Nick Gibb is right about many things to do with music education, but good intentions need to be paid for

The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, published an article on Friday, in the Times (‘Forget Spotify: I want every child to leave primary school able to read music’, The Times, 11 January 2019). This is behind a paywall, but Gibb has also posted the article on his blog so all can read it.

He describes being introduced to classical music at primary school, through various pieces designed in part for children by Britten, Saint-Saëns and Prokofiev, then singing works of Handel, Parry and Allegri in choir, but realises rightly that fewer children are benefiting from similar experiences, and with that in mind worked with various institutions to devise a recommended playlist. Gibb also absolutely notes that classical music is certainly not the only tradition or the only one to teach, also drawing attention to jazz and folk, music from Senegalian and Indian traditions, and the power of mass choral singing. He goes on to say:

I want every child to leave primary school able to read music, understanding sharps and flats, to have an understanding of the history of music, as well as having had the opportunity to sing and to play a musical instrument.

Noting that little was affected in terms of music education by 2012 reforms to the national curriculum, he expresses the following worry:

I am concerned that too few pupils are benefiting from a sufficiently rigorous approach to it. Like so many things, music requires, patience, dedication and application. No one ever woke up one morning playing the guitar like Eric Clapton.

I could not agree more with all the above sentiments, and deplore the fact that focused and rigorous musical education, or exposure to music over and above what might be encountered on an everyday basis (which Gibb frames in terms of ‘Spotify playlists’), are increasingly unavailable to all except a few, mostly those who are privately educated. And of course, as those who followed the 2017 public debates on musical notation, absolutely agree with him that every child should be able to leave primary school being able to read music (except of course those who have special learning needs or difficulties, but the same could be said about any type of reading). For more on this, see the response to the 2017 article by Charlotte C. Gill on music notation, and my follow-up article in The Conversation (‘The insidious class divide in music teaching’, 17 May 2017).

Gibb continues by noting a new panel of musicians and educationalists who he has tasked to draw up a new musical curriculum for primary schools. Details of this panel can be found here, an impressive list of individuals. He also notes a £1.33 million funding boost to music education hubs.

All of this is good and springs from the best intentions. But there is more to it than that. There are wider issues of cuts to music in secondary schools, not least because of pressure on pupils to take subjects in the EBacc. Nonetheless, however important this subject is, Gibb is speaking here about primary schools, so I will stick to those. A facile tweet from children’s author Michael Rosen asked ‘has he [Gibb] consulted with music teachers on this matter? Is Gibb an expert on music education? Can he read music? What has it done for him?’ No Schools Minister will ever be an expert on all areas of education, and Gibb has made clear that he is consulting a wide range of individuals involved in music education. Whether he himself can or cannot read music I do not know (I would suspect so on the basis of some of the choral repertoire he mentions having sung), but that is irrelevant as to whether he wants others to be able to learn it.

A group of musicians published a letter in the Observer in May 2018 expressing huge concern about the decline in instrumental music teaching in primary schools. In response the Department of Education noted that they were investing almost £500m in music and arts education programmes between 2016 and 2020. £300m of this was for music education hubs, and £120m for the Music and Dance Scheme, which enables some to attend specialist music schools. This amounted in 2018/19 to £75 million of ring-fenced funding to the hubs. But as detailed in an important survey from the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), wider cuts to their budgets greatly limit schools’ ability to buy in services or replace and repair instruments, while excessive pressure for accountability in other subjects, especially maths and English, lead to music’s being marginalised within the curriculum. Many respondents noted the decline in the number of staff in school music departments, or how music teaching is allocated to other types of teachers, or conversely music teachers are having to teach outside their subject area. Others commented on how the hubs remain short of cash, and instrumental tuition is often offered just for one year, in the context of schools in which little else goes on musically. Whole Class Ensemble Teaching (WCET), has been found increasingly to be available for less than one term, while there are few routes to progress beyond this to further musical education after WCET has ended. Access to singing teaching was also found to have declined.

Gibb’s intentions are good, but clearly more is needed. If he is serious about his wishes, money needs to be found and ring-fenced for dedicated music teachers within primary schools, over and above what is provided by the hubs. Furthermore, there should be proper tests to ensure such teachers have the fundamental music skills, including notational and aural skills, which alas are no longer necessarily guaranteed even by possession of  a music degree. Teachers who cannot themselves read music are obviously unable to teach children to do so. I hope very much the committee will take account of the concerns of organisations such as the ISM and others who have been looking at these issues for some time, and in light of their recommendations Gibb or any successor will match their intentions with the appropriate resources and provision of time within the curriculum.

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