Thursday, 10 February 2011

Was Monday Such A Great Day For Music?

On Monday of this week the UK Secretary of State for Education, in responding to the Henley Review of Music Education , declared it a great day for music and that everyone involved in music in the UK should be pleased with the government's response. Well, perhaps now that the sound of party-poppers and backs being slapped has died down, it might be an appropriate time for a more objective consideration.

My concerns around the Henley report are three-fold:

1. That it was largely discussing the stuff around the edges, and didn't focus enough on the core of music education. What goes on in primary and secondary schools, as part of the 'core' curriculum, is where the bulk of music in this country is made - from kids aged 5 to 14, and, thanks to Musical Futures, there's been a big increase in numbers of students still making music, beyond that stage. I lost count of the number of times that I read in the papers this week that  music education receives £82m  per year. No, I'm sorry, music education receives a heck of a lot more than that - think of every classroom music teacher's salary, for a start. The whole debate pre and post the publication of Darren Henley's report has placed the extra-curricular work of music services' instrumental tuition services, above the core provision in every primary and secondary. There was more space spent discussing the much-heralded In Harmony projects (which currently run in a handful of schools at an unsustainable cost) than there was on the quality of the core entitlement in the curriculum. Which brings me to...

2. That it was almost entirely uncritical of the quality of current provision and structures - how is it possible to do a comprehensive review of music education, and not refer to the most recent OFSTED review of music provision in school? Could it be because OFSTED assessed music provision in primary and secondary schools as less than 'good' in half of schools inspected, over a 3 year period? When does a review become a piece of advocacy? I suspect it's when the myriad number of representative groups bombard you with pleas to mention their project/provision and you produce a report which, as this one does, praises everyone and therefore upsets no-one. Why did the report, for instance, not mention that the notion of coordinated local provision  ('hubs') was first mentioned in the Music Manifesto report six years ago? If it was approved then as a good idea - and it was - and we have had  music services charged with creating Local Area Music Partnership Plans for the past four years, why is it still necessary to say we need better local music coordination, and recommend that the same music services be responsible for it? The unpalatable truth is that many music service 'plans' haven't been't worthy of the name, and yet making the same call seems to be the new 'big idea' of the review.

Please don't get me wrong - I'm not having a pop at music services. Some of them do coordinate activities very well indeed, but for most of them it's simply not what they are good at, nor does their lack of external connections make it possible. Their core business is providing small group instrumental tuition, and why shouldn't they be left alone to do that? The report is essentially asking them to do what the school sports trust does for sports in local communities, but with no recommendations as to how to re-structure themselves. Well, here's a radical idea,   one I would have liked to have seen in the review: nationalise the music service. A National Music Service with a single, centralised, (and cost effective) back-office function would not only save a ton of money, it would also ensure that priorities are common across regions, best practice shared quickly, and would prevent the patchy quality of provision so frequently referred to in reports.

3. The lasting impression is that our organisations are effective and the quality of provision is excellent. Why, therefore, would anyone feel the need to follow Henley's urging for a single national body speaking for music? Fragmentation alone is not a good enough reason - if it's working in its own slightly chaotic way, why the panic to fix it? The net result of the report, and the government's response to it, is a huge collective sigh of relief, and, frankly, there'll be little sense of urgency on this issue. There was some classic political posturing before the report got published: everyone expected the worst in terms of funding, so that when music service jobs, and a few projects, were financially saved for another year (and it's only another year) we were all meant to be grateful.

If the music community had attended the Whole Education event this week there may have been a new sense of urgency instilled. For they would have heard Mick Waters (former head of curriculum at QCA and a man well used to reading the political runes) strongly suggest that music, and other arts subjects, will be taken out of the compulsory core curriculum when the National Curriculum Review concludes in two years time.  We've already seen large numbers of schools taking steps to remove their music options post-14, so as to funnel students into the new English Baccalaureate subjects, and the Guardian carried a report this week of similar fates befalling other arts subjects. So, it's entirely possible that we could lose music at all stages of the curriculum in most of our schools, by 2013. We know that the government is determined to reduce the number of subjects within the core curriculum: cue subject pitted against subject in an unseemly scramble to make it into the pen before the gate closes (which is why having a single voice for music education is so pressing).

I'm not a conspiracist by nature, but I believe there's a very real possibility that the hidden agenda behind the government's support for the review is to get it off the political hook when such a scenario occurs.  Having supported all the stuff which goes on outside school hours, it can claim that kids are still getting a 'rich cultural experience' - it's just that second period on a Thursday is reserved for 'real' academic subjects, not mucking about on guitars.

But that's the problem. Fewer than 10% of kids access music instrumental tuition. If you add up all the kids who take part in all the other stuff - projects in the community, playing in their local orchestras, etc - you might get that figure up to 25-30%. Music in the primary and secondary curriculum is the only place where every young person gets exposure to music education - and, please take note, media outlets and politicians: there is much more to music education than learning to play a musical instrument!

So, will we still look back on last Monday as a great day for music if, in a couple of year's time, it's been preserved for the minority, but lost as a universal entitlement for everyone?


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  1. This is an impressive collection of reflections, Dave – easily the most coherent analysis I have read concerning the review, and I’ve read quite a few! It seems that we have very few in the music education community who are willing to speak out and ask the tough questions. The impression I’m getting is that everyone is being very guarded prior to what will be an undignified scramble to climb aboard the National Plan for Music Education bandwagon…

    My own disappointment is to do with the Vision – I just can’t see one! With a vision statement, I would expect to see a clear picture stretching into the future. Instead there are some blurry images projecting forward a few months. Some of the key suggestions are vague – some of the government responses vaguer. No clear messages on what curriculum music might look like, how hubs might work, provision for SEN, developing the use of ICT. Much uncertainty on how we train the future workforce. No guidance as to how the music education organisations can work to produce a coordinated response for the sector. And you are absolutely right – far too much stuff about the frills around the edges and very little on teachers and students in classroom music making. I fear that many primary and secondary teachers reading this will feel distinctly marginalised and therefore unlikely to engage with the development of policy in the months ahead.

    Mind, I’m not blaming Darren Henley for all this. I’m still not convinced that the consultation document was asking the right questions….

  2. Dear David,

    I'm very interested to read this truthful, considered analysis of Henley, and one not compromised by partisan considerations. You are spot on in both your championing of Curriculum Entitlement and highlighting the inability of some music services to deliver something approaching a modern, co-ordinated offer (ours feels like they stop evolving somewhere around 1987...)

    Most worringly, the Review appears to be a teacher-free zone in terms of their views and opinions. My concern is that discussions for the National Plan could end up resembling a top-down consultation with too many overlapping corners being fought and few authentic voices heard from the classrooms. It feels like Michael Gove has effectively given the sector a year to 'sort itself out' and start communicating more clearly about what we value and prioritise in Music education.

  3. Jonathon:
    Pls do me a favour, and cut-and-paste this very reasoned comment to the blog which is now my main site (I'm closing this one down). I'm taking part in a panel discussion on the Review in a couple of weeks and I want to point people to the comments - the majority of which make similar points!

    Sorry to ask you to do this the new blog is :

  4. I love green day music but can't find good trustworthy tabs for the bass guitar?

  5. Why is modern day music so utterly terribly bad, compared to groups like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones?

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