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Changing the Nature of Music Education?

Yesterday, a prayer was answered after a long time suffering in my current post.  My miracle arrived in the form of being appointed the head of music in a private/independent school.  For 4 years i have fought blood, sweat and tears to make music work in mainstream schools.  I served my time, staying til ungodly hours ensuring students who didn’t even know what a stave was, could have a chance at passing their GCSE exam at the detriment of my own personal life, and subsequently keep me on a pay scale and in a job.  I arranged my own music for extra curricular music, as we had no budget and a need to keep music on the rise to inspire those younger students coming in.  And it was all working!  I have an orchestra of ten, a successful school choir who have sung in events at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, and a steel pan band that are paid to perform at local concerts they are that good.  And despite all of this that i had created in the short space of two years, from nothing, i was still dealt with the ‘death card’ last term, the words no music teacher wants to hear, “Music is going on a carousel”.  And by carousel, they’re not talking about a fun amusement in a park, they’re talking about rotating music as a subject labelling it as not significant to receive a simple hour of curriculum time a week.

It’s over.  Time for fight or flight.  And boy, did i fight!  I was emotional wreck in front our timetabling SLT, and yet ‘Forest Schools’ (yes, it is a jolly to the forest) was going to take priority over music on the curriculum, and we could be facing seeing students for as little as 10 hours a YEAR!  Students could arrive to my GCSE course having only received 20 hours of prior musical training (in comparison to 80 hours prior to this….).  Before my eyes, I watched as music GCSE numbers would evidently fall as students will have no where near a substantial enough understanding to pursue a music GCSE (unless they were at least grade 4….), and thus music would then be nothing within our school.  So, why?  Why is this happening?

“Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys.”

  1. Gove, Speech at Cambridge University, 2011.

The above quote is definitely a good place to start.  Is music in education an academic, traditional subject for only those whom take the instrumental route?  Or is it a progressive subject which is accessible to all, facilitating opportunities in the classroom to access voice, guitar, computer technology, or other forms of ‘modern instrument’?

In recent times, we in the music profession have been extremely fortunate to have the above musical perspectives working relatively successfully together, not only within the set curriculum at key stage 3, but also at key stage 4 and 5.  Traditional music aspects, such as aesthetic listening and the performance of graded performance pieces are represented within the GCSE music courses.  More progressive musical routes were also well represented through BTEC national awards[1], amongst others, which permitted students to complete a qualification in music devoid of aesthetic listening exams and with autonomy over performances.   All of the above qualifications were represented at key stage 5, widely accepted by universities for an array of music courses.

Conversely, as a result of new Government school policies, music is facing a time of tempestuous transformation.  The Government has removed a more progressive BTEC Level 3 Music (KS5) from school performance tables, favouring the inclusion of Grade 6 instrumental awards[2] within KS4 performance tables – a debatably traditional route.  Additional changes have included the introduction of the EBacc, which requires schools to enable 90% of their students to leave Year 11 with 5 ‘rigorous, academic’ subjects by 2020.  This has seemingly led schools into a debate between providing performance tables, and providing for their students’ freedom of choice.  Whilst this policy change is not directly related to music, music has failed to become a part of the EBacc.  With only 17% of schools on average currently achieving the EBacc, schools are seeking ways to ensure new Government policies are met to ensure their survival on performance tables.

Unfortunately, within my own school this has impacted upon music and the newly labelled ‘enrichment’ subjects.  Academies who take responsibility for their own curriculums are able to reduce their ‘open option’ subjects in order to facilitate the extra time needed on the required EBacc subjects, but what affect is this having on music, both on the KS3 curriculum and as an options subject?  Will it survive, or will it become a subject only existing in enrichment times and through peripatetic lessons?

I personally, believe it to be the latter.  So ladies and gentleman, or perhaps fellow music practitioners, i am jumping ship.  Who knows, perhaps my future holds the same problems in just a different brick surrounding?  But this is most certainly my last ditch attempt to try and do what i trained to do back in 2012…….teach music.

[1] BTEC Nationals provide specialist, work-related learning across a range of sectors. Delivering the knowledge, skills and understanding students need to prepare for their chosen career, BTEC Nationals offer progression to higher or further education or into employment. (qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/btec)

[2] For example, ABRSM or Trinity graded musical examinations.

Completing a Masters in Education and realising that perhaps, ignorance really is bliss?

Recently, i spent a year dedicating every day, hour, minute (you get the idea…) to writing 20,000 words about a given educational topic, researching, investigating, and reaching a lovely conclusion (I’ll compile a more thorough blog post about this thesis and its finding soon…) Now, upon reflection, i don’t particularly feel 20,000 words was necessary when i could in fact sum up my conclusion within one delightful, confined sentence;

“The youth of today are the most depressed, anxious, and mentally ill generation i feel we could have ever witnessed – and it’s all educations fault.”

Some might agree immediately with the above statement, and recognise it in the students they are seeing every day.  Some might feel it completely inaccurate, and feel that we need to take a reality check in reminding ourselves that past generations have been through wars, fought for equality, suffered injustices and lived in poorer circumstances than students of the current educational system will ever know.  However, from these experiences came resilience, determination to succeed, and an understanding of the really important things in life.  Students within our current educational system are becoming nothing more than glorified robots, and whilst schools put in their every effort to fight back – it is seemingly with success that is diminishing year upon year.  Students are losing the rights that have been steadily built up over the years, they’re becoming machines for churning out information they have been told they need to pass exams for, staying long hours after school, coming in at weekends, holidays to ensure they will pass exams and know everything for a set of grades even the government can’t identify benchmarks for, with only weeks til students sit the exam!  Students can feel the stresses of teachers, who are trying to teach the unknown as a result of more government changes – and at what end?

Students have lost the greatest thing they need; freedom. Freedom to decide what they want from their education, freedom to develop as the person they would like to be, freedom to reflect and enjoy every experience handed to them.  I recently directed our schools musical, for which some year 11’s auditioned and were awarded lead roles (rightly so!).  These year 11’s scarcely attended after school rehearsals, but not for lack of effort!  Every week i would be greeted by a line of year 11’s apologising that they had been instructed to attend an after school revision session, despite begging curriculum teachers to at least attend musical rehearsals for half of the after school slot at the very least.  These students would spend lunch times, and time from 4:45pm onwards coming to myself for help – completing a ‘breakfast club’, the school day, an after school session, and then trying to fit in what they were actually passionate about.  Is this really what school was for?  How are our mechanics, artists, plumbers, plasterers, musicians, performing arts and sportsmen benefiting from this schooling system?  Just ‘suck it up’ and get on with it until 16, when students can actually access an apprenticeship scheme in something they enjoy? That’s if they haven’t been encouraged to continue at sixth form because of their results, only to drop out after the first year and then be launched, with no support, into the wilderness of the real world?

So why are the students losing their freedom, are teachers just nasty work hungry rulers?  Is it the senior leadership teams,  power hungry for an ‘outstanding’ school with ‘outstanding’ results?  As with most things at present, we perhaps need to look much higher than any party within the school building, and to a certain educational minister?  When will this rule of robot-creation change?  Who knows.  But i know i, as many other teachers are, am spending the vast majority of my free time trying my very best to ensure i offer students not only the knowledge they need to achieve academically, but also to tools to enjoy their school life – but how much longer is this manageable for, before the next change approaches?

Lets wait and see?

A. K