Written by: Martin Fautley, Professor of Education, Birmingham City University
On Tuesday 22/3/16 I attended the London Mayor’s summit on music education, a prestigious event held in the equally prestigious surroundings of City Hall, on the banks of the Thames, overlooking Tower Bridge. Nice! It was, however, a curious event in many ways in my opinion, and I shall try to explain why here.
My role was to be on a panel concerning CPD and teacher development. I, and some of the BCU music education team, have been working on evaluating the Teach Through Music programme in London (read the reports here), and I was happy to talk about it, as I feel it has been a good thing, and made a difference. But more on that later…
The day began with an address by Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for Schools, which can read here . This opener set the tone for some of the overall oddness of the day. NG didn’t mention the white paper ‘Educational excellence everywhere’, which had come out the previous week, at all. What he did talk about was a music education which seemed to me to be almost entirely to be about learning to play an instrument, and/or singing.
OK, yes, he did mention the National Curriculum, but seemed to think it was about performing and listening only, composing never got a mention. But then neither did universal academisation, which has the potential to make the NC nugatory and otiose, so maybe the omission of composing is how those at DfE towers want to think of music education? Some nice children singing madrigals, and playing some Purcell and Bach will be very pleasant, won’t it? I don’t move in the rarefied atmosphere of the upper political echelons, so don’t know if it is normal for a politician to do his stuff then go (‘eats, shoots, and leaves’!), but there was no opportunity to ask questions at all.
One primary school teacher heckled from the floor “no forced academisation!” but that was as interactive as it got.
Read the teacher’s own reflections on the day here
Then there were a series of panels, presenting on various aspects of music education. Then a rather nice buffet lunch, with a chance to talk to people. Networking, and getting a feel for the zeitgeist, is an important part of such days, I always think.
Following this, in the afternoon sessions, something began to bother me quite a bit, this was a mounting feeling that, as the late, great, Yogi Berra said, “It’s like deja-vu, all over again!”. Music Excellence London (MEL) had just spent a shedload of money on music education in the capital (that’s another issue, I know, especially as I’m writing this in Birmingham), and yet I got the feeling that people in the audience who maybe weren’t teachers didn’t know about this, hadn’t read the work on MEL and evaluation that Trinity Laban, Music Mark, Sound Connections, Alison Daubney and I had done, and didn’t seem to have engaged with what a longitudinal CPD programme might entail. There seemed to be a lot of “well, we can offer a splendid Chinese nose-flute CPD session for teachers”, rather than a joined-up, clearly articulated, research-informed programme, which MEL had entailed.
Now I know I am getting old, but parading one’s ignorance of history used to be something that was looked down on, now it seems to be something that is celebrated. If we had worked like that in ancient times, every few years or so someone would say “look, I’ve invented the wheel”. It struck me that a number of people there from the floor, as it were, were either thinking out loud in public, or making observations that betrayed that either they or their organisation had something to sell, or that they had little conception of what life is really like for a busy classroom music teacher. Alongside this, there seemed to be little knowledge or conceptualisation of what has gone before. When one of the contributors mentioned he had been taught by Brian Dennis, I wondered how many people had read his ‘Experimental Music in Schools’ book of 1970? Or, sadly, I also wondered how many have read, or even know about, the important music education book published the same year by Paynter and Aston, ‘Sound and Silence’? It struck me then that what might be termed the ‘institutional memory’ of music education is in real danger. I said in my mini-talk “we have to both know stuff, and know how to teach stuff”.
This, for me, is important. And “knowing stuff” includes stuff that we have done before. Whilst we need – and want – new entrants to music education, we also need – and want – them to know something of what has been done in the past. So, the thought that was bothering me became crystallised – why do we seem to be still asking the same questions, ignoring the all the work, research, and words that many people have written (especially my words, I put a lot of effort into them!), and trying to start again?
I had been hoping that the summit would be a high point, a pinnacle, literally, a summit, to look back upon the achievements of MEL, which are, from my perspective as one of the evaluators, very highly significant indeed. Instead it felt to me like we were down at base camp bickering about whether we wanted Kendall Mint Cake or Lucozade, whereas in my view we want – and need – both!
It also reminded me that in teacher education we used to run sessions on philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology of education, but they have long gone. And now as government thinking seems to be that learning to be a teacher involves basically “sitting with Nellie” (which, incidentally, is described nicely and pejoratively by Oxford reference here http://bit.ly/1RCRXqt), there will be little chance of inducting people into the rich community of practice of music education; which is a shame, as both Gove and Gibb have cited Matthew Arnold’s notion of “the best which has been thought and said”, and there is a lot in music education which falls into this description. But then Gove dismissed me and my ilk as “the Blob”, so maybe this is just my blobby thinking!
Anyway, in conclusion, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of the organisation, or of the arrangements, which were all fine, but just the feeling of “here we go again”. I think this is a worry, not just for music education, but for education generally. There is a lot that has been “thought and said”, and it ill behoves us as a sector to ignore, downplay, or negate this. After all, as Burke said “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”!