Nick Gibb on the [non] impact of the EBacc on the arts in school

Nick Gibb’s speech at the Guildhall this week contained an interesting insight into his thinking about the EBacc and the lack of impact that this has made on the provision of arts education in our schools. Without any personal comment from me, at this point, have a read of the following excerpts:

The concern that the EBacc will drive pupils away from creative subjects at GCSE has been made vocally in the media, but proven to be unfounded. The EBacc covers a core set of 5 subject blocks – English, maths, science, humanities and languages – but this allows most pupils to choose a number of additional GCSE options. …

I do understand why some in the arts communities are concerned about accountability measures, such as the EBacc, but in my view they needn’t be. There is no reason why an academic core curriculum should in any way imperil a cultural education, or vice versa.

In fact, an academic curriculum and a cultural education can only complement each other, whether it is reading a wide range of literature; broadening your understanding of Shakespeare’s plays; giving you the historical knowledge to contextualise Picasso’s paintings; or allowing you to read Racine in the original language.

Both aspects of a child’s education can and should co-exist within every school in England. This point was explicitly made by Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education in a speech to the Creative Industries Federation in July. We want to challenge every school to make this their aim.

It is my strong personal and professional contention that the exact opposite is the case. This is why both I, and my company UCan Play, support the ISM’s Protect Music Education campaign. Perhaps more importantly, Gibb should stop and think why these 137 organisations working within the education sector also think that his policies are harming the arts, irrevocably, in our schools.

I am genuinely interested to know what is going on in your school? Are the arts flourishing as Nick Gibb suggests? Has the EBacc impacted on your work in any way at all? Please do add your comments below and let’s hear your stories of arts education under Gibb’s and Morgan’s reign.


Life on Shuffle

This film shows some great work going on in Crewe through a collaboration between the fabulous Love Music Trust, Brighter Sound and Cheshire East. Life on Shuffle saw staff working with young people to help them produce a range of original music. Great stuff! Funding for the project came from Youth Music.


Next round of music education hub spending delayed to end of November at the very earliest

Last week, I made an enquiry to Arts Council England about the future of music education hub funding. As many will know, the existing round of funding comes to an end at the end of March 2016.

I received a reply today. It’s not that surprising but it does confirm that any decision about future spending on music education hubs will have to wait until after the announcements surrounding the spending review (that’s on the 25th November 2015).

The official response was as follows:

I can now confirm that information regarding the funding for music education hubs will not be available until after the spending review announcement on 25th November 2015. Following this however, unfortunately we are unable to guarantee a specific date when we can send out definitive funding information to music education hubs.

Welcome to another super group of MMU students!


Welcome to all the new MMU students beginning courses with us this year! I hope you have a brilliant time with us and that you find the PGCE course you have chosen a stimulating and rewarding experience.

For those of you beginning the PGCE in Music and PGCE in Music with Specialist Instrumental Teaching courses, an especially warm welcome. Teaching music to young people is one of the most amazing of jobs. There is a huge amount of enjoyment that you will gain from learning how to do this well, and the young people that you teach will benefit hugely too.

In a nutshell, the course will help you to ‘teach music musically‘. This isn’t our phrase, but it does sum up the aspiration of the course as a whole. Will Evans, and I, together with all our other Associate Lecturers and colleagues, will do our upmost to help you through what will be one of the most challenging years of your lives so far!

Welcome again, and have a great year!

Making music is good for you – forever!

It was great to see CNN produce this film on the significant benefits that music education can bring to young and old alike. Our fellow music education researcher from Northwestern University, Nina Kraus, is featured in the first part of the film. Her work on ‘neural timing’ is fascinating. The benefits of learning music in childhood extend throughout one’s entire life. Practical music making from the youngest age really is good for you – forever!

Images of music education in the 1960s

Whilst I was searching for images for my previous post on the BBC Radio 4 programme The School is Full of Noises, I came across a selection of lovely images of music education in the 1960s from John Paynter’s Hear and Now book (published in 1972). I though they might be of interest to readers of this blog, although they were originally shared here.


This photo reminded me of music and movement classes which were definitely still part of primary education in the 1970s (I remember doing them!).


