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Blog by Chris Walters, National Organiser for Education and Health & Wellbeing

Few MU members will mourn the departure of Gavin Williamson as Secretary of State for Education. He was responsible for the recently confirmed cuts to music and arts university courses after describing these as “not strategic priorities” – an odd statement given the huge economic value of the UK’s cultural sector.

He also bungled the awarding of GCSE and A level grades during the pandemic, stoked pointless culture wars, and issued late and confusing Covid protocols for educational settings.

The departure of Nick Gibb as Schools Minister will also be viewed as timely by many. He was in post for nine years and is still associated with Michael Gove’s harsh ‘three Rs’ education reforms, including the disastrous EBacc performance measure which discourages schools from offering music and arts subjects.

One of his most recent initiatives was the non-statutory Model Music Curriculum which was widely critiqued as irrelevant and culturally insensitive. His final act was to announce the cancellation of the £90 million Secondary Arts Premium, a previously confirmed budget commitment that would have meant £25,000 per school per year for the next three years, and which schools had budgeted to receive this month.

An opportunity to reverse the Williamson-Gibb partnership’s dramatic blundering

Nadhim Zahawi, the new Education Secretary, and Robin Walker, the new Schools Minister, have an opportunity to reverse the catastrophic blundering that defined the Williamson-Gibb partnership.

They begin their roles at a critical time for music education in England. The next National Plan for Music Education is currently being written, and this must come with increased funding if it is truly to offer universal access to instrumental tuition. This means that the new ministers must exercise clout when advocating for music education in this autumn’s spending review.

They should also engage with unions – the MU in particular – to tackle the serious problem of hit-and-miss teacher contracts in music education hubs, and push for additional budget to support and develop the peripatetic teaching workforce.

The MU’s dream outcome would be for the new ministerial pairing to finally unpick the mess of contradictory policies that beleaguer music education in England.

The National Plan for Music Education and the Model Music Curriculum are both hefty documents that speak of a strong commitment to music education – and yet schools are still being pushed in the direction of the EBacc, A level music could soon reach extinction, and a review of teacher training looks set to reduce numbers of classroom music teachers to an all-time low.

Overhauling music education in England

Here are the MU’s suggestions for overhauling music education in England should the new ministers be reading.

  • Scrap the EBacc – it is failing to achieve its goals and is pointlessly killing off arts subjects
  • Understand that music education means a combination of classroom teaching – where teachers are trained and supported, especially at primary level – and instrumental/vocal teaching from peripatetic/visiting music teachers via the local music education hub
  • Fully support and fund the training and supply of classroom music teachers, numbers of which are currently dwindling
  • Put enough money behind the National Plan for Music Education to ensure that hubs can provide universal access to instrumental and vocal tuition for all children – not just a funded initial period of whole-class tuition
  • Invest in peripatetic/visiting music teachers and put an end to poorly paid zero-hour contracts and “fake” self-employment in music education hubs
  • Make sure that all learners can progress on from early experiences of music to develop their own musical interests, take qualifications at Key Stages 4 and 5, and pursue properly funded arts courses at university
  • Celebrate music as a central subject on the school curriculum, a powerful force for young people’s positive development, and a leading driver of the UK’s culture and economy

England has an amazing tradition of music education and much is already in place to allow it to thrive, even after a decade of challenging policy and limited funding. Meanwhile, the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland are pushing ahead with initiatives to ensure that all children in those nations can access high-quality music education. We must hope that England doesn’t get left behind.

Join us at our Education Conference on 15-16 October to enjoy 17 CPD sessions and seminars, including a discussion led by Chris Walters entitled “Music education policy – where are we?”. View the full programme and book here

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