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Priorities for the Music Education Workforce

This article is a transcript of a talk given by Chris Walters, the MU’s National Organiser for Education and Health & Wellbeing, for the Westminster Education Forum policy conference entitled “Next Steps for Music Education in England”. This event took place online on 10 November.

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By Chris Walters Published: 12 November 2021 | 1:27 PM
Photograph of a young person playing on a rainbow coloured instrument
We should always remember that supporting the workforce is a win-win strategy. Photo credit: Shutterstock

For my talk today, I’m going to focus specifically on peripatetic teachers or visiting music teachers or VMTs, as they are variously known. These are the teachers who deliver instrumental and vocal lessons in schools and are the backbone of the National Plan for Music Education in that they deliver the work of music education hubs.

Who are VMTs, and what’s their route into teaching? Most often they are performing musicians first, usually with a degree in music or some other significant training as a performer. This makes them highly qualified musicians, but it’s rare for them to have had access to initial teacher training or any recognised teaching qualification. Depending on who engages them, they may have access to continuing professional development, but this is often quite sporadic and limited.

Many VMTs have few opportunities for development and progression

The fact that the VMT workforce is largely under-trained in this way becomes increasingly challenging as more is asked of them. For example, the whole-class ensemble teaching used by music education hubs demands some quite advanced classroom management and differentiation skills, which teachers really need training for. And that’s before you consider safeguarding, inclusion, and the many other areas that all teachers need to be skilled in today.

One result of this lack of training is that VMTs don’t always see themselves as ‘proper’ teachers – rather, they might feel more like musicians who do some teaching, which touches on complex issues of professional identity.

Some people might feel that it’s up to teachers to find training opportunities and to develop their professional identities – and there are certainly some very motivated VMTs who do just that – but most are busy making ends meet, with hectic portfolio careers that can include performing and other types of work. So, if we want children and young people to access the highest quality music education, we can’t just wait for VMTs to develop themselves.

In terms of contracts and pay, many VMTs are hourly paid on zero-hour contracts at a rate of about £25-30 per hour, often with no pay for breaks, travel, planning or preparation. Many music education hubs would offer better terms for teachers if they could afford to, and it’s gratifying to see some hubs working to improve their teachers’ contractual terms – but it remains the case that many VMTs have few opportunities for development and progression, both in terms of their roles and their pay.

This is an obvious reason why many hubs are struggling to recruit VMTs, but I would also suggest that we are losing many good instrumental teachers to better paid positions in independent schools or in private teaching, where that work is available.

Going forward, we must be able to attract and retain excellent VMTs in music education hubs, which means giving them a level of pay and status that at least comes close to independent school rates. I acknowledge that work in this direction has begun in some areas, but I believe that an overarching national approach is now needed.

We need to think seriously about training and remuneration for VMTs

How, then, do we make these positive changes? Firstly, we need to think seriously about training and remuneration for VMTs. The first National Plan for Music Education called for a new qualification for VMTs which was duly developed as the Certificate for Music Educators, but with no funding behind it and no link to earnings, it never really took off.

In my view, just as classroom teachers receive initial training that leads to qualified status and a uniform teachers’ pay scale, we need to think creatively about how something similar could be provided for VMTs that fits their particular role and context. This is a complex issue that requires a flexible and nuanced policy response, but this is not beyond the expertise we have in the sector.

We also need to recognise that many VMTs are directly engaged by maintained schools and academies, bypassing hubs completely. We need to understand the reasons for this, and how there could be greater oversight of the engagement of VMTs to minimise some of the fragmentation and inconsistency we see now.

Directly engaged VMTs often face additional challenges to those engaged through hubs – most commonly ‘fake’ self-employment and having to pay exorbitant room rental charges – and we need to tackle this too, even though it’s currently beyond the influence of hubs.

Fundamentally, working as a VMT should be part of rewarding career that develops and goes somewhere, not just casual work in a precarious gig economy, which is the current worst-case scenario. I would ask those developing the next National Plan for Music Education to engage with the Musicians’ Union and others to consider these issues, and for specific funding to be allocated to initiatives that will support VMTs.

Finally, we should always remember that supporting the workforce is a win-win strategy, because a supported workforce leads to the best educational outcomes for children and young people.

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