Breadth and balance post 14

I recall, somewhen about 1985 in my Basingstoke comprehensive school, the question being asked by a parent at a year 9 options evening: why don’t pupils continue their study of all subjects in years 10 and 11?

This question was asked in the public forum and alongside other parents who questioned the compulsory ‘aesthetic option’ requiring all pupils to study an arts subject post age 14. The next day teachers of art, ceramics, music, film and drama were called to a meeting with the head and deputy. We sensed that our highly prized aesthetics option was under threat. We went to the meeting armed with chapter and verse on the value of the arts. At the time there was no shortage of philosophical enquiry into aesthetic and artistic knowing and the uniqueness of this way of understanding the world. We presented the head and deputy with reasoned arguments supporting our place in the curriculum. We deployed the weight of intellectual authority with confidence and conviction.

The aesthetic option lived on and in end of course evaluations pupils expressed great satisfaction with the ways in which the uniqueness of the arts had enriched their lives and how the experience had been sharply different to other subjects. It was part of a comprehensive comprehensive school education, a result of progressive 1970s thinking reviving a liberal education and saving education from a lazy form of traditionalism.

Now, some thirty years later there is the EBacc and the arts are excluded and only a few enlightened headteachers feel confident enough to sustain an argument for a post 14 arts education.

Some point to the compulsory nature of English and English Literature and all that is offered there in the cause of an arts education. But many will have noticed a general shift in discourse towards a certain view of rigour, competence and functionality. The idea of an aesthetic dimension to education is now unheard of and long silenced to be replaced by reductionist notions of knowledge.

Pupils between the age of 14 and 16 will be wanting to give meaning to their lives through artistic expression and aesthetic experience and there should be a broad range of options available across a school’s offering.

Did you know that a first DfE proposal in respect to the formation of the new GCSE examination in music was that 80% of the marks should be allocated to a written paper and that the ABRSM graded theory exams were considered as a model?

Interestingly, in the final reckoning there is a component of the exam referred to as ‘knowledge’, not aesthetic knowledge, not the wonder of occurrent knowledge. personal knowledge or embodied knowledge but, you’ve got it, propositional knowledge.

Alas, our current political masters have a poor grasp of the order of things.









The struggle for the music curriculum

If music is to be a part of general education then any consideration of music education’s purposes needs to engage with wider educational debate.  And this will involve considering what conceptions of education we hold alongside our conceptions of music education.

Of course, conceptions of education and music education have never been fixed or agreed upon, rather continually contested. There have always been, as we might say, ‘interested parties’, groups promoting this or that as the desired purposes.

Raymond Williams proposed that the 19thcentury debate about the purpose of education could be best understood in relation to three such groups:

  1. The public educators (who saw education as a natural right).
  2. The industrial trainers (who saw education as a means of economic efficiency).
  3. The old humanists (who saw education as a liberal or humane way but not as vocational training).

Williams maintained that the school curriculum which emerged was a compromise between all three with the industrial trainers holding the upper hand. [1]

Gordon Cox, in his distinguished account of music education in England 1924 -1999, suggests that ‘the struggles between groups representing different conceptions of what musical experiences should be embodied in the curriculum, and to what ends the curriculum in music might be directed’ [2] can be understood with reference to analysis by Kliebard. [3]

In characterizing the groups who have competed in promoting what conception of education should prevail Kliebard proposes that there are:

1. The humanists, the keepers of tradition, tied to the finest developments of the Western canon, and committed to the traditional skills that were associated with it.

We might note the current interest in establishing a knowledge-based/knowledge-rich curriculum.

2. The developmentalists, committed to a curriculum in harmony with children’s real interests.

We might note the ongoing advocacy for a learner-centred curriculum.

3. The social meliorists, who maintain that schools act as major forces for social change and social justice.

We might note claims made by both 1 and 2 above in the cause of social justice.

A) Being the birthright of all and providing all with a particular form of high cultural capital derived from 1 above where social change would take a cultural restorative form, and

B) In liberating children and young people from the structures that prevent equity and the hegemonic power of 1 above.

4. The advocates of social efficiency, who believe that social utility was the supreme criterion against which the value of school subjects was measured.

We might note the 21stcentury skills movement and the linking of music education with the creative industries.

Of course, such typologies are not intended to be exclusive and I have barely used them to analyse the case of music education. Therein lies a task for the reader that I hope will  cause reflection on the purposes we each promote and the kind of curriculum we each desire.

Gordon Cox points out that while all this changes to some extent over time, it is the humanist tradition, (1) above, that has always been pre-eminent. Its relationship to academic status works powerfully in its favour in the case of music.

