Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

A little bit of a subjective blog entry here – just heard that my old head of music service – Peter Dunkley in Northamptonshire – is retiring. Peter is most respected in the business, and Northants music service is one of the very best – the National Plan for Music recognised this by devoting an entire appendix to its excellent structure of youth ensembles.

But Peter will most probably get passed over for an MBE/OBE because the music education sector is not good at nominating the right people for these honours. I have nothing against Gareth Malone OBE, who has certainly done a lot of good work – but he has done it with the heft of TV behind him, an advantage that Peter Dunkley and others have never had. (Also, Malone was nominated for his award by the BBC! Self-promoting or what?)

Gareth Malone aside, if you look at the music education people who typically receive honours, you’ll see that they tend to be ‘figureheads’ – people who have led a successful initiative or who have campaigned for change. In other words, the honours seem to be going to people on the margins – those who are plugging gaps or drawing attention to perceived problems. The honours are not going to the people who actually keep music education going for the majority of children, day in day out.

There is a wider point here. Do these honours perhaps reflect a music education culture that is gravitating towards the margins? Are we are heading for an end point where a multitude of creative initiatives will flourish at the margins while the kids in the middle who just want a quality music education will gradually find their cause becoming less and less trendy?


I’m currently involved in putting together the programme for a new conference/trade event for music teachers ( As well as trying to focus on practical, useful content that teachers can take back their schools/studios, I have been investigating the possibility of linking as many sessions as possible to some form of CPD accreditation.

My own background in music education is as an instrumental/peri teacher, so I know how informal CDP accreditation in this sector can be. Various bodies offer useful and interesting CPD for instrumental teachers that often lead to some kind of niche qualification, and it’s all good stuff for the CV. But it makes me wonder whether it would be better to have a more structured CPD framework for qualification providers to link into?

Also in the back of my mind is the new Qualified Music Educator award, suggested by the government’s National Plan for Music. This doesn’t exist yet, but the Arts Council is in charge of it and discussions about what it will look like have now begun. Whether the Arts Council has the resources to do it justice is uncertain, but I know that some bright and experienced people have been brought on board to help out.

QME may have been suggested to regulate teachers, but it is also an opportunity to improve on the CPD that is currently available. I can’t helping thinking that QME will need to exist in different versions (no information about what it might look like has so far been given). An early years specialist should not have to work through modules on instrumental teaching technique or inclusion at secondary level, for example. Another thought is that QME might be better off as an umbrella structure for existing qualifications. Might it be an idea, then, for there to be several pathways of QME – early years, SEN, primary, etc – with each drawing in the best of the available qualifications and supplying extra modules where needed?

At a time when so much in British music education seems to be under threat, I would like to briefly turn the spotlight away from the plight of music teachers in this country and on to a place where music education has its own share of problems: Kenya.

Music education in Kenya has been close to my heart ever since I spent 18 months as a volunteer music teacher at Starehe Boys’ Centre, a secondary school in Nairobi, on a placement sponsored by the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust. My brief was to deliver piano and woodwind tuition and to run extra-curricular activities including instrumental ensembles and a music theatre production. Classroom music, the choir and a much-admired marching band were already being taken care of by the school’s permanent music staff.

It’s fair to say that Starehe Boys’ Centre is no ordinary Kenyan secondary school. Set up in 1959 as a home for a handful of destitute boys, the school has grown over the years and now provides secondary education for over 900 young men with exam results that regularly top the league tables. Seventy per cent of the school’s students are given sponsored places and competition for these is fierce: every year there are over 20,000 applications for just 200 places, with selection dependent on both financial need and academic ability.

The school has been something of a cause célèbre in the British media. It was the subject of the Daily Telegraph’s Christmas Appeal in 2009, and has benefited from an unrivalled level of support from the international community. So while its achievements have undoubtedly been remarkable, the school enjoys the kind of resources that are seldom seen in other Kenyan schools. But in other ways, the school is fairly typical of an education system in which creativity is driven to the margins at the expense of the relentless pursuit of academic achievement.

Of course, there is good reason for this. Sadly, it is as true as ever that one of the priorities of Kenyan life, at least for many people, is simply to get by. With no welfare state or public health system to speak of, those who do get the chance to attend secondary school are usually under enormous pressure from relatives back home to secure themselves a well-paid position in order to make their expensive educations pay. For this reason, few Kenyan high school graduates announce that they are to pursue careers as artists. And yet Kenyan culture is bursting with suppressed creativity. You need look no further than the highly decorated public transport vehicles (matatus), painted every colour under the sun and given names such as ‘Drive it like you stole it’, to realise how much creative energy lies dormant in the society.

