Mrs Curwen’s surprise on Twitter!

The most retweeted and most ‘liked’ tweet I have ever made was a recent one, wherein I said this:

Sometimes I read things on edutwitter from someone who thinks they have discovered something amazing, which often sounds profoundy, thinky, or researchy, and I sigh and reflect on how music educators have known said thing for years. In evidence I give you Mrs Curwen, 1886:

  1. Teach the easy before the difficult.

  2. Teach the thing before the sign.

  3. Teach one fact at a time, and the commonest fact first.

  4. Leave out all exceptions and anomalies until the general rule is understood.

  5. In training the mind, teach the concrete before the abstract.

  6. In developing physical Skill, teach the elemental before the compound, and do one thing at a time.

  7. Proceed from the known to the related unknown.

  8. Let each lesson, as far as possible, rise out of that which goes before, and lead up to that which follows.

  9. Call in the understanding to help the skill at every step.

  10. Let the first impression be a correct one; leave no room for misunderstanding.

  11. Never tell a pupil anything that you can help him to discover for himself.

  12. Let the pupil, as soon as possible, derive some pleasure from his knowledge. Interest can only kept up by a sense of growth in independent power.

(Curwen, 1886)

A number of people commented on which ones they liked the most, and also which they didn’t! The controversial one in the list was number 11. This is unsurprising, as there has been for a while a meme on education social media that discovery learning, project based learning, guided discovery and their cognates are ‘bad’. This ranges from the “just bloody tell them” approach, to a general dissing of pupil-centred learning. So to be expected to be controversial, then. But a number of readers also pointed out that what Mrs C actually says is “Never tell a pupil anything you can help him to discover for himself” which places the emphasis away from the “never” if the teacher can help the learner (C19 gender specificity aside) discover it themselves. For a number of respondents this was their favourite one of the dozen anyway!

What is interesting  (at least I found it interesting!) was that this was picked up, liked, and retweeted many times far beyond the music education community, by people in all sorts of other subjects. This got me thinking about why this would be the case. I can think of a number of reasons, but I am going to concentrate (selfishly, I know but it’s my blog!) on two:

  1. We don’t have much space for teaching and learning history of education on current ITE courses
  2. Music education has a long and proud tradition of pedagogy which is often neglected by practitioners from within, let alone without.

I think number 1 here is interesting for a number of reasons. I don’t think it’s the fault of teachers that they don’t know very much about the history of education. I think this has been a deliberate act by politicians to remove this from ITE courses. And in-service CPD is so precious that it cannot be squeezed in as something which is simply of interest. History of education is only one aspect of what is missing, all sorts of things which may count as being ‘theory’ have been squeezed out, or removed:

…the Government has decided to resolve the tension between theory and practice by simply cutting out theory altogether, to leave only practice. (Northcott, 2011, p.9)

This seems a little sad to me. I am not for one moment casting aspersions on ITE, or ITT, but this removal of ‘knowledge’ from teacher preparation courses seems at odds with the “knowledge-rich” curriculum that some aspects of the Government and teaching profession prefer?

Turning to the second aspect, that of music eduaction and pedagogy, we know that there have been key texts on this for many centuries. Michael Mark’s pivotal “Music Education – Source Readings from Ancient Greece to Today” (1982) kicks off, as the title suggests, with Plato, and then takes us through a gamut of texts on this topic. (I don’t know if he includes Mrs Curwen, as with so many of my books I’ve lent my copy to someone!) But music education practitioners in England, at least, are trained according to precepts outlines above. This means that there is precious little time on a PGCE to develop thinking about teaching and learning in contemporary music education, without digging around in history. And bearing in mind that the Swanwick-Tillman spiral(Swanwick & Tillman, 1986)and ‘Sound and Silence’ (Paynter & Aston, 1970)are music history (meaning being published before the teachers were born) then anything much before then is seriously unlikely to get a look-in!

