Activate your vision

As many of you will be aware, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has recently announced a major change in the secondary education curriculum. From 2015 pupils in England will begin studying for a new qualification in place of the traditional GCSEs. The new English Baccalaureate qualification (EBacc) – which emphasises a range of ‘core’ academic subjects – has caused widespread concern amongst the musical community, including fears this will lead to a decline in the creative arts and technology. At its most extreme, some fear that Music will drop out of the 14-16 secondary school curriculum altogether, with repercussions for staffing and for the viability of school music at secondary level.  

At this point only the broad outlines of the EBacc are known. And it is certainly worrying to think that the breadth and inclusivity (and sheer enjoyment) involved in GCSE Music may be replaced by the narrowness of ‘graded music exams’ provided outside the curriculum. My own view is that school music will survive, alongside art and design, technology and RE, as part of a balanced curriculum.  The creative subjects have a firm place in the well-established International Baccalaureate (iBacc) curriculum [link]; and the government’s own website states clearly in its English Baccalaureate (EBacc) FAQs: ‘Other qualifications remain valuable in their own right and we encourage all pupils to study non-English Baccalaureate subjects and qualifications, alongside the core English Baccalaureate in order to benefit from a well-rounded education.’

Furthermore the Government’s own National Plan for Music Education makes it clear that schools are expected to continue to support music education for all children.

Motivating and developing staff
Most head teachers will agree that leadership posts in music can be hard to fill, and that developing and encouraging existing staff can also present challenges. In primary schools, a crowded curriculum and an increased emphasis on time spent in ‘on the job’ training in schools have meant that students who hope to become music coordinators in primary schools have much less training in actual musical skills.  The government has recently added a new optional module for primary school Initial Teacher Training, aimed at boosting new teachers’ confidence and skills in teaching music, and enabling them to network and get support from the developing music education hubs. Although this is a very welcome development, it doesn’t address the issue of purely musical skills such as performing, training and developing musical ensembles, and so on.

Far too often, the rehearsal for a primary school performance involves youngsters seated for long periods in the school hall, clutching pieces of paper with words to songs, as they ‘sing along’ to a CD. Quite apart from the fact that some cannot read fluently enough to participate effectively, singing for long periods while seated is desperately unhealthy for vocal development. The most capable music coordinators are those who have had the opportunity to develop their own musical skills by attending summer schools and purely musical courses, where they participate in music making and learn at first-hand from musicians skills such as running an effective rehearsal, choosing appropriate music, and techniques for laying the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy singing and playing.

A look back
In the 1970s students who planned to teach music in primary schools had individual tuition in both a ‘first’ and a ‘second’ instrument on a weekly basis when they were not on teaching practice.  Nowadays a music coordinator is likely to be someone who perhaps had piano lessons as a youngster, but little further training in music. These teachers would benefit greatly from a school leadership which allowed them time and encouraged their development as musicians – perhaps by funding attendance at music courses which are not solely focused on music education. There are some excellent summer schools for musicians of all levels, eg at Sherborne, Dartington, and a host of other venues.

Both primary and secondary school music teachers will benefit from these opportunities.

By nurturing them as musicians, and providing opportunities for them to ‘network’ informally with other musicians and music teachers, the quality of music making in your school will improve out of all recognition.  And if they are ‘filled up’ and excited by their own music making, they will have more to share with their pupils.

Secondary schools

Most secondary school music teachers will have followed a music course at university, and may well be accomplished performers; but often they come with a great deal of ‘baggage’ which produces the unconscious elitism we discussed in Part One of this feature which appeared in EB 17.5. Often they come from ‘musical families’, and don’t realise how much of their musical development (and ‘talent’) comes from being in a nurturing home environment where the long process of learning an instrument (with its inevitable peaks and troughs) was well understood, and where the expectation was that if you didn’t ‘take’ to one instrument you would simply try another.

For these teachers an important issue can be a lack of understanding of the nature of musical talent. They may also have unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved on a musical level with secondary school pupils. Often this means having low expectations of pupils in classroom lessons, but overly high expectations for extra-curricular groups. As a result they can easily fall into two camps: the elitist and the discouraged.

Take time to share with your music staff your vision for music in the school. Make it clear how much you value music in the school, and how much you appreciate the work they do. One of my most happy and productive head of music posts was in a school where the head was not ‘musical’ but wanted music to be ‘at the heart of the school’. I still treasure the notes of appreciation he wrote after major concerts and events such as the school carol service, and his presence at so many musical events was a great encouragement both to the staff and to the pupils involved.

If you can win them over to your vision, the music department can move forward with a commonality of purpose. And make sure they have the time and the resources to network with other music teachers, sharing repertoire, ‘tips’ and experiences. Joining a professional organisation such as the Schools Music Association can provide practical ideas and a network of colleagues for a teacher who is delivering a full academic programme, managing an instrumental tuition programme, purchasing and maintaining a range of equipment, and spending hours of out of school time rehearsing groups, practising with individuals for school events, taking groups out into the community, and so on.