One response to all this contestation is to seek out the dissolving of the types into one unified conception.

Alas, music education, like education itself remains, and is likely to remain a contested concept.

There are struggles to pursue and compromises to be made across what are for the most part irreducible tensions. [4]


[1] Raymond Williams (1961) The Long Revolution. Penguin Books.

[2] Gordon Cox (2002) Living Music in Schools 1923-1999: Studies in the History of Music Education in England. Ash gate. Page 129.

[3] Kliebard, H. M. (1995) The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958. Second Edition. Routledge.

[4] The process of reforming the GCSE (2013-14) examination makes for an exemplary case of such struggle.

The creative impulse is strong

Hail, bounteous May, that doth inspire

Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!

John Milton


Sunshine overhead and a chilled breeze coming across the Fens from the East on this May morning. No dewy idyll but two hundred children aged 7 to 9 assembled and forming a rectangle, lining the school’s netball court. They are expectant of visiting Morris Dancers who will perform their May Day dance.

The dancers along with their two accordionists take their place.

The dance begins.

The children clap along.

Some move partnering their neighbour in response.

The dancers introduce their stick-slapping into the musical texture.

The children maintain their lively attention.

Now time for the children to come into the performance arena to dance the two-step patterns in lines at first, before moving into circles.

The circles work best.

The event comes to a close.

The children file back to their classrooms.

At break time impromptu dances erupt around the playground.

Gestures awaiting refinement.

Is not gesture at the root of all art making, all artistic creativity? Do not what we understand as discrete artistic formulations arise through the refinement and extension of gesture? Do not dance, drama, vocal/instrumental performance, mark making, drawing, painting and the shaping of materials arise from the life of the undifferentiated gesture so readily available?

On this May morning the creative impulse is strong.

The language we use

‘Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. …  Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purpose.’ [1]

Orwell is writing about political discourse and the ways in which language is able to deceive and manipulate reality. We are reminded that it is we, in the language we choose to use, who create ways of thinking about things.  The way we speak and write about music education is no different.

When I write my blogs I am fully conscious that I am contributing to the discourse of music education albeit in a modest way. I consciously choose to write about ‘music making’ rather that ‘music’, for example, and whenever I come close to anything related to assessment I make sure I use the word ‘valuing’ rather than ‘measuring’. Yes, in a sense I am a propagandist for particular ways of thinking about music education.

It would seem that the term ‘music making’ has come into common use and I think this is a good thing. It connotes the idea of active participation and suggests, in an inclusive way, a wide range of musical activities. It is process orientated. We could also speak of ‘music made’ but I am yet to see this.

Perhaps in some future manifestation of the National Curriculum for Music ‘music making’ will have prominence and in the GCSE specifications music making will replace the performing-composing dichotomy.

In last week’s blog I highlighted an expression new to me – ‘creative instruction’ and I proposed that this was worth looking into and perhaps determining what could be understood by it.

In general our music education discourse is impoverished. Do we really know what each other are talking about? There is the potential for a richer discourse and consideration about when we should move from connotation to denotation.


[1] Orwell, G. (1962) Politics and the English Language. Inside the Whale and Other Essays. Penguin Books. Page 143.

Knowledge of musical experience

In last week’s blog (scroll down) I set out the eloquent testimony of one music teacher communicating her mission and vision for music in her school community. I will here highlight five themes.

1. Music is integral to the life and learning of the school.

‘And when by concentration and practice a performance hits its groove, music can activate a joy or elation in expression that can go on to inform and permeate achievement across the disciplines. This is why music can be – and I believe should be – at the centre of a learning community.’

Once music has a lively presence in the school the climate of the school is changed.

The idea of performance ‘hitting its groove’ suggests that it is this that is a key condition of successful and meaningful ongoing musical participation. The idea of being in the groove is a powerful one and a place where fluency of expression is found and where the learner comes to know that they are shaping themselves musically. This provides what Emily Crowhurst refers as particular form of knowledge or knowing – knowledge of musical experience. And this relies upon

2. Inclusive practice

There are established ensembles and their own ensembles.

‘I hope all our students can, in their own ways and at their own levels, access that aliveness that comes from performing a piece of music with enthusiasm and commitment.’

And upon

3. Creative instruction

I haven’t come across the term ‘creative instruction’ but I imagine a to-ing and fro-ing dialogue between teacher and student as a whole class pedagogy.

I suspect the idea of creative instruction is full of subtleties and nuances that may be difficult to codify. But we should try.

