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 Academia.edu). 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.

Is the crisis in initial teacher education and teacher recruitment beginning to hit the public consciousness?

It’s taken a while, but I was pleased to see at least one MP begin to question some of this Government’s policy in respect of initial teacher education and teacher recruitment this week. Louise Haigh, Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, has written this article in the Yorkshire Post that explores some of the key issues that I’ve been raising in this blog for a number of years.

Chief amongst these are, of course, the inadequacy of the Schools Direct model in terms of contributing the numbers of teachers that is required for the country as a whole, their geographical spread and subject specialism. She also questions the efficacy of Teach First as a model (and, I would add, the immense cost of sustaining a so-called charity with public funding).  She also mentions the huge costs involved in paying for supply staff to cover the gaps left in schools who are unable to recruit full time members of staff.

It seems to me that as headteachers in many schools face up to this crisis that, eventually, the public consciousness of these matters will begin to hit home. Sadly, by then, it will be too late for many schools and parents, who will find that their children are being taught by non-specialists, supply staff or, even worse, unqualified teachers with minimal, if any, teaching experience and little professional support.

The system of initial teacher education in this country is in a perilous state. The recently announced policy of unrestricting allocations to HEI will not help. It will only fragment further the issues of geographical spread and subject specialism. Year on year, there is a decreasing number of students opting for teacher education courses, with Schools Direct the worst culprit by far in failing to fill allocated placed. These trends have been analysed superbly by Professor John Howson over many years with his most recent observations on the current state of play published last week. Whilst organisations like Teach First play around the edge of the sector, contributing little sustained benefits and with the majority of their student teachers leaving after two years, the organisations that can and should be empowered to drive forwards quality in initial teacher education are being marginalised at every turn.

Almost every headteacher I speak to tells me that universities should be leading initial teacher education across the country. They know, better than anyone probably, that schools (with a few exceptions perhaps) are not wanting or willing to lead programmes of initial teacher education. The system implemented by this Government is falling apart. The NCTL has been shown as incompetent in managing the sector as a whole. Schools Direct is a complete farce. Teach First is propped up by public funding and making minimal impact in a national context. As pressure mounts, one can only hope that headteachers and parents will put pressure on the Government to rethink their approach before permanent damage is done to the infrastructure of the current and future teaching workforce.

Steve Reich’s Clapping Music: A new app!

UCan Play has recently been involved in a project with NYMAZ researching the delivery of instrumental music lessons online using Roland’s VR-3EX audio and video mixer and streamer. This work has been funded through NESTA’s Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

One of the other projects also funded by this fund is Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, a game-based app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad inspired by – you guessed it – Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. His piece has inspired all sorts of people from the famous percussionist Evelyn Glennie to David Bowie. The app also includes lots of additional content about Steve Reich and minimalist music, and unique recordings from the London Sinfonietta, including another piece by Reich, Electric Counterpoint.

The game has been developed by a team from three organisations – The London Sinfonietta, Touchpress, and Queen Mary University of London. It will be free for anyone to download from iTunes from late June 2015. You don’t need to be a musician to play, in fact the developers would love as many people as possible to download it and get tapping and clapping! You can find out more about the app here and the associated research project here.

The developers has asked us to help raise awareness of this new app. They would like you to play the game and complete three online surveys during the period from app launch to August 7th 2015; one before you download the app, another after playing for a little while, then another two weeks later. The surveys include questions about your musical experience, age and music listening habits and preferences. They will download your playing data from the game and look at this as well. As a thank you, they will draw 10 people at random from the participants who have completed and submitted all three surveys and enter them into a draw to enter one of 10 Amazon £50 gift cards.

Ready to sign up now? Send an email with the subject line ‘Sign me up to the research focus group’ to clappingmusicresearch@gmail.com.

More evidence of Teach First’s poor retention rates

As anyone who follows the machinations of policy in relation to initial teacher education knows, the retention rates of Teach First have always been poor. A cynic might say that the clue is in their name. Whilst the Teach First media machine is expert in smoke and mirrors, simple questions deserve a simple answer.

Well, Lousie Haigh (MP for Heeley, Sheffield) took it upon herself to ask Nick Gibb such a question recently. How many Teach First teachers in each (a) subject and (b) parliamentary constituency (i) began teaching and (ii) left the teaching profession in each of the last five years.. The answer was revealing and can been seen in full here.

The following table shows a summary of the figures for the number of teachers beginning to teach with Teach First as compared to the number of teachers leaving teaching having trained with Teach First over the last five years (as a total). I’ve also added a column showing the % loss of teachers for each subject area over the last 5 years.



The figures show clearly that Teach First is failing admirably to train teachers who spend more than a few years working as teachers. Perhaps this doesn’t bother them very much. Maybe their argument is that schools, and the young people they teach, are better off having their ‘ambassadors’ working with them even if it is just for a short period of time rather than not at all.

For me, this represents a complete failure. Both this Conservative Government, and the Labour one that preceded it, have wasted vast sums of public money on a charity who have failed to train teachers to enjoy long and productive teaching careers. The costs of training teachers in each initial teacher training route were examined recently. I’m not sure whether the poor retention rates as illustrated by these figures, and others published by the Select Committee in the last session of parliament, were considered within this work. I will look into that next week. But I do know that our universities train teachers who do enjoy long and sustained careers as teachers and, as such, provide a much better quality of training with a greater degree of cost benefits than Teach First could ever hope to provide.