How can we build a rich music curriculum?

9 Feb 2019, 5:00

The school minister’s plans for music will not come close to resolving the real issues surrounding the subject, says Emily Crowhurst

Last week I asked a year 11 music student what he thought our school’s music curriculum was about. He wrote…

“School21’s music curriculum is about everyone having the opportunity to create music no matter how experienced you are. Our school’s annual concerts are always filled with a range of abilities and types of music, and every student will perform in front of a massive audience. The culture of singing and performance has been shaped to be for everyone…”

The student continued to refer to the values and culture our curriculum has created within the school, rather than a list of stuff he has done or learnt.

This is powerful feedback. Sure, we could ask him some more probing questions (or test him) and we’ll get to the specific knowledge and skills he has developed over five years, but curricula represent much more than this. They contribute to the identity of your school and the role of your subject within it. This means they must be rich not only in knowledge, but in values, culture, knowing (which is wider than knowledge) and experience.

This bigger, deeper thinking for our curricula means going beyond a list of content that must be covered, or backwards planning from national markers such as SATs or GCSEs.

Our 4-18 music curriculum at School21 is guided by five “big ideas”: ensemble, community, mastery, creativity and flow. They are the values- and practice-led principles that we choose to value in music education and have been teased out through process and experience.

The ideas can be understood and experienced by a four-year-old, but continually re-understood exploring music up to the age of 18. They are not the end of the conversation on our music curriculum, but the start of a better one.

Thinking about our curricula in this way is powerful for teachers, because it is not about prescribing a one-size-fits-all model based on the latest ideological rhetoric. Instead it is about supporting and challenging teachers, from a starting point of respect and trust, to craft and deliver these rich curricula for themselves. This is, after all, part of our job.

Teachers should be challenged to craft and deliver these rich curricula

In contrast, a “detailed year-by-year template for study” is what Nick Gibb, the schools minister, is designing for teachers of music with more subjects to follow. If I dig deep then I can just about see that this is a well-intentioned document for a conversation about curriculum design. However, it will not come close to resolving the real issues surrounding music education and is painfully wide of the mark in terms of what type of support the profession needs long-term.

Rich curricula need thinking teachers who want to remain in the profession beyond five years. They also need the necessary funding to make them a reality.

What is Gibb’s solution for this? A model music curriculum (or any other subject) designed in the abstract for schools – whether compulsory or not – does not advocate for teacher voice or show respect for the thinking capabilities of teachers. This is hardly a helpful undercurrent when we are trying to recruit and, retain “the best and brightest”. We are, or should be, a thinking and a doing profession.

Indeed, more of the former leads to better execution of the latter.

If we are to develop rich curricula and create a thinking culture in schools, there must be commitment from leaders to move away from paint-by-numbers lesson plans and model curriculum packages, and actually develop our teachers.

A “looking outward” day as part of a purposeful CPD programme is a good first move. Recently I visited a school on the other side of London, with a polar opposite ideology to my own school. I observed, we shared, we talked, I listened. He listened. And most importantly, it got me thinking. Hard. There are no shortcuts to a truly rich curriculum, just as there are no shortcuts to becoming a great teacher, or a stronger, more empowered profession. But think harder about this journey, we must.

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