Blog: Music education in primary schools
Published: 8 Jul 2019
There is growing concern for the state of music education in the UK. Australia offers some practical solutions.
This year, three high-profile reports* have highlighted diminishing funds and support for music education, and de-prioritisation of its role in education, both inside and outside of school. This is worrying because there is much evidence that early positive experiences in music education have profound effects on children. Not only can they help to establish a lifelong interest in music, they can also improve overall educational outcomes and physical and mental wellbeing.
One in five primary school teachers report that there is no regular music lesson for their class and that, even where there are music lessons, only 44 per cent of these are delivered by a music specialist.* The pressure placed on primary schools to measure success only by their SATs results is likely to be a reason for the low priority given to music education.**
Schools that serve children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, such as the state primary in East London where I work, find it particularly hard to deliver good quality music education. They often lack enough funding to offer one-to-one tuition or ensemble playing classes, and the situation is exacerbated by a pressure to prioritise English and Maths learning.
"In Australia I witnessed a commitment to giving primary-aged children a high-quality music education."
In 2016, I travelled to Australia on a Churchill Fellowship to spend time with successful music programmes for children who experience some form of educational disadvantage. I visited Moorambilla Voices (a choir and performing arts group for children from remote parts of rural South Wales) and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Pizzicato Effect Programme (where children experiencing socio-economic disadvantage are given the opportunity to learn stringed instruments).
I also spent time with schools practicing an approach to music education called Musical Futures (where the teacher facilitates students to develop rock-band skills), and with a teacher practicing the Orff Approach (a style of music education that involves the child themselves leading the direction their learning takes).
At Moorambilla Voices, I was struck by the choir leader’s high expectations for the children. They were given sheet music to follow whilst being taught aurally, helping them to organically develop an understanding of written notation. There was no sense of notation-reading being a skill for more 'gifted' children - it was part of the practice in which all were engaged.
Another highlight was seeing how the teacher practicing the Orff Approach created a musical space co-owned by the children. As well as being allowed to use instruments freely to explore their musical creativity, they were taught to care for and respect the instruments. The children even instructed me on how to assemble and put them away.
Australia is a country with varying levels of state funding and curriculum support for music-education but, in all four programmes that I visited, I witnessed a commitment to giving primary-aged children a high-quality music education. I consistently experienced positivity among educators about their potential impact, a determination not to let limited resources diminish the quality of the children’s experience, and a collaborative and supportive culture.
Back in the UK, it is easy to despair about the apparent decline in support for music education. However, amid some depressing statistics, there are beacons of hope. A new independent national curriculum for music is in the pipeline, designed to be taught by both specialist and non-specialist teachers. Additionally, a new Ofsted inspection framework will place more value on ‘non-core’ subjects such as performing arts.
Meanwhile, for the individual teacher or school leader looking to improve their music curriculum, some practical and low-cost solutions inspired by the practice I witnessed in Australia could be considered: a passionate but under-confident teacher’s spark can be lit with basic training and mentoring from more experienced colleagues in other local schools; senior leadership can assign short but regular amounts of protected time for musical learning. Committing to practices like these could see children leaving primary school with the foundations in place for a lifelong love of music.
Footnotes: * See https://www.ism.org/images/images/FINAL-State-of-the-Nation-Music-Educat... https://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/StateOfPlay; https://www.bpi.co.uk/news-analysis/bpi-calls-on-government-to-tackle-gr.... ** See https://www.ism.org/news/new-music-education-report-state-of-the-nation-....