But even so, we music educators can have a hard time agreeing with each other, after all, as Bernarr Rainbow observed over 20 years ago:

Nor even among those who have defended music’s place in the curriculum has there been a greater measure of agreement on how it should be taught. Children have had their heads stuffed with facts – sometimes expressed in a dead language – before being permitted to utter a note. Some pupils have been limited to rote-singing; others have been obliged to sing everything at  sight – from manual signs, from the Gamut, from numerals, from sol-fa, from fixed or movable do, from sundry patent notations, or from the staff. …Certain of these disagreements – and others at least as contentious – survive in our own day. Contrary opinions are still expressed, and it is far from unknown for an earnest teacher to spend energy devising and trying out experimental methods which have already been tested long ago, and failed. (Rainbow, 1995, p. 43)

So why do I think Mrs Curwen’s ideas stirred up so much interest and agreement? I think it is because they are universal in nature, and apart from the C19 gender-specificity, offer elegantly phrased maxims that serve us well in our contemporary pedagogic quest.

Of course, as with all things, we are not the first to re-discover Mrs Curwen, and in Music Education can I point interested readers to Keith Swanwick’s “Music, Mind and Education” (Swanwick, 1988)where he discusses Mrs C’s maxims, and compares and contrasts them with those of Murray Schafer. This chapter is in turn commented on by Jonathan Savage, in his book “The Guided Reader to Teaching and Learning Music” (Savage, 2013).

But I also think it is often the case that the wealth of knowledge, experience, and understanding that we have as music educators can go unrecognised by our colleagues in other subject areas, who, through no fault of their own, are unaware of the long history that music education has in pedagogic, psychological, and practical research, and, let’s be frank, wisdom, that can inform other areas of teaching just as well as our own.

But it is also nice to see that Mrs Curwen is still relevant for the 21stCentury!




Curwen, A. J. (1886). The Teacher’s Guide to Mrs. Curwen’s Pianoforte method (the child pianist). Being a practical course in the elements of music. London: Curwen’s Edition.

Northcott, D. (2011) What do teachers want from teacher education? IN In defence of teacher education, SCETT, 2011

Paynter, J., & Aston, P. (1970). Sound and Silence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rainbow, B. (1995). The Challenge of History. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 3(1), 43-51.

Savage, J. (2013). The guided reader to teaching and learning music. London: Routledge.

Swanwick, K. (1988). Music, Mind, and Education: London: Routledge.

Swanwick, K., & Tillman, J. (1986). The sequence of musical development: a study of children’s compositions. British Journal of Music Education, 3(3), 305-309.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Why Music Educators Really Understand Skills – BJME editorial

I have been a bit busy and haven’t had time for a blog entry for a while. However, please have a read of my latest editorial for British Journal of Music Education entitled “Why Music Educators Really Understand Skills” available at (Hopefully it’s open access!) which provides my current thinking on this matter.

I wonder if this is another peculiarly English phenomenon?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Chinese Water Torture of Disinformation

Today I read this:

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools for England, said she supported the shift back towards traditional academic subjects at GCSE, as these offered the best chance of progress to higher-level study. … But she added Ofsted expected a broad education, including the arts, to be available in the early part of secondary school, arguing that schools should “embrace creative subjects” through extra activities such as plays, art clubs and orchestras. (Source:

At first, like many others on twitter, I was cross. Only Extra-Curricula? Huh!

But then I stopped and reflected on what I have come increasingly to think of as the Chinese Water Torture of Disinformation. This involves the steady drip-drip-drip of a constant but oh-so-gentle stream of things which in themselves are quite innocuous, after all who could be really affected by a gentle dripping? But which cumulatively over time lead to a significant change, either in the individual being tortured, or, in the case of music education, in the systemic but, again, oh-so-gentle effects of the dripping on the subject and its associated activity.