However, I don’t remember my primary school teachers being as imaginative in their cross-curricular thinking as Paynter was. In hearing about his work again in the radio programme, and reviewing some of the photographs online, I was struck at how frequently music was linked to other subjects within the curriculum. This also included locations and sites outside of the classroom, such as the Pateley Bridge cavern described at the end of the programme. It made me chuckle. The book Will Evans and I wrote and had published this year by Routledge is really only rediscovering a well travelled path.


This picture includes R. Murray Schafer, Paynter’s friend, working with a group of pupils.


I love the concentration on this child’s face as he ‘prepares’ this grand piano for their improvisation. How many music teachers today would let their pupils do this to their acoustic piano? And if not, why not? Funnily enough, I remember doing exactly this kind of thing with some of my friends to the grand piano in the music department at Woking Sixth Form College in the mid 1980s. I’m not sure how our music teacher, Miss Parry, responded but I’m sure there would have been a wry smile on her face.


I also love this photo of these children working together in a group improvisation/composition. Group work has been a feature of music education here in the UK for many years. It has its problems, but there are so many advantages too.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of images from John Paynter’s work and publication. If you have any more, do feel free to share them in the comments or drop them over on an email to me. Thanks.

The School is Full of Noises


Recently, BBC’s Radio 4 broadcast this excellent programme on how  tape loops, recycled everyday sounds and countless other weapons of the avant-garde found their way into school music lessons during the 1960s Presented by Ian McMillan, it is a fascinating exploration of musical improvisation and composition in the school built around the ideas of John Paynter and others.

It begins in an attic. Jonny Trunk is a collector of music’s less travelled pathways, amongst them LPs of school children from the 1960s performing the most ambitious musical works imaginable. They have titles like ‘Music for Cymbals’, ‘An Aleatory Game’ and ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’.

Ian’s journey sets out to rediscover the creators of these musical curiosities, both the educators who conceived them and also the pupils themselves. Eventually, Ian’s travels take him to a dark place, a cavern complex near Pateley Bridge where he retreads footsteps taken by children for a recording project. He even manages to find one of the children who participated in the classes and interviews her about the experience.

The programme is accessible here; however, I suspect it might not be there for too much longer so you can download an MP3 of the programme here too.


This Government is failing in its duty to manage teacher supply

Back in December 2014, I wrote about a looming crisis in teacher recruitment for September 2015. Here we are a couple of days away from September and that crisis has well and truly emerged. Figures published by the Government, quietly and secretively on a busy news day, reveal significant shortages across the board:


Considered in total, there is a 10% shortage in total applicants, and this is the third year in a row  that the Government has failed to secure enough new entrants to the profession.

John Howson, whose blog has chartered these things in detail over the years, has written about the reasons for and consequences of this Government’s failing to look after teacher supply in today’s Observer.

This crisis has come about because of:

  • Depressed wages in the public sector, making teaching look unattractive compared to other career paths;
  • The perception [in 2011] that we had enough teachers due to falling pupil rolls;
  • The imposition of a complex and constantly changing bursary scheme that has muddied the waters around who pays what for a teacher training course, and has resulted in the vast majority of students having to pay £9k for their studies;
  • The introduction of School Direct, a shoddy and ill-conceived attempt to impose a free-market training systems run by schools. This has resulted in the closure of some university teacher education courses .

The immediate results of this are that courses, like those we run at MMU, will open in a week or so with unfilled places. In most subjects, this is unheard of in my experience.

Moving ahead to September 2016, headteachers will find it difficult, or impossible, to recruit enough teachers in  subjects such as physics, design and technology, geography, business studies and even English. Headteachers will be forced to ask existing teachers to teach subjects where they do not have specialist subject knowledge. Or, perhaps more worryingly, they will be forced to remove certain subjects from the curriculum. We have seen this happening in Music in many primary and secondary schools in recent years.