Music in the Kenyan system in fact fares better than the other arts. Visual art, for example, has virtually no presence at all. One of the reasons for music’s relative good fortune is that Kenya is four-fifths a Christian nation, with a healthy appetite for sacred but energetic choral music. Most schools run a choir from this starting point, allowing imaginative teachers to branch out and explore secular and traditional Kenyan songs alongside sacred repertoire.

But apart from choirs, music in Kenyan schools is not particularly encouraged. It is the only arts subject on the curriculum at Starehe Boys’ Centre – taught in a spacious, donor-built music centre to boot – but, for some reason, uptake is restricted to 15 students annually. This means that, at the beginning of each school year, the 50 or so new arrivals who are interested in taking music are forced to participate in a round of ear tests and other musical challenges in order to whittle them down to a class of just 15.

To an outsider like me, the ear-testing process was more than a little comic. Professional piano tuners are thin on the ground in Kenya, and, quite honestly, most music teachers I know would have struggled to sing any note played on the bashed-up old Broadwood that graced the music centre’s main teaching room – let alone a group of boys who had probably never seen or heard a piano before in their lives. It seemed a strange way to launch these children’s musical careers, but the teachers were required to get the numbers down to 15, and so had no choice but to reject dozens of enthusiastic students.

Once selected, the lucky 15 were launched into a curriculum that appeared not to have changed much since the British left it behind in the 1960s. It seemed mainly to involve learning the rules and regulations of western music through good old-fashioned chalk and talk, with a few mentions of traditional Kenyan music thrown in for good measure. Actual music was rarely a part of the classroom experience.

I soon saw, however, that the teachers were not to blame for this state of affairs. For one thing, a culture of over-serious, academic study pervaded the school, influencing teachers of all subjects. Secondly, the teachers had not really been exposed to the kind of training that might have encouraged them to consider other, more engaging approaches. And thirdly, it wasn’t as if they were deliberately shutting out practical music: after all, they had been open enough to invite a volunteer teacher into the department to provide instrumental tuition.

So, entrusted with a key to a small dark room in which lived the school’s only properly functioning piano, I began teaching piano lessons, and woodwind lessons too, once I managed to get some woodwind instruments donated. I had a degree of success, especially with some of the small ensembles I formed, but as time passed I realised that the heart of the school’s music-making was always going to be found in choir rehearsals. Here, away from the dry formality of the classroom, teaching was much more engaging and numbers were huge; boys were often turned away simply because there was no more space in the rehearsal room.

I came to see that the choir, and to a lesser extent my instrumental teaching, were successful because they offered a rare channel for creative expression in an educational environment that offered plenty of nourishment for the head but not nearly enough for the heart. Good Kenyan music teachers know that they have a vital job in this regard: they realise that it falls to them to facilitate the holistic, spiritual sort of learning that young people intuitively crave, and which is unlikely to be found in other subject areas, at least in Kenya.

So what does this mean for music education in the UK? Well, it is an important reminder that there are things about music which are unique – and that music teachers are at the front line when it comes to defending these things and their educational applications.

There have been many arguments recently in the campaign to protect music education. Among them are claims that music improves children’s literacy and numeracy, and that the academic study of music is as rigorous and important as any other academic subject studied in schools. But if we’re honest, children’s literacy and numeracy would probably improve if they were actively engaged with any creative subject, and you can write a rigorous essay about almost anything. But only through the study of music – which must be purely for its own sake – can you access, understand, feel and appreciate the unique magic at work inside a piece of Rachmaninoff, Stevie Wonder or Eric Wainaina (an excellent Kenyan musician – look him up!). This is why all children should have the opportunity to learn music at school, and it is the lesson we can learn afresh from the experiences of music teachers in Kenya.

This post also appears as the current Editorial on

Clare Stevens wonders whether the Institute of Education’s recent report on the Sing Up initiative has done it any justice at all

Opinions may differ on the content of Darren Henley’s report on music education in England and the philosophy that underpins it, but no one can deny that it’s a good read: clear, logical and jargon-free. Henley is describing a world that most of us can recognise, and he makes his case for how it should be developed in the future very coherently. Turn to the Institute of Education’s recent document summarising the main findings of its research into the impact of the first three years of Sing Up, however, and unless you are a statistician you may find it’s a different story.