Am I being overly melodramatic? Probably. Well, maybe! But think what we have had dripped on us recently. In no particular order, here is a stream of consciousness list:

  • The telescoping of KS3 to 2 years, meaning we have lost a third of the time
  • The effects of the EBacc on GCSE importance perceptions
  • The internal market in school subjects created by accountability measures, placing music at the bottom
  • The effects of carousel type arrangements reducing already meagre time
  • The changes in GCSE syllabi prioritising certain forms of knowledge
  • The whole knowledge-skills thing in some quarters devaluing musical knowledge and prioritising knowledge about music (what Beethoven had for breakfast type stuff)
  • The unreasonable demands of some whole-school assessment systems
  • A focus away from musical learning and towards written learning in some schools (eg writing about singing, not doing singing)
  • The increase in after-school time for core subject top-up sessions, thus cutting music extra-curricula provision
  • The lost lunch times, preventing extra-curric music happening then
  • The mindsets that we seem to have start exam teaching in Y7, when this may not be appropriate for music (they need to learn and do first).
  • Whole-school CPD which largely ignores, or is irrelevant to music

And many, many more, I’m sure.

And now we are told that music is ‘nice’ as a sort of extra-curricular cultural capital input. Drip-drip-drip.

And whilst I will be accused of being far too Machiavellian, let me also invoke Godwin’s law, wherein any internet conversation will turn to Nazism at some point. Or reductio ad Hitlerum as Wikipedia nicely calls it! Well, Joseph Goebbels knew a thing or two about propaganda and messaging, and he said:

“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

And this, for me, is what the Chinese water torture of disinformation is doing. Words are being twisted, but they are also being used against us. After all, what reasonable person could believe that the core school subjects are not important? Where the cunning manoeuvre comes is in saying that if you don’t agree with this, you are against it.

“What, so you are in favour in lowering standards then, you blobby blobs?”

“No, I merely think that music and the arts are important too.”

“Yes of course, but we are in favour of raising standards, and so you want to dilute this?”

“No, I merely think that music and the arts are important too.”

“So you are in favour of Britain not competing on the global stage because our youngsters will lack the knowledge needed?”

“No, I merely etc…”

Very, very clever.

And finally, as my thoughts are of music, another Goebbels gem:

“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

And for the press, today add social media, and the effects of external groupthink (I haven’t mentioned Orwell!)

The great keyboard is being played, but we want the music changing.



Posted in Music Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

In which I get ratty about progress and progression in music education – yet again!

I’ve been thinking a lot again about these three words recently:


This has been particularly the case as I’ve been looking into Arts Council England data on WCET (Whole Class Ensemble Tuition), where the notion of continuation is added to the mix. In a report that’s currently just having the finishing touches put to it for Music Mark, I’ve thought about progress and progression like this:

  • Progress          – to make progress, to get better at something, to have greater depth of understanding or breadth of experience
  • Progression     – to go from WCET to a school band (etc.), then to a band of a higher standing, such as an area band, then a music centre band, or, in some schools, to move through more advanced ensembles within the school, and so on. In other words to make progress as in the definition above, and then avail oneself of progression routes available via the local hub, school, MAT, or whatever.

This then leaves continuation, which, in terms of WCET, is defined by the ACE data return for music hub leaders thus:

For the purpose of reporting continuation outcomes, the definition of continuation is when a pupil chooses to continue their musical education beyond WCET, regardless of the instrument/s learned (for example the child might have had WCET on the recorder, but decide to continue their musical education on the flute).

This is problematic itself, but for the moment I’m going to leave that alone, and just think about the words. What I wish to suggest is that in music education there is a danger that the three are used interchangeably, and I wish to suggest that that just isn’t the case.

Progress, as I see it, is a facet of learning. It can apply to classroom music, as well as to instrumental music learning. It is not a  uniquely defined construct, pupils can get better at, say, performing, without getting equally better at composing. They can better at understanding key aspects of music, say, major scale construction, but not improve their listening. Progress can be assessed, with difficulty, certainly in some cases, but progress here I am taking as attainment over time. Rapid progress is done, well, rapidly, whilst slow progress…you get the picture!

