After the Goldrush – did we miss a trick?


As we all know, there have recently been a flurry of ‘consultations’, where the music education community were invited to respond to questions regarding the place of music in schools, what a curriculum should look like, what examinations should look like and how we should assess them.

There was a general sigh of relief when it was announced that music is to stay on the curriculum for the time being, and that GCSEs etc have been overhauled. But now the dust has settled and those who championed the causes have been properly thanked, perhaps it is time to stand back and take a long hard look at what we have ended up with.

The response from many in music education has been muted -no flag waving or street parties. Why is it that we are not feeling as fired up and enthusiastic as we had hoped? Was this, after all, perhaps something of a hollow victory?

Having just read John Finney’s thought provoking blog article, GCSE and Music Education’s process ambivalence,  I am certainly starting to think so. He says:

“The difference between the case of Music and the case of Art is striking” 

and he goes on to quote from the respective specs for Art and Music:

GCSE in art and design are currently assessed wholly by non-exam assessment, because of the practical nature of the skills being assessed and the content focusing on the student as the artist rather than on art appreciation or art history.’

‘We propose that marks for non-exam assessment in GCSE, AS and A level music qualifications should be 60 per cent, reflecting the balance between the practical and theoretical elements in the subject content.’

In other words the students of Art are treated as artists and the students of Music are treated as…well, students. As a consequence, I would suggest that the former group will have, in terms of their education, a richer and a more rewarding time.  This has been the case for decades and although we were recently offered an admittedly slim opportunity to change music education, it looks as though we have gone one step forward and three steps back.

Has this really been the case for decades? Time for a short story….

Many, many years ago when I was an instrumental teacher visiting schools, there was one school I remember in particular. The guitar was a popular instrument so I did two full days a week there.

I’m sure many peris have had the coffee break ‘staffroom as minefield’ experience, where certain chairs were not to be sat on, certain mugs were not to be drunk from, the milk is padlocked into the high security fridge and the only surviving teaspoon disappeared long ago….

In search of something more civilised, I went wandering around the school and was drawn to the sound of some Neil Young quietly playing in a distant classroom. No, this was not the music department, this was the Art department. I walked in…and stepped into a parallel universe.

The space contained two art teachers, various students getting on with stuff, a cassette recorder (playing the Neil Young), a kettle, some decent coffee (probably Lavazza), a spare mug, a teaspoon  and a friendly welcome.  I didn’t have a lesson to teach  straight after break and was invited to hang around to finish my coffee.  Anyway, Neil was just getting into its stride with “Cowgirl in the Sand” on the cassette player and it seemed disrespectful to walk out on it.

Students came ambling in and just started getting on with things. The teacher simply wandered around chatting to the kids. I had one of those “it’s teaching, Jim, but not as we know it” moments.

But here are some of the things I learned during my subsequent visits to the art department:

  • from a distance is seemed as though the teacher was just chatting inconsequentially with the students, but move in closer and you would hear a real quality to the dialogue. More like two adults having a conversation, than the usual teacher/pupil exchanges
  • the students were behaving differently in this space. Again, more like adults. there was a sense of purpose to what they were doing. They didn’t need to be told what to do – they know already
  • the music playing in the background – again something I’d only ever heard before in an adult working environment
  • they were all doing different things. They may have all started with the same brief, but they were working it through using their own choice of media.
  • there was a strong connection to contemporary art and culture.  Work was often in the style of contemporary artists and designers.

OK it was probably not always like this. I’m sure there were times when the teacher rounded them all up for some good old fashioned skills and knowledge stuff. But nevertheless, here were students being treated as artists, working in an environment similar to those they would eventually find beyond the school gates.

Music departments were never like that. They still aren’t and are unlikely to move in this direction, given the new specifications and curriculums. Perhaps we missed a trick during these consultations. By giving way to the ‘music is an academic subject’ brigade, we lost the opportunity to make music departments the way they really should be if they are going to work effectively – more like art departments.

What we have been left with is not really worth having and is not good enough. Everybody knows this is nowhere.

Posted in Curriculum, GCSE

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