Funding for music education continues to be slashed. But this may be more counterproductive than we realise.
A man is walking his dog in the woods when he hears the deep “thud, thud” of an axe on wood. Sure enough, a little later he comes across a man chopping down a tree. The woodcutter is making a heroic effort: he is red from the exertion and sweat is pouring down his face. However, he’s not making much progress. The dog-walker watches him for a couple of minutes then calls out “Hey mate, why don’t you have a break while I sharpen your blade?” “Can’t stop,” replies the woodsman. “Gotta chop this tree down.”
There’s a widespread concern that children in the UK and other English-speaking countries such as the US are not mastering the three Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic) at school. In recent years, this has led to a number of government initiatives, such as the implementation of a new National Curriculum and the widespread academisation of schools. The new National Curriculum in particular has seen a massive increase in the demands on children. The head of my son’s infant school – one of my personal heroes – recently walked us through all the things our six and seven year-olds need to master by the end of Year 2. It is fair to say that we adults had to pass on quite a few of the questions!
This push for “more, sooner, harder” is the legacy of one Michael Gove, public school-educated secretary of state for education under David Cameron. Many have questioned his preoccupation with reverting to teaching methods of the “good old days”, bringing back plenty of dictation, grammar and simply cramming more and more into the curriculum at an ever younger age. Little of this approach is based on evidence. David Laws, head of the Education Policy Institute, a relatively new think-tank for evidence-based practices in education, was schools minister under Gove. He told The Guardian that “politicians are prone to make decisions based on ideology and personal experience… All politicians have that weakness, but Michael particularly so.”
However, if literacy and numeracy levels among our children are not adequate, isn’t it simply common sense to practise, practise, practise the “three Rs”, in order to raise standards?
Well – yes, it makes just as much sense as doubling your efforts when cutting down a tree with a blunt axe. It will come down eventually, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that all your hard work made a difference. But might there be a better way?
“How to improve school results: not extra maths, but music, loads of it”
“How to improve school results: not extra maths, but music, loads of it” read a headline in The Guardian about Feversham Primary Academy, a school in Bradford that had consistently failed its Ofsted inspections for quarter of a century until it placed music at the core of its curriculum. Feversham is located in what locals have nicknamed “The Bronx”, one of the most deprived pockets of the country, with high levels of poverty and crime. 98% of its pupils speak English as a second language. No wonder it was below average on all measures, but the turnaround it achieved was nothing short of spectacular. In 2010, Ofsted placed the school in special measures and Naveed Idrees was brought on board on as head in 2013. By September 2014, it was rated as “Good” by Ofsted and is in the top 10% of schools in the country for pupil progress in the three Rs, a standard that it has maintained according to a short inspection in 2018.
Their secret – which they are keen to share with anyone who will listen – is music. Not just any music, but smart music teaching, based on the Kodály approach, where children learn to make music themselves through singing and movement, rather than just learning about music. Introduced to Feversham Primary by Jimmy Rotheram, recently shortlisted for a highly prestigious education award, the school’s first music co-ordinator and the man Naveed Idrees credits with the school’s amazing turnaround, it is a powerful approach and one that often makes immediate sense to classically trained musicians. Its strong emphasis on experience and a very well thought-out pedagogy mean that children subconsciously absorb musical concepts such as note lengths and pitch differences, before these are consciously taught. Just as a child that can already count when starting school will feel successful and affirmed in maths lessons, these musically primed children learn conscious skills such as reading music notation with ease and feel good about their abilities. As I have written here, improvements in literacy and numeracy can be directly attributed to the skills the children learn in their music lessons. But more than that, the music itself makes them feel great. The joy of taking part in age-appropriate singing games and activities makes school fun – according to the children! And this at a school where behaviour used to be a massive issue.
Not so anymore. With three to eight hours of music per week, the children are noticeably happier, calmer and better able to focus. They are also more alive, more able to express who they are, and this, I believe, is due to the fact that they are not seen as robots to be filled with knowledge, but human beings with a soul, as their head, Naveed Idrees, has stressed.
So where do we go from here? Is this sort of turnaround achievable? Isn’t it blue sky thinking that in reality will blow the budget?
Well, for starters, Feversham Primary Academy is not on its own. What they do has been done before – a notable example is Gallions Primary School in Newham, one of the most deprived areas of London. Working closely with Colourstrings International, this school has had music at the heart of all its activities since its foundation in 1999 – with similarly stunning results to Feversham. Furthermore, for those on a tight budget (and which school isn’t these days?) this way of teaching requires surprisingly few music-specific resources and little training. While there is always more to learn (and I’m going on as many courses as I possibly can!), the basics of the Kodály approach can be mastered by anyone who is willing to learn and who can sing reasonably well in tune. The beauty of it is, and I’m speaking as someone who learnt about this approach only in recent years, that it takes everything right back to basics and progresses in logical and intuitive steps. It is relevant for both trained musicians and those with little or no music background. In fact, teachers can pick up enough in a two- or three-day workshop (such as these) to make it work for Key Stage 1, which is where it needs to be taught, and in nurseries and preschools before that. It’s not difficult, it’s not rocket science, but it is very powerful.
Our education system has been steered towards “too much, too soon” for decades, and especially so since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. The true professionals – our teachers – have increasingly been stripped of their say in vital matters concerning education and policy making, and the powers that be hold music and the arts in particularly low regard. This is not something that will change overnight. However, could grassroots change – enough teachers taking charge and sharpening the blunt edges of the system from the inside – generate both the momentum and the necessary evidence to overhaul the system, for the benefit of our children and society as a whole?
If you are wondering how you can make a difference, here are a few suggestions for how you can get involved, depending on your background, skills and life situation. I believe we can all pitch in and push for grassroots change.
Headteachers and Teachers
- Get in touch with Feversham Primary Academy or Gallions Primary School to find out more and witness their amazing schools in action –
- Attend a training course – either one of these, or courses run by organisations such as the British Kodály Academy (BKA), Colourstrings, or by Nikhil Dally (click here for a non-exhaustive list of links)
- Involve the Education Policy Institute. Set up to help shape policy making through researching a myriad of education-related issues and making evidence-based suggestions, this think-tank is uniquely placed to assess the evidence for the positive impact of music education and could help turn back the tide of the funding cuts.
- Sing with your children!!! Read this blog post for some suggestions
- Find and join a local Kodály, Dalcroze or Colourstrings singing group with your children
- Share the news with your child’s school (see below)
- Read and share this blog post or any of the following articles and videos with family, friends, schools and on social media
- BBC – How a school in Bradford is beating the odds with music
- BBC – Video
- The Guardian – How to improve the school results: not extra maths but music, loads of it
- Incorporated Society of Musicians – Spotlight on Gallions Primary School
- “How playing an instrument benefits your brain” Youtube video by Anita Collins
What if every child had access to music education from birth? | Anita Collins | TEDxCanberra
- Write to your MP to ask them to support an education that is both holistic and evidence-based, and that empowers teachers, actively involving them in policy making