Opinion: ‘Music for all’ and the Model Music Curriculum – uncomfortable bedfellows?

Ally Daubney
Thursday, April 8, 2021

Dr Ally Daubney, musician, teacher educator, researcher and current co-editor of the British Journal of Music Education, voices her concerns about the new Model Music Curriculum published towards the end of March.

Deflecting the focus from systemic problems?

We have many problems in music education, highlighted in the APPG State of the Nation report and amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. A letter to the Model Music Curriculum (MMC) panel in 2019 from the HE ITE group1 included the following:

A model curriculum is not the solution to the significant issues in music education in England caused through, for example, the accountability measures which exclude the Arts, a squeeze on funding and a declining workforce without access to professional development.

The continued central positioning of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) as a key accountability measure for secondary schools is detrimental. The government’s determination to maintain this damaging policy remains resolute and their efforts to push schools to enter 90 per cent of pupils by 2025 are redoubling. In February 2021, schools minister Nick Gibb told the Education Select Committee:

‘If you really want to address unequal opportunities in our school system, we need to challenge schools with low EBacc entries. They need to be giving all young children a proper curriculum, proper behaviour policies and so on.’

The assertion from Chris Cobb, ABRSM’s new chief executive that ‘the new Model Music Curriculum (MMC) has the potential to reverse the recent decline in take-up of music in schools…’ is arguably naïve and misplaced. 

Music for all?

We can assume that Mr Gibb and the panel see this ‘knowledge rich and rigorous’ MMC as part of a ‘proper curriculum’, but it is unrealistic that the MMC will inspire more young people or teachers. 

Music Teachers’ Association (MTA) president and MMC panel member Simon Toyne states that ‘it shows a curriculum pathway that will lead to further study at GCSE and A Level’, which is in itself very unlikely given that the curriculum as written has no clear conceptual framework and takes a fundamentally flawed and inconsistent approach of ‘content = curriculum’. 

Communication in 2019 from the HE ITE group to the panel pointed out that:

The questions provided [by the panel] were considered by the [HE ITE] group to be overly-simplistic and overlook the complex nature of musical learning, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. We have attempted to draw together information which we hope will be helpful in supporting the panel in developing their own knowledge and understanding of musical learning before drafting this curriculum and broadening the potentially narrow view of curriculum from that which is indicated through the questions provided.

The foretold narrow and overly-simplistic view of ‘curriculum’ pervades the MMC. Its attempt to enact the National Curriculum’s entitlement for all children is tokenistic. Even if this model is ‘exactly that; a model’ (MTA), it runs counter to the panel’s apparent ambition that ‘the Model Music Curriculum is an important step in supporting our teachers in ensuring that every child is able to access meaningful classroom music in schools’ (MTA). 

It pays woeful attention to ‘inclusion’ and this undermines the aspiration of ‘music for all’; an area in which much worthy attention has been directed across music education in recent years. 

And what of the other myriad routes for continued engagement in music education beyond the end of Key Stage 3, including vocational and technical qualifications? An enabling curriculum recognises, respects and opens up multiple pathways for all. It is somewhat ironic that the Model Music Curriculum states: ‘It is hoped that schools will provide a curriculum that encompasses a wide-ranging, comprehensive view of music education’, and then emphatically fails to do so.

Hiding behind the smokescreen of ‘this document is a good way to start conversations about curriculum and it is not statutory’ is playing with fire. 

The MMC is a government-produced attempt at a ‘sequenced and structured template curriculum’ (DfE, October 2019), albeit showing an astonishing lack of curriculum understanding for such a high-profile document. Endorsement by the DfE has considerable currency in schools; there are multiple examples of non-statutory documents becoming quasi-statutory.

Despite the promise, no draft of the MMC was widely shared, which is a serious error because clearly ‘the sector’ cannot and should not get behind something with so many fundamental problems that could have been identified and worked through together. 

The surprise role for Music Education Hubs in the MMC

It seems to be a highly irregular and calculated move to make the support and implementation of the non-statutory MMC an additional condition of funding for Music Education Hubs. That their ‘success’ could potentially be judged against a target around the MMC is unjust, since the statutory responsibility for curriculum remains with schools.  

As publicly funded organisations, Music Education Hubs are accountable in relation to meeting their funding conditions and, with the new condition, it is possible that as yet unannounced ways of measuring could be put in place. There are multiple problems to unpick here that go beyond the scope of this article but need to be examined thoroughly. 

The phrase ‘as appropriate’ in the hub funding agreement needs careful consideration. Many Hubs have already invested significant time, effort and resources in helping to develop locally responsive, flexible, bottom-up (as opposed to top-down) approaches to developing music education in partnership with schools. 

These are often based on examples of best practice which draw upon significant scholarship and practice, and seek to align well with the aspirations of the statutory expectations in schools, in which the music curriculum is part of the much wider ‘school’ curriculum. 

Empowering teachers and pupils to take ownership of music education - appropriate to their specific context - and nurturing respectful professional relationships is crucial in this process going forward; putting the weak MMC in the middle of this would be a mistake.

Where now for music education?

The debate on social media since publication of the MMC is rich, sophisticated and nuanced, generating many interesting questions. However, the lack of engagement with this debate by the as yet unknown authors is dispiriting. Opening up transparent channels for narrative and critique is an important step.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspects of this whole debacle is the wholesale acceptance and promotion of the MMC by individuals and professional organisations with vested interests. Aligning themselves with a document and ideology that has no clear ‘audience’ or theoretical underpinning and questionable integrity is at best disingenuous and at worst downright negligent. More than ever we need principled leadership from music education’s professional associations; this is woefully lacking at present. 

Excellent partnership working embraces the importance of context and embodies the notion that strong, sustainable and effective musical education is built on a foundation of values. 

It asks questions about what it really takes to develop a school’s capacity to be fully musical with their children and their staff. It recognises the crucial need to draw upon and develop young people’s experiences, interests and motivations and embraces reflexivity, reflection and extension within the well-thought out and sustained models of learning along with opportunities within and beyond the classroom. 

Excellence means walking with teachers (and pupils) as they think through and explore new possibilities, and giving them the confidence and support to enact this as they take risks.  

Inclusion isn’t something we should just laminate as an aspiration; it is something that we have to collectively work hard to embody. Unfortunately, enacting such a deficit model of curriculum development fails dismally in this respect. 

Music education should not be a political football and as a ‘sector’ we can do much better than this. It is time to put aside our vested interests and political allegiances and come together, not around this ineffective MMC and the potentially negative domino effect that might follow, but around broader aspiration for curriculum and professional learning, and with the ambition of developing inspiring opportunities in enabling environments to empower and motivate all. 

Putting young people at the centre is our strongest starting point. If this impoverished Model Music Curriculum isn’t the catalyst, what will be?

Read the Model Music Curriculum in full here.

[1] The Higher Education Initial Teacher Education Group includes over 50 university-based music educators working with pre-service and in-service teachers from around the UK.

Images: AdobeStock; Monkey Business; dglimages; nomad_soul; wckiw

Do you want to share your view? Write a letter to the Editor at music.teacher@markallengroup.com.