Even the chair of the Commons education select committee thinks it’s inadvisable – and he’s supposed to be running an official inquiry into it, writes Christopher Walters

You have to admire Michael Gove’s staying power. By now, the EBacc should have been just another coalition U-turn: it’s even more unpopular than the forestry sell-off. But despite a consistent flow of critical comments, the government insists on ploughing on with what everyone can see is a disastrous idea.

Let’s get one thing straight: the EBacc debate is separate from the argument about whether music should remain on the national curriculum. The music education sector is understandably heated about both issues, but it’s important that they don’t get mixed up. The national curriculum debate is worth having; the Ebacc debate is not.

Unfortunately, music education has not shown itself in the best light during the curriculum debate. It has made it a taboo to express the view that taking music off the curriculum might not be a bad idea. While on balance it probably makes sense for music to remain a curriculum subject, some of the arguments for having music outside the compulsory curriculum are well considered and worth hearing. But these have been drowned out by the louder voices of the curriculum camp, many of whom seem to think that everyone should feel as they do. This has almost had the effect of vilifying practitioners who dare to see things differently.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of the way the curriculum debate has been conducted, at least it is a debate. The same cannot be said of the EBacc row: at its centre is a policy with contradictions at every level and no logical rationale.

The EBacc was proposed as an assessment measure for schools, an equivalent to the current league tables. It will be awarded to pupils who achieve a C and above in six GCSEs – not including any arts, ICT or vocational subjects – and a school’s performance will be judged on the number of EBacc passes. But during a recent hearing of the Commons education select committee, it was denied that the EBacc will become the dominant accountability measure. Instead, it was claimed that it will be just one of a range of measures by which parents can judge schools. In which case, why instigate it at all? League tables already exist, and information on schools’ performance in individual subjects is already available.

If it is to be merely the repackaging of existing information, the EBacc will offer no discernable benefits. But this does not mean that it will do no damage, as music educators, headteachers and many others have been quick to point out. The Department for Education has reminded critics that other GCSEs – which could include music – are likely to be taken alongside the EBacc subjects, but surely it is the case that schools will direct more resources towards the EBacc subjects as they strive to improve their ranking – at the cost of the non-EBacc subjects.

Graham Stuart, chair of the Commons education select committee, appears to agree. Despite being responsible for an inquiry into the EBacc which has yet to report, Stuart has freely expressed the opinion that music and other arts subjects will suffer as a result of the EBacc. Perhaps even more worryingly, he has commented that lower-achieving students may find their provision ‘dismantled’ – not exactly a ringing endorsement for the EBacc’s likely knock-on effects.

All of which begs the question of just when the coalition will back-track on the EBacc. Yes, it will mean yet more embarrassment for Michael Gove, just as the Building Schools for the Future U-turn was beginning to be forgotten, but this cannot be helped.

We must all hope that the EBacc will soon be consigned to the past, so that music educators can concentrate on throwing their weight into a fair and transparent debate on music’s place – or otherwise – on the national curriculum. Unlike the EBacc, this is an issue we must debate rigorously if we are to produce an outcome that will best serve our young people. Which, of course, is what really matters.

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What should modern conservatoires be setting out to achieve? Christopher Walters offers a personal response to a debate on this subject held recently at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

I am a conservatoire graduate. My student years were a confusing time in many ways, but one thing seemed clear: the conservatoire experience seemed much more defined for those who had a clear idea of where they wanted to head professionally. These focused individuals had come to the conservatoire to study with a particular teacher and they focused relentlessly on their lessons, with lots of practice in between. The conservatoire’s supposedly well-rounded course meant nothing to them and they did their best to avoid all other classes, which they seemed to do quite easily, as if there was an unspoken understanding that for them the supporting lectures didn’t really matter. But they were undoubtedly gaining something, namely the technique and the nouse required to flourish as a professional musician.

I, on the other hand, floundered, and I suspect I wasn’t alone. For the many students in my year who, like me, arrived with general enthusiasm, a degree of ability and the expectation of a practical, wide-ranging music course – for which the conservatoire’s literature had primed us – the first year was a bewildering vacuum, with little by way of encouragement or support. For me this was made worse by a principal study teacher who took a conveyor-belt approach to teaching, leaving little room for meaningful development. Others among my peers fared better, simply because their principal study teachers were better able to understand where they were coming from.

I mention all this because, to me, Biranda Ford, a research assistant at the Guildhall School, seemed to be speaking from a similar point of view as she presented her research at a recent gathering at the Guildhall School. Ford argued that conservatoire students should engage ‘critically and creatively’ with music, as opposed to focusing mainly on technical development, and that this engagement should be rooted in the principal study, not just in a few peripheral bolt-on modules.

Ford’s proposal is a good one because it would facilitate a genuine move towards the provision of both vocational and broader, transferrable skills, catering for the full range of conservatoire students. She is also right that change needs to happen mainly at the point of principal study – but how? The hallowed principal study is often a locked door, behind which anything goes. For me, this is what Ford failed to address: that principal study teachers are neither trained nor inspected. I believe that until they are, real change will not happen.

I heard recently that a certain conservatoire is about to bring in compulsory teacher training for all its principal study teachers. About time too! If this is true, it will force the other conservatoires to keep up, which will in turn go some way towards addressing the gaping holes in what conservatoires currently offer their students.

Since 2007 Arts Council England’s Take it Away scheme has helped approximately 50,000 people buy musical instruments, an achievement recognised by Darren Henley in his recent music education review. But despite such ringing endorsements, the scheme would appear to be under threat, writes Christopher Walters

Purchasing an instrument is a milestone in the career of any budding musician. But while most parents will do what they can to equip their child with an appropriate piece of musical hardware, many are taken aback at just how much instruments cost, particularly at the later stages of development. In the current climate even a starter instrument can be a stretch, which can easily prevent parents from low-income families from encouraging their children into music.

