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Standing up for music education

6 years ago

Richard Hallam, chair of the UK’s Music Education Council, explains why we still need to fight for high-quality music education with opportunities for progression for all children. Music has the power to transform lives. Many of us have experienced this personally or know it because of the impact music has on the people we meet. It is for this reason that so many of us are passionate about everyone having the opportunity to discover the part music can play in their lives. Why then, I ask myself, are we still struggling to make this happen? What can we do differently or better? Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish philosopher, said: ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.’ So, as I reflect on what we have tried to do in the past and learn from those experiences to make things better in the future, I offer the following observations.

Music and the national curriculum

When a national curriculum for England was introduced in the late 1980s many of us fought for music to be included. Despite music being a statutory requirement, 25 years on, some children still do not get the music education to which they are entitled. Music is still in the national curriculum and should be part of a broad and balanced curriculum even in those schools that can choose their own curriculum. But too often it isn’t. Who is responsible for making this happen? Headteachers and governors are. What can we do about it? Read on!

Striving for quality

Just having music is not enough. Music education must be a quality experience. Research shows us that poor quality experiences can actively put people off music. It was with concern therefore that I read in the most recent Ofsted report that ‘headteachers... frequently over-estimated the quality of the musical activity in their schools’. This, despite the previous Ofsted report stating: ‘that schools, all other funded providers of music education and providers of continuing professional development should... strengthen senior leadership of music in schools by increasing headteachers’ and senior leaders’ knowledge and understanding about the key characteristics of effective music provision, including the appropriate use of musical assessment and the importance of teachers’ musical preparation, so that they can more effectively observe and support music in their schools.’ Too often a school is considered to be musically successful because of the musical achievements of a small minority – some of whom may even learn with private teachers or peripatetic musicians paid directly by parents. We need to do something about this!

The role of schools

It was against this background that the National Plan for Music Education took forward the early work of the Music Manifesto and music education hubs were formed in September 2012. As well as setting out to fulfil four core responsibilities for all young people by 2020, hubs were encouraged to challenge and support schools. First access whole-class ensemble programmes were supposed to build on the school’s own music curriculum to give every child the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. Class teachers, learning alongside the music specialist, would have weekly continuing professional development enabling them to gain confidence, knowledge and understanding. Some children would continue with music beyond their curriculum experience in school by taking instrumental or vocal lessons, privately or through a music service or visiting teachers to the schools. Others might join a community brass band or a gospel choir. The hubs would sign-post young musicians to locally available opportunities. At the same time, all children would continue with their school music curriculum through to the age of 14. The concept was a simple one: schools are where every child should be able to have a good basic musical education. Schools are funded to provide this and to ensure their own staff have the knowledge, skills and expertise to deliver. For first access programmes to slot meaningfully into the school’s own music curriculum, there needed to be a dialogue about what came before first access and what would come afterwards. If this raised questions regarding the content or quality of the school’s own music curriculum, the opportunity was created to do something about it. How else could hubs claim that they were providing value for money and a quality experience with the limited funds at their disposal?

The importance of progression

For young people to benefit from the life-changing powers of music they need to be able to access more than just the school music curriculum and to have more than just first access. They need to experience a range of instruments and musical styles and to have the opportunity to progress through to excellence. Available and affordable progression routes are as important as first access. The potential routes are too varied and diverse for any one individual or organisation to meet these needs for all young people. Hubs, working in partnership with schools, local organisations and individual teachers were to be the answer and, in many cases they are succeeding. Passionate and committed teachers up and down the country daily inspire and motivate many young people to achieve great success. But we are still a long way from achieving this for all young people. Of course, there is not enough funding at present. This is why we must fight further cuts and why we must stick to the 2020 timescale of the National Plan.

What can we do?

Earlier in this article I asked the question: what can we do about it? Through the people we meet in our work, through extended families, pupils, friends and neighbours, most of us can ask about the quality of music education in our local schools. By visiting the Arts Council England website ( we can find out who is responsible for the hub in a particular area. The hub should be providing quality experiences with opportunities for progression. If we have concerns, we should bring these to the attention of the appropriate people. Many of us also belong to professional associations. We can ask what they are doing about it too. As chair of the Music Education Council I am committed to ensuring we improve matters significantly over the next two years. Policies and plans are in place. Limited funding is in place, protected for music – but only until 2015. There is no better way of making the case for increased funding as the economy improves than by showing how well we use the funds that have been entrusted to us. Together, each and every one of us can make a difference by standing up for and demanding quality and opportunities for progression. The children deserve no less.

This article was originally featured in the March 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

For more information about the Music Education Council visit

Richard Hallam MBE has a lifetime's experience in all aspects of music education as a teacher, advisor and inspector, Head of Music Service, professional trumpet player and conductor. He is currently President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and chair of the Music Education Council.

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