Progression in daily usage I think can mean two things – the way I defined it above, when it really means progression routes, but these can equally be called progression pathways or progression trajectories, whatever, they are about moving on. But – and this is a big but – it can also mean progress (as in my definition above) taking place over time. “Oh yes, young Ludwig’s progression in his ophicleide lessons this term has been remarkable! Indeed, Ludwig may soon be eligible for the county rare instruments ensemble” Which then is a progression route, thus nicely conflating the two!

Why am I banging on about this? Because in music education we have a grave tendency to sometimes inadvertently ‘otherise’ bits of music education we are not closely involved with. So for instrumental music the two meanings can rub along nicely besides each other, whereas for classroom music progression has a very specific and undoubtedly measurement based focus. SLT want to know about it. Assessment schedules are predicated on proving it. This means we need to think very carefully when we use the word about how the listener hears, and ‘en-baggages’ what we are saying, by adding their own understanding.

To which we need to add continuation. What does it mean to start on one instrument and continue on another? How long a gap is needed for continuation to simply not be counted? How about when something lies dormant in an individual, and they only get the chance later to do something about it? What progress has been made in this case?

Now, I’m not saying I’m correct in my definitions, but I am at least trying to disentangle various meanings of the words, and not simply assume that only ‘my way’ exists.

I’d like to close by saying that these aren’t the mad ravings of an academic (well, actually they are, sorry!) but that when we have ‘progression’ brought to the fore in music education, as we do currently, this academic gets really hacked off when people don’t even do the decent undergrad essay thing and define their terms at the outset!

Meantime I shall sit in my Ivory Tower (there’s a lot of those in Birmingham!) and ponder more on continuation.

Until then, hopefully some progress has been made in thinking about these things, and continuation of more blog-reading will follow at a later date!


Posted in Assessment, Progression, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Progress and Intervals

I’ve been thinking a lot about progress again recently. Despite the best intentions of ‘assessment without levels’, progress is still firmly one of the things being looked at.

I was thinking about progress whilst having a coffee in the sitting room, where we have a piano, and idly playing five-finger exercises in my mind (where I am much better at them). It then occurred to me that one of the problems that schools have with progress is that they treat it like progress occurs in semitones. Bear with me…

Keyboard image

On the piano, the distance from C to C# is a semitone, the distance from E to F is a semitone, and the distance from Abb to Ab is a semitone. We all know and understand this. Likewise we can construct intervals of great complexity, like a diminished 32nd, or something, and work out a couple of examples, using real notes. This is because all the semitones have the same interval, the same distance between them.

Now I know this is no great shock horror, and I also know that it only works in equal temperament, and I know too that it is a western classical construct, although guitar frets are built on the same idea. But in assessment, especially in progression, what we have often is mistaking progression for semitones. Let me explain.

Simple example is back in the days of National Curriculum levels. We assumed that going from a 4c to a 4b was ‘one sub-level of progress’, and was the same as going from 6b to 6a. But was it? Were our assessments so finely-calibrated that we could be certain of that?

Today, without levels, I worry that flightpaths are forcing the same problems on us. Some kids might make a minor 3rd of progress, some might make a perfect 4th, and some might only make a perfect unison, ie appear to make no progress, but that unison is now in tune, so maybe they have got better!

We also have the issue that only rising intervals have been permitted, but that’s the subject of another post!

I think I need to think more about this, and what the implications are, but with talk of grade boundaries I am concerned that we are assuming equal temperament where it doesn’t exist, and assuming one ‘semitone’ of progress is equal to all other semitones of progress, when maybe it isn’t!



Posted in Assessment, Grading, Music Education | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The place of Notation in Music Education

This topic has been bothering me for a while, and will doubtless continue so to do. My latest thoughts are in the British Journal of Music Education, which CUP have kindly made available here.

Maybe you are one of our PGCE graduates, and remember the notation argument from your year? Or maybe you didn’t have it in your pre-service preparation?