Technical Support
Since music departments are often small, some administrative support is vital. These days, Music is also one of the largest departments in terms of IT. This means that technical support for music technology is also essential. And whether your instrumental tuition programme is run through a system of self-employed individual teachers, or is contracted through a Music Education Hub, make sure you allow for the management of this within the music leader’s timetable. Many hours can be taken up with queries and complaints from parents, problems with lost or misplaced instruments, allocating pupils to teachers, monitoring health and safety issues (including Child Protection), replacing equipment and consumables, and so on. Some flexibility in timetabling (does your Head of Music really need to have a tutor group?) can make all the difference between an exhausted and ‘burnt out’ teacher, and one who can mobilise and inspire students.

Liaising with outside agencies
The new Music Education Hubs can be a terrific resource for those seeking to expand and develop music in their school, offering: Instrumental music lessons; large group instrumental teaching; workshops; a range of extra-curricular groups; and Saturday morning music schools and after school clubs.

How can you work effectively with the hubs?
Make sure they share your inclusive vision. They may have policies, eg with regard to auditions, progression through groups, etc which undermine that vision.  If so, discuss this with them. In my experience they are only too happy to talk over any issues which arise with schools.

In some areas an active Music Service Hub can undermine school activities. It may be that pupils prefer to be in the Hub’s groups, since they are larger, or have a wider range of instruments. Make sure you have an agreement with the hub that school activities take precedence, eg if there is a clash of concert dates. Most hubs will be happy to work with you, since it is in everyone’s interest to have an agreed protocol on such matters. It is also useful to have a school-hub dialogue in place, to avoid youngsters (particularly at secondary school level) being placed under too much stress from competing groups, with an unmanageable number of rehearsals, trips, and performances.

The hubs and classroom teaching
For several years now there has been a steady growth in the practice of ‘buying in’ classroom teaching services from Music Education Hubs (formerly Music Services), both in primary and secondary schools. While this can seem to be a convenient solution to staffing problems and staff turnover, be aware that without a member of staff ‘in house’ with music as their responsibility, it may prove difficult to do certain things. For example, recruit pupils for extra-curricular groups; arrange extra rehearsals; follow up on interests shown in the classroom (eg finding a child who is learning the guitar at home, informally, and getting them involved in a school group); produce a programme for the school concert which includes every child’s name; liaise with other staff members (eg with the Art Department to provide a cover for said programme); organise refreshments; run a Parent Support Group for music; arrange for matching T-shirts for the jazz band or school choir; deliver a ‘sponsored sing’ for charity; visit an old people’s home to perform for the residents; and a host of other things which make for ‘a musical school’.

The expertise of the Music Education Hub is invaluable, but remember: their staff are busy professionals who generally work in a number of different schools. This may make it difficult to find the support you need at busy times of the year (eg that all important end-of-term concert, or that Year 7 Parents’ Evening), since they may well have commitments elsewhere.

And while they will generally be capable musicians, some may lack classroom skills and experience.  In my view it is enormously valuable to have a teacher within the school itself to coordinate rehearsals and events, liaise with other staff, follow up on children who have missed lessons (finding out if there is an underlying financial or family problem of some sort), meet with parents at the regular parents’ evenings, arrange for permission slips for an event, work with the drama specialist/enthusiast on plans for a musical.

Engaging pupils and parents
What do we mean by ‘engaging pupils and parents’? In ‘a musical school’, parents and pupils are aware of the school’s reputation for music, and take pride in pupils’ accomplishments and in their own child’s involvement in concerts, competitions, trips, and community events. Pupils feel that as a subject, ‘music is for them’, and look forward to their music classes and extra-curricular musical groups. Those with an artistic flair will feel proud that their design has been chosen for the concert programme, or as a poster for the school musical.

An important element in this is communication. Make sure that musical activities are celebrated in the school newsletter, alongside sporting and academic accomplishments. Create a Parent Support Group to help the busy music coordinator by organising refreshments for concerts (both in the interval for the audience, and for the performers during the final, long rehearsal).

Have respect for all types of music. A musical school includes groups and individuals with all manner of musical tastes – classical, jazz, popular music, folk and traditional music, rap, music theatre, barbershop. There is no ‘us and them’ attitude: all genres of music are equally valued; and youngsters are encouraged to participate in more than one area, eg a classical guitarist will also play electric guitar in the jazz band, and sing in the chorus of the school musical.

Involve large numbers of pupils, eg by including an entire year group in a concert or other event. This will bring along large numbers of parents to hear their youngsters perform. (Hint: place this item last in the concert, to make sure they stay to the end!)  In one school I was able to finance the entire extra-curricular programme on the proceeds of school concerts.

Reward the types of behaviour you want to encourage. Does the prima donna who never attends orchestra rehearsals get to perform at Speech Day? What message are you sending to those who attend regularly? Is there an assumption that parents will only want to hear ‘serious’ music at school events? Or that they will only listen to popular music?

Inclusivity and quality
Keep returning to the vision: high levels of participation, coupled with the highest possible standards of music making. 
And remember: Science is telling us that to be human is to be innately musical.

Whether or not our own school fulfils all the criteria for ‘a musical school’, it is an exciting privilege and an important responsibility to help all our pupils to develop their musicality to the full.