  1. Whole class singing

While the music programme thrives on diversity, differential access and a plurality of musical practices there is the core activity of whole class singing which all students of all ages participate in.

  1. The relational ethos

‘… listening to one another, trusting one another, and having fun with one another. All this happens when we bring music to one another – that is, when music brings us together.’

The school is small and all age. This is a very particular case and it remains for others to generalise as they wish from it.

One music teacher’s mission and vision

Here a music teacher was asked to write a few paragraphs about her ideas for music in the school for those attending the school’s Spring Concert.

“For me, music is about working together, and about participation. In the making of music, pupils work with the song or the piece, they work with each other, and they work with their audience. They learn to work with themselves. And when by concentration and practice a performance hits its groove, music can activate a joy or elation in expression that can go on to inform and permeate achievement across the disciplines. This is why music can be – and I believe should be – at the centre of a learning community. But the ideal of participation and collaboration means little if music remains the preserve of a select few. From the moment I arrived at the school this year, I have made it my mission to involve all the children of the junior and senior school in making and performing music. Because we have many children of different ages and abilities, children with different interests and backgrounds, this has meant broadening the kinds of music that we learn, sing, and play, and it has meant developing creative instruction and programming to enable every child to find her rhythm, or his line. By expanding our instrumental exposure – to ukuleles, djembes, and keyboards – and above all by whole-class singing, at the school we are helping students to create transformative experiences and performances that every child can share in, equally and with joy.

The Spring Concert this year has afforded a platform for our established groups and ensembles. But it has also given whole classes an opportunity to perform together, in their own ‘ensembles’. This could be considered a risk! But I am excited for this to be the school where every child is a musician; where every child can approach music with seriousness – faithfully practising, carefully learning, courageously performing and aiming for musical excellence in whatever capacity she or he is capable of. Some children can only play one chord on the ukulele, whilst others can play everything and sing at the same time – this is ok! Perfection is not the goal; instead, I hope all our students can, in their own ways and at their own levels, access that aliveness that comes from performing a piece of music with enthusiasm and commitment.

It has been a huge pleasure for me to see the whole school contributing to our musical life throughout the year – not only in concerts like this one, but in assemblies, lessons, in auditions – and in the hallways! Our pupils are capable of breathtaking musicianship, but they are also capable of something greater, which is listening to one another, trusting one another, and having fun with one another. All of this happens when we bring music to one another – that is, when music brings us together.”

Next week I will draw out some themes from this articulate testimony, consider context and discuss issues arising.


An epiphany in the music room

I have noted over many years that beginning music teachers like other beginning teachers, understandably have a concern for how they express authority, gain respect from their classes, maintain order and teach without disruption. Experienced teachers sometimes report an anxiety as a new term comes around asking: will I be in control, will I still be able to do it?

None of this gets talked about very much.

The process of gaining confidence about how to be in the classroom appears to be a complex one.

I recall as a young teacher learning to manage classes by sheer force of personality before learning that giving pupils more agency over their learning could change this. But that only went so far. There remained another revelation to be had.

It was possible to hand over control to the pupils themselves.

I had found myself teaching PSHE and it was impressed upon me that this would require time for pupils to discuss issues as a whole class as a basis for clarifying their own values. By using well-tried techniques I discovered that there would come a moment in lessons when pupils stopped deferring to me, that is, expecting my comment, my interpretation, my approval or disapproval of what was being expressed. While the classroom was still based on my presence as the more knowledgeable other, together we were able to create a climate of openness and dialogue. This experience changed my understanding of who I was as a teacher.

So I was interested to hear from a music teacher telling me of a recent significant experience. The teacher writes:

‘The other week a whole year 8 lesson consisted of all students walking into the room, picking up a djembe drum each, and then proceeding to drum without direction or interference from me for a whole 45 minutes. They led their own music-making, and I simply watched, and occasionally followed one of their rhythms. When the lesson time was up, I did a 1-2-3-4 stop, and then told them their lesson was over. They thought that what they had done was the coolest thing ever. I felt like a significant thing had happened in my teaching career!’

Of course, the class had been directly taught drumming techniques and material from Senegalese drumming culture prior to this lesson.

And I expect the class had generated new material in the lesson described.

Music making is generative.

The teacher writes:

‘I felt like a significant thing had happened in my teaching career!’

Presumably such experiences serve to change the teacher-pupil relationship. The climate of the classroom changes opening up fresh possibilities, the possibility of nurturing dialogic space, for example.

Experiencing such epiphanies are likely to be critical in the developing self-understanding of the teacher.

I think it would be good if they came sooner rather than later.