I know there has been some activity in the press on this topic recently, much of which I feel is wrong-headed, and in the limited space afforded by an editorial, I try and explain why! anyway, see what you think.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

In which I fall over in Lisbon, and reflect again on the knowledge/skills debate

Sometimes there are things which happen which make you really think about things. One of those happened to me at the weekend. I was in Lisbon to address the Associação portuguesa de educação musical conference there. What happened was that I fell over in the street. It was morning, I was stone cold sober, and I tripped over an uneven pavement. I think that this is in part because, as a varifocal wearer, the ground is constantly out of focus for me, so I have to sort of guess what’s going on down there! Now, apart from the fact that this hurt a lot, and damaged my lip as I hit the ground, reflection occurred afterwards, as Schön would have said, ‘reflection-on-action’. If the ground is constantly out of focus, why not do something about it? Maybe not wear varifocals when walking? So I’m trying that!

But apart from playing for sympathy, this also got me thinking, suppose for a lot of people the ‘ground’ is always out of focus? In music education the notion of a ground – as in, (tenuously, admittedly) the psychology notion of figure-ground – is hard to define. But there has been a lot of talk again of late about the place of knowledge and skills. I have recently listened to a radio programme in which one commentator observes that some teachers don’t think “knowledge” is important, and so said misguided teachers only teach skills. Now, we’ve been here before! This argument is hard to apply in music education. As in so many other things we are out in the lead of other subject areas. The ‘ground’ here, which is so out of focus to the commentator I listened to, is that for music education knowledge and skills go hand in hand. And philosophers will tell you that knowledge includes knowing “how to” anyway, so skills themselves are a form of knowledge after all.

As I said, I was in Lisbon, and so, thick lip, but cleaned up somewhat, I addressed the Portuguese music educators concerning curriculum and assessment. Interestingly, at the point of me talking about knowledge and skills, they smiled and nodded sagely. One of them then said “yes, we had politicians here who thought that, but us educators told them they were being silly, and that of course kids needed both!” “Good”, I said. But this made me think. Why is the ground so unclear in England that we allow people to say things about knowledge and skills that we music educators know to be “silly”? After all, how can you develop skills in, say, guitar playing, and not know the names of chords and their relations? What is it that has created the situation that has allowed “silly” ideas like this to flourish?

One of the reasons, I think, is that for some of the people saying these things, music is so far from their own ground that they never give it a thought. A related reason is the stratified and rarefied view that these people have such that their own subjects don’t have anything like musical skills, and for them, in their subject areas, skills are somewhat nebulous. After all, the skill to read a map is nothing like the skill required to achieve a crescendo on a xylophone. Skills in music require mental and physical interaction, this is not the case in some areas of the curriculum, and it is those areas which have provided the people who have come to prominence peddling this nonsense. But why didn’t we, en masse, like the Portuguese educators did, dismiss this daftness?

Well, I think the answer is political. It suits the zeitgeist for some to say “this is broken”, and a small group of naysayers become empowered beyond that which their limited vision (like mine!) should really allow. And it is not just in knowledge/skills that we see this lack of vision. In England at the moment we are hearing of music disappearing from school curricula. This is so schools can concentrate on subjects which neoliberalism values. And that ain’t the arts! But again, there is a whole host of otherwise sensible people whose varifocals won’t let them see the ground they have been churning up. But that sad saga is for another day!

Which brings me back to falling over! This requires mental and physical interaction in order to not fall over, and so just as I will be more careful with the ground in future, we can but hope that some of those misguided commentators can also look for a ground which includes music education, rather than tacitly assume all subjects are like theirs. And if they don’t “get” music, I’m sure our PE colleagues can oblige with a few examples!



Posted in Knowledge/skills, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Instead of a blog…

Instead of a blog, here’s me talking about the way I feel that music education is under threat at the moment. I’m talking with Ciaran O’Donnell of Birmingham Music Hub, and S4E music in B’ham.

I really am worried about what’s going on.

Video at:


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bullseye! Target setting and target missing.

Or, a blog in which I get to say “Errr?” rather a lot!

Target setting is currently back at number one as the biggest cause of concern that I am hearing about from music teachers. Now, I am going to say upfront that I am not against target setting per se, but what I hear about from many music teachers is that what are being discussed are not targets, but something else entirely.

