techne (art, craft, skill) and phronesis (prudence) offer ways of knowing that have ethical significance, for example.

The dominant discourse in England speaks of bodies of knowledge and it is ‘knowing that’ into which all other murmurings of ways of knowing are collapsed.

2019 in England will be the year when our schools will be re-setting their curriculum statements. You see there are the three Is – Intent; Implementation; Impact.

These are the markers set down by Ofsted, the school’s inspection body in England.

Ofsted is the piper that calls the tune in England. [1]

Sean Harford HMI, National Director for Education at OFSTED clarifies what is to be understood by the three Is.

‘The curriculum is a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage (Intent); for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (Implementation); and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations (Impact.achievement)’ [2]

Knowledge and understanding. No mention of skills.

Just think about the wonder of what we understand as a musical skill. The crafting of a musical phrase, the placing of a sound within a sea of silence …

And what kind of knowledge will Ofsted have in mind?

And what of musical understanding?

Musical understanding is defined by cognitive psychologist John Sloboda as akin to getting a joke – music understood without the mediation of language. I am the music while the music lasts.

Perhaps behind the scenes is an ideological conflation of a narrow conception of culture with a narrow conception of knowledge.


[1] Many of my world-wide readers may find it difficult to comprehend how it is that a school’s monitoring body can be such a powerful agent of change, acting as the chief re-contextualiser of the field. (See Basil Bernstein on the Official Re-contextualising Field ((ORF)))

Ofsted operate without fear or favour creating fear and trembling.

[2] Source not known but taken from a consultant’s powerpoint slide.