An introductory section entitled Background and Aims explains that the research carried out by the Institute of Education, London University ‘provides a summative analysis of longitudinal and comparative research data from the first three years of an ongoing four-year national study of children’s singing development in England (2007-2011). It goes on to define the Sing Up programme – in one sentence – and the terms of reference of the research which is part of its evaluation:

‘Key research foci have included a comparative mapping of the following:

  • children’s singing behaviour and development, noting whether or not participants have had experience of the national programme
  • children’s attitudes towards singing at school, home and elsewhere’

Section 2 on the research method states that to date 9,979 children have taken part in the research,  95% of them aged 7+-11+, drawn from 177 schools across England, and chosen in such a way that the resulting group is geographically, socially, ethnically and musically diverse. It’s from this point on that the authors of the Sing Up research could do with some coaching from Mr Henley on how to engage their target audience.

We are told that ‘children’s individual singing behaviour and development were assessed by noting each individual child’s performance of two well-known songs within a specially designed protocol that combined two established rating scales’. Eh? What’s a ‘protocol’? What sort of rating scales – what do they measure?  The summary doesn’t say. For detail, including ‘how the singing scores were normalised’, the reader is referred to several other pieces of research, some of them dating from the 1990s. And the first thing any teacher, vocal specialist or not, will want to know is what were the two songs that the children were asked to sing to demonstrate their singing ability – but we’re not told.

Much of the most helpful information is in footnotes. For example, we’re told that the research included a questionnaire embracing six themes to assess attitudes to singing self-concept and social inclusion. But the themes are only listed in a footnote towards the end of the summary, in order to interpret the response statistics. I would really like to see the actual questions, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Of course there are conventions in presenting research findings and sometimes the obvious or even blindingly obvious has to be stated, as in: ‘There were significant age, sex, ethnicity and school type differences in the emergent findings. Within these group variables, older children, girls and national singing programme (Sing Up) experienced participants tended to have more advanced singing development.’ (my italics)


‘Age and longitudinal data indicated that children’s singing competency tended to improve with age and experience, but particularly so in a stimulating musical environment, such as provided by the Sing Up programme.’

But what really irritates me about this report is that we’re not told anything at all about what constitutes improved singing competency – there’s nothing about tuning, rhythmic precision, diction, dynamic control or blend; nothing about the repertoire the children are encountering –about its style, variety of genres, or level of difficulty. How do the researchers define improvement in singing quality? Are they even assessing quality at all, or just counting the number of singing sessions children take part in and measuring how high or low they can sing?

There are some interesting data about range, particularly the finding that children who had experienced an extended programme of singing development, for example that the Sing Up Platinum Award and Chorister Outreach Programme schools tended to have the widest mean comfortable singing range; and more significantly that there was no difference between children from platinum award schools and cathedral schools. But it may be that the platinum award schools already had a high level of singing provision and were just applying for the award as validation of what they were doing (and an extra certificate for prospective parents to admire).

Also, if I’m reading the data correctly, it doesn’t seem to measure the actual range that a cathedral or good parish church chorister would need to span in order to deliver the repertoire (from middle C, and from time to time down to the A or G below it, up to top B flat nearly two octaves above, with the occasional top B, and of course a fair number of choristers can sing the famous Allegri Miserere top Cs with ease). So I wonder if the children were thoroughly tested.

On the subject of singing development and school type, the summary states that: ‘children from schools that had experience of Sing Up tended to have higher singing development ratings than their non-Sing Up peers. Although the cathedral choristers – perhaps not unsurprisingly – achieved the highest ratings, these ratings are statistically similar to those from children who had participated in the Chorister Outreach Programme.’ I think the writers actually meant to say ‘perhaps unsurprisingly’, rather than ‘not unsurprisingly’, but it’s the ‘perhaps’ that prompts me to suspect that the authors of this report – even though one of them is the highly respected Graham Welch – have not fully understood the level of musicianship and singing skill that choristers acquire even after just one or two years in the choirstalls.

There is a plethora of other graphs, statistics and algebraic equations, all very valid but quite hard to read. The conclusion is that children who have had experience of Sing Up are more advanced in their singing than those who have not, but what’s the point of this information in the absence of any expressed musical criteria?

I hasten to add that this blogpost is a critique of the IoE research report, not of the Sing Up programme, and I’m told that there will be more wide-ranging assessments of the four years for which Sing Up was originally funded. But I do hope that when these appear they will be easier for the rest of the world to read and understand.