Let me explain. I’m not very good at darts, so imagine being told that I had one dart, and I had to hit to hit the bullseye, and that I would be in trouble if I didn’t, and, what’s more, the person telling me, let’s call that person “My-Teacher”, then if I don’t hit the bullseye My-Teacher will also be in trouble.


I throw the dart. I don’t hit the bullseye. I don’t even hit the dartboard! My-Teacher reassures me, and tells me that my target was based on my ability to drive a car, so not to worry. But secretly crying inside, My-Teacher now knows that they will be called to account with the spreadsheet-wrangler, who will “seek…desire…demand” (as G&S say in the Gondoliers!) an explanation. It’ll be My-Teacher’s fault I didn’t hit the bullseye, not mine. (Err…?)

End of metaphor, you’ll be pleased to hear!

So what’s going on in music lessons? Well, we know that the new GCSE for music is now up and running, and that it will be graded differently from before. I’ve blogged about some of these changes previously. But what I am hearing about now is that schools are somehow incorporating target grades for GCSE music as part of the reporting arrangements for KS3. Now, KS3 is not GCSE. KS3 is a different thing, OK, it comes before GCSE, but we know that 93% of kids nationally won’t go on to take it. Does this mean that those 93% should be awarded a U grade, as they will be, actually, ungraded through non-entry? No, that’d be daft! But not much dafter that what music teachers are being asked to do at present, which is, in essence:

  • Invent new GCSE criteria (sub-divided, in some cases) with only grades 2, 5 and 8 to go on.
  • Use these invented criteria to then invent a GCSE grade for KS3 kids
  • Invent ways in which kids can progress from one invented grade to the next, preferably in an invented straight line
  • Ignore that the invented grade for a unit on Songwriting, which has very little to do with the unit on the Viennese Waltz which follows it, must nonetheless show invented progression
  • Invent ways of ‘tracking’ the invented grades
  • Prove to the school data-wrangler that all these inventions are statistically valid
  • Be prepared to have the music inventions compared with Maths, English, etc
  • Put the invented grade system into practice, even though KS3 music is on a rota, with long periods where the kids don’t do music, but must still show progress (ie more invention required!)

Put like that it sounds silly doesn’t it? Well, yes, but, reductio ad absurdum, is what many music teachers seem to be being asked to do. When Robin Hammerton was Head Honcho for Ofsted music he wrote in a blog here:

As National Curriculum levels disappear, I’d ask you respectfully not to replace with another set of numbers

Err…? So, what is actually happening is what he warned against!

And then we have these observations from the OCR exam board here:

There’s a really simple reason why there are no grade boundaries for the new assessments: nobody will know until students have sat the first exams in each subject. This is because of the way that grade boundaries will be set on the new qualifications, which will ensure that approximately the same percentage of students will get a grade 7 and above as currently get a grade A and above, and similarly for grade 4 and grade C, and grade 1 and grade G. 

And this:

Ofqual has produced some grade descriptors for the new GCSEs, to be used as a guide for teachers. However, it is worth remembering that the first awards will be driven by statistics, so nobody knows for sure exactly what performance at each grade will look like until the first assessments have been sat! 


What the OCR seem to be saying is that predictions can’t be made. Well, fair enough, statistically speaking. Try that argument with your school data-wrangler, though, and see what they say? (!)

In the meantime, invention is taking place all over the place as schools require more and more accountability of their teachers!

All of this reminds me of Campbell’s law, which I have written about many times before:

 The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor

But back to the targets. I said the dartboard target was derived from my ability to drive a car, which clearly has nothing to do with throwing a dart. Yet in music education we are provided with statistical targets based on Maths and English results from the Primary School. Again, I say, Errr….?

So, do these conversations make sense:

“You can do long division, clearly you should be able to play the guitar!”


 “You know what a fronted adverbial is, clearly you can sing in tune”


So, we have a system of accountability based on so many levels of invention that the whole thing is in danger of collapse.

