Making Music: A mixed bag from the ABRSM

making_musicMaking Music, the ABRSM’s latest piece of research into the teaching, learning and making of music by adults and children across the United Kingdom was published today. You can download it from here.

The report is a informative read, but generally a bit of a frustrating one. Starting with some positives, there is much to celebrate. Increasing numbers of children are playing a broader range of musical instruments than ever before; according to the report at least, the nation’s instrumental music teachers are ‘expressing high levels of professional satisfaction’ and are ‘remarkably fulfilled’ in their employment; technology is creating new opportunities for anyone to engage with and create their own music.

There are other areas where things are not so rosy. Children from lower socio-economic groups continue to be disadvantaged by the high costs of participation in instrumental music making; regional provision is variable and not helped by the fragility of funding for music education hubs;  50% of instrumental teachers cite schools and parents as being unsupportive of their work.

Schools come in for a bit of hammering. Comments such as ‘50% of teachers cite a lack of support from schools and parents plus poor motivation from students as among the most common negative aspects of their work’ are unsubstantiated or inadequately analysed. The benefits of instrumental music teaching and learning within the formal curriculum that school’s offer is also unacknowledged throughout the report. This is a great shame as there is plenty of other evidence to suggest that large swathes of young people across the UK are getting valuable musical experiences through the work of schools and their partnerships with music education hubs.

The report is tantalizing by omission. One example relates to music technology. Technology, is ‘creating new opportunities for anyone to engage with and create their own music’. So far, so good. How is it doing this? No substantial evidence or analysis is presented. There is no recognition at all that the increasing use of technology could be, on occasions, a detrimental thing for music education.

I was also puzzled that the ABRSM have done little to contextualise the findings or their report within the broader research done in this area. Other research done by partners of the ABRSM include Katherine Zeserson’s excellent report for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and other work completed by Music Mark, the ISM and others is ignored. There are also extensive data sets collected by Arts Council England through their work managing music education hubs that are not mentioned or explored at all. A more thorough contextual analysis of this data as a whole could, perhaps, have led to a more robust exploration of several assertions made within the report. In turn, this would have led to the construction of a stronger and more robust set of implications.

I was also disappointed that the report is unashamedly political. It states that ‘successive governments’ policies have helped bring about real improvement’. This is strongly debatable. There are serious arguments that the last four years of political mismanagement and incompetence have done irrevocably harm to music education in all sectors throughout the UK. The real costs of fragmenting, privatising and de-professionalising the sector may only just be beginning to be seen. The report is completely unaware of the damage being done to the structure of music education and its provision in many parts of the UK right now.

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