What will parents make of all this? As some readers know, I have five children. Three are currently attending three different schools in our local town – one academy, one free school and one LA -maintained primary school. Sadly, I have to specify which types of schools these are as I can’t rely anymore on them being taught by qualified teachers with appropriate qualifications. As this crisis in teacher recruitment begins to hit the public consciousness, parents should be holding headteachers to account for the decisions they make about who is teaching their children. If answers are not forthcoming, then Freedom of Information requests should follow. Our children deserve to be taught by qualified teachers.

As for the Government, they are in denial. Nick Gibb is quoted in yesterday’s Guardian as saying that:

“These figures show that teacher recruitment is improving, with 3% more people due to start postgraduate teacher training than this time last year. We have already exceeded our target for primary school trainees and are making sustained progress for the secondary sector – including in key subjects like English, maths, physics and chemistry, where we are ahead of last year’s performance”.

None of these things are true. I’m with John Howson on this one, when he writes that ‘unless it [the Government] recognises the scale of the problem and acts soon, it will become the worst teacher-supply situation since the dark days of the early 2000s. That is no way to create a world-class education system’.

‘A specter is haunting music education: it is the specter of El Sistema’

dudamel_2242987bSo starts Robert Fink’s brilliant exposition on the theme of El Sistema (published for free here at I would urge you to read his paper in full. It is a beautiful and challenging critique of El Sistema that utilises powerful metaphors to bring about a new understanding of this influential music education movement.

At the heart of El Sistema, Fink argues, is a fantasy. It is a fantasy of music appreciation (and music education) as social justice. This fantasy has been achieved and, for many, become reality through Abreu’s skilful political manoeuvring. Fink explores this through six ‘passes’ that demonstrate Abreu’s considerable sleight of hand:

  •  A Youth Orchestra can be a Social Welfare Project;
  • Material Poverty can be relieved by Spiritual Affluence;
  • Talented Young Performers are signs of a (state-Sponsored) Miracle;
  • (Their) Being in Harmony can revive the Meaning of Harmony (for Us);
  • Art as Social Justice enables Social Justice as Marketing;
  • Marketing ‘Change’ while programming The Same Old Stuff.

FInk’s arguments are rich and stimulating. They centre around a challenge to the ideology of harmony (socially, politically and musically) within the project itself and more generally in how it is received around the world. In the middle part of his paper, Fink reminds us the ideology of harmony is dialetical:

Harmony subsumes both consonance and dissonance, and thus the message of Western music for modernity is that struggle and discord can, up to a point, be exciting; that the authentic development of the individual is often at odds with the need for order in society; and that teleological development might lead to com-plexity and disorder, but is preferable to simple stasis. (p.8)

In contrast, he argues, El Sistema takes a very different starting point:

In Abreu’s System, on the other hand, harmony is an absolute, non-dialectical value, functionally equivalent in discourse to something like ‘the beauty of total agreement’. In harmo-ny with Leibniz, who argued that when each of us ‘plays his part,’ we fulfill our deepest purpose, Abreu portrays the classical symphony orchestra as a mechanism for aestheticizing social unity; in fact, the most perfect such cultural machine ever created. (p.9)

The metaphor of ‘harmony’ is used throughout the paper in a powerful way to critique El Sistema. Unlike Geoffrey Baker’s book, Fink doesn’t bring this powerful metaphor to bear on the pedagogical approach inherent within El Sistema. It would be very interesting to discover what he thinks about this.

However, he makes the more obvious point that Venezuela is, perhaps, ‘one of the most in-harmonious places on Earth, with decaying industrial infrastructure, skyrocketing rates of street crime and inflation, an openly paranoid style of official diplomacy, and regular shortages of basic consumer goods that socialist and capitalist factions can only explain by accusing each other of sabotage? (p.20). Perhaps, he concludes, it is time to ‘stop playing around in the fantasy utopia of classical music, and start fighting in the real world’ (p.20).

For us working within music education in the UK, the article is a useful reminder that all that glitters in the world of music education is definitely not gold. Given that our ‘version’ of El Sistema is titled In Harmony, I must admit that I enjoyed Fink’s playful and powerful use of harmony as an ideological and metaphorical construct throughout the paper. For me, like him, I’d prefer to be In Dissonance rather than In Harmony. 

You’ll need to read to the end of his article to find out why. I highly recommend it to you all.