No wonder so many teachers are off down the pub to play darts!

Posted in Assessment, GCSE, Grading, KS3, Music Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Is curriculum music safe?

At the recent Music Mark conference, I had a slot to talk about current issues in music education. This blog entry is based on that presentation.

For me, one of the big issues that’s facing us is the reduction of curriculum time in secondary schools. This is across the board, from KS3, via KS4, to A level. I am also hearing of schools where music teaching is being removed from the curriculum, for example this.

At MM I presented some facts I had extracted by trawling through DfE statistical data. At the same time Alison Daubney and Duncan Mackrill at Sussex University are conducting a detailed piece of research into respondent views of music teaching in their school. I must emphasise mine is solely secondary data analysis using DfE extant datasets. All the statistics I cite in this piece come from these, and so there is no nuance from the DfE, therefore I am only able to provide my interpretation of the numbers I have here

These make for quite salutary reading. Let us take first the numbers of music teachers employed in secondary schools over the past three years. These have been reducing steadily at the rate of about 200/year:

 Music Teachers loss
2013 7,300
2014 7,100 200
2015 6,900 200

In chart format this reduction can clearly be seen:


With a reducing workforce there is clearly going to be a reduction in the teaching time available too. This is clearly shown in the next chart, which shows the total number of classroom music hours taught in secondary schools:


This again shows a reduction over time, with the dataset for this being:

Total music curriculum hours taught

Music hours taught loss
2013 90,900
2014 88,600 2,300
2015 85,500 3,100

The speed of reduction is interesting here. From 2013 to 2014 we lost 2,300 hours of teaching, from 2014 to 2015 we lost 3,100. It is too early to tell if this accelerando is a trend, so I’ll be watching the details this time next year, when the 2016 stats are published.

A similar exponential loss can be seen in the time loss at KS 4 and 5:


The linear reduction shown in that chart is a simple excel function, so please don’t place too much statistical weight on it, but it does show that time is reducing. Again, there is an increasing rate of loss of hours here. First of all KS4:

KS4 loss
2013 19700
2014 19200 500
2015 18300 900

Now KS5:

KS5 loss
2013 14000
2014 13500 500
2015 12400 1100

Even at KS3, which may be thought of as being ‘safe’ because of its status as a National Curriculum subject, music is losing the number of hours being taught:


Again, the dataset:

KS3 loss
2013 57,200
2014 56,000 1,200
2015 54,900 1,100

The KS3 loss is somewhat galling in the light of Nick Gibb’s statement here that:

Through our curriculum review, music remained a statutory subject in the national curriculum, so every child in maintained schools must study it from age 5 to 14.

It seems the case that every child is not studying it up to the age of 14!

So, these are the bald stats, why is this happening? Well, as I say, all I can do is put my personal interpretation on these bald numbers. The data itself cannot tell us why this reduction is taking place, so what follows is solely my view. I think that it is a combination of factors.

  1. the EBacc. Despite what we are told, I think the EBacc is biting into take up at KS4, with a knock-on effect at A-level
  2. School accountability measures. Music is increasingly seen “not to matter” in accountability terms. (I get a lot of unsolicited mail to this effect, it’s not just me being awkward!) and, when push comes to shove, SLTs are putting their efforts into subjects that “matter”.
  3. The telescoping of KS3 into 2 years instead of three. I am hearing of these time and time again.
  4. Staffing issues. Teachers who leave cannot be replaced, there are just not enough “warm bodies” to put in front of the classes, so SLT has no choice but to do something else for contingency purposes.

Final comment

I think that there is a “perfect storm” brewing, and music hubs will feel the chill winds soon. With fewer music teachers in schools the hub-school liaison will suffer, numbers playing instruments will drop, schools will be more and more reluctant to let kids miss lessons for peri teachers, and the base level of the house of cards will start to totter. We need to be very vigilant indeed.

Sorry not to have better news for this season of Cheer!



Posted in A level music exam, GCSE, KS3, Music Education | Tagged , | 7 Comments