With such concerns in mind, Arts Council England (ACE) launched the Take it Away scheme in 2007, offering interest-free loans on the purchase of musical instruments. The scheme has so far helped some 50,000 musicians to get the equipment they need, and was recently described in the Henley Review as ‘excellent’. All the hallmarks of a genuine success story; but inevitably, cuts loomed.

First of all it’s important to understand exactly how Take it Away works. Individuals aged 18 and over can purchase an instrument for themselves or on behalf of a child by taking out an interest-free loan provided by ACE. Loans are available up to £2,000 (and can be put towards the purchase of an instrument worth more than this), and are repayable in nine monthly instalments. Instruments must be bought from participating stores (there are over 300), and a 10% upfront deposit is required from the purchaser.

But from 1 April ACE is to restrict the scheme to those aged 18 to 25 who work a minimum of 16 hours per week. In practice this means that the majority of parents will be too old to access it, which many feel will undermine the strategic goals laid out by ACE at the scheme’s outset:

  • To encourage children and young people to develop their interests and skills in music making
  • To inspire new players of all ages to begin learning an instrument
  • To enable those on lower incomes to acquire an instrument appropriate to their needs (or the needs of their children)

At the time of writing there was no information on Take it Away’s website regarding the changes, and a number of participating retailers have told MT that they have received mixed messages about the future of the scheme. Mike Coleman, director of Core Music, Hexham, is one retailer who has been made aware of the plans. ‘I am extremely disappointed that the Take it Away scheme is, in effect, being “taken away” from the vast majority of people,’ he said. ‘To offer the scheme only to 18-25-year-olds is a dreadful decision and will, in effect, mean that very few applications will be received or accepted.’

He added, ‘I am also concerned that young people in this age group will have their expectations raised that they will be able to purchase instruments through Take it Away when they may not have the ability to pay or, indeed, the credit record to qualify in the first place. It is a cynical move to limit the scheme, and hugely detrimental.’

Liz Turner of Turner Violins has also been informed of the changes. She told MT: ‘Changing the scheme to make it only available to 18-25-year-olds will rule out parents from buying instruments for their children, which will make it the opposite of what it was always intended to be.’

But Ronnie Orme, director of Rock Hard Music in Milton Keynes, has to date heard nothing definite. ‘All we’ve been told is that there may be changes to the way Take it Away operates,’ he said.

Orme can sympathise with the fact that ACE has had its budget reduced and needs to cut costs: ‘Take it Away has been a really good scheme for us, but I can see that it is expensive to run in its current form. The way it has operated pretty much anyone has been able to use it, and we have been given a lot of discretion about who to accept.’

It’s a matter of public record that ACE had its budget cut at the last comprehensive spending review, and Orme’s comments highlight the fact that many people can understand that belts have to be tightened. But are the propsed changes the best way to do this? Emma Russell, ACE’s media relations officer, told MT: ‘In line with the goals and priorities set out in Achieving Great Art for Everyone, our ten-year strategy for the arts, the Arts Council has decided to use its investment in the Take it Away scheme specifically to encourage 18-25-year-olds to continue and develop their involvement in music beyond school and into adulthood. By restricting the eligibility criteria in this way, ACE will ensure that its investment is focused exclusively on supporting the musical interests and talent of young people post education.’

But doesn’t this represent a significant departure from the scheme’s original goals? ‘With such a change to the scope of the scheme, it is inevitable that the original aims will need to be adapted. We believe that a large amount of 18-25-year-olds will be in a position to take advantage of the scheme, and although some of that demographic are students, many of them will also be in part time employment.’

Russell doesn’t shirk from stating that ACE simply cannot afford to maintain Take it Away in its current form. In response to MT’s suggestion that the scheme be kept open to the parents or guardians of those in education while preventing adults from accessing it to purchase instruments for themselves, she said, ‘From customer demographic data, we predict that offering the scheme to those in full-time education and their parents/guardians would generate sales over and above what our budget would allow us to support at present. We are currently exploring other opportunities for supporting children and young people in education.’

What about the Henley Review’s verdict that Take it Away ‘should continue to be funded’, but that it should be ‘focused on providing loans for those in full-time education of any age’? The government’s response stated that the matter was to be left in the hands of ACE. With that in mind, might now be the time to ask whether there could be a better way for ACE to juggle its reduced budget, in order to allow Take it Away to function in line with Henley’s recommendations? When so many people are agreed that the scheme is working well, and when less drastic ways to reduce its costs would surely be available, perhaps ACE should be encouraged to consider alternative solutions.

This article also appears in the March issue of MT

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)

and

‘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.

A week on from the publication of the Henley Review, MT editor Christopher Walters takes a critical look at the review’s recommendations and the responses of the music education sector

The saying goes that a week is a long time in politics, and it certainly applies to the week since the Henley Review was published. Just one week ago we had no idea whether or not the government would retain the £82.5m of ringfenced music funding. Now we know that it will (for 2011-12 at least), in line with the review’s recommendations. And while the government has deferred any decision regarding the place of music on the national curriculum, due to its ongoing curriculum review, it was reassuring to see Henley write so unequivocally about the importance of curricular music. His recommendation that music become an English Baccalaureate subject at the next review was a further positive.

But did so much good news cloud our judgement of the review as a whole? The review contains a total of 36 recommendations. Did the speediest commentators really have time to assess all 36, not to mention what wasn’t included, before tweeