Some initial thoughts on the Model Music Curriculum for England

Jonathan Savage, Managing Director of UCan Play, responds to the recently published Model Music Curriculum for England

Over two years after it was first announced, the Government’s recent publication of the Model Music Curriculum has caused quite a kerfuffle in the world of music education. For those of you that don’t follow the twists and turns of music education policy regularly, this Model Music Curriculum is an attempt to give schools in England a fuller picture of what music education should look, and hopefully sound, like following the almost skeletal, revised National Curriculum published by the previous Coalition Government in 2013.

When the intention to produce a Model Music Curriculum was announced in January 2019, a lot of criticism was levelled at the Government for the perceived lack of due process. A letter was written to the DfE by around 120 music teachers expressing their concerns. Despite this, a contract to write the curriculum was awarded to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), an organisation with no direct experience of music education in schools. Furthermore, a panel of the great and the good of music education (again, the majority of whom had little if any experience of music education at this level) was assembled to set out the scope for and then scrutinise the curriculum.

No attempt to engage systematically with those with expertise in curriculum development

My understanding is that the original ABRSM draft was so poor that it had to be rewritten. This was undertaken by an individual music teacher at a London Free School chosen by the Minister of State for Education, Nick Gibb.

There was no wider consultation about the curriculum, nor any attempt to engage systematically with those with expertise in curriculum development; all members of the previously constituted advisory group to the Department for Education for the National Curriculum for Music were excluded. (Sadly, this pattern is now commonplace. Any of the leading experts in England who could have contributed to the construction of a meaningful curriculum model for music education have been consistently ignored by this Government.)

Whatever the criticism one might have of the process, the Model Music Curriculum as published is a strange collection of ideas with little, if any, over-arching structural narrative or sustained attempt to justify its approach. Ideologically, it has a strong resonance with this Government’s view that telling knowledge is pre-eminent. It is full of technical vocabulary,  prescribed listening examples, notes for teachers about what is important (without telling them why), and un-examined assumptions about what should be preceded by what.

One of the worst examples of policy-making on the hoof that I can recall

Specific elements of the Model Music Curriculum were challenged almost immediately by many on social media. Complaints were made about the inclusion of racist, imperialist and nationalistic materials in the repertoire which, almost unbelievably, escaped anyone’s notice in whatever review stage was undertaken. New versions of the curriculum have replaced the original document online with no justification for the revision or re-publication. When asked, the DfE said to Music Teacher Magazine that these changes have been made in response to ‘feedback from users’. It is one of the worst examples of policy-making on the hoof that I can recall.

Leaving issues of content aside, the whole notion that schools can ‘receive’ a model music curriculum is questionable. Curriculum development is a rich process requiring engagement from teachers and students. If sustained progress in the provision of high quality music education for all children in England is to be facilitated, then this Model Music Curriculum is not the solution or even part of the way towards that goal. It does not reflect either current thinking or best curriculum development practice. One of the greatest thinkers about curriculum development in the twentieth century, Lawrence Stenhouse, had a mantra that is apposite here: ‘there is no curriculum development without teacher development’.

The Model Music Curriculum contains no plan for teacher development; it is not supported by any accompanying programme of CPD. Music hubs have been told to address these issues in their work with schools, yet were given no time to incorporate the new curriculum in their funding agreements for next year’s activities (which had to be submitted to Arts Council England just days before the Model Music Curriculum was issued). When asked for clarification, Arts Council England’s relationship managers have not been able to provide any responses regarding what music hubs are expected to do, nor how they are supposed to fund it.

A first-class example of a top-down, clumsy attempt at curriculum reform that deserves to fail and should be ignored

The irony here is that those very same music hubs are the organisations which have already done the work in designing and implementing music curricula in their localities. Hubs such as the Love Music Trust already ready have an excellent primary music curriculum, written by primary music teachers in their local area, designed on the sound music principles that they know are right for their students and schools.

Thankfully, the Model Music Curriculum is non-statutory. It is a first-class example of a top-down, clumsy attempt at curriculum reform that deserves to fail and should be ignored. My earnest hope is that it will quickly fade into insignificance. It is another example of a long line of poor music education policy decisions by this Government that have decimated the provision of a high quality music education for children in England. Chief amongst these errors has been the callous, heavy-handed imposition of the English Baccalaureate. My overarching sadness is that these things could have been so much better given a different, more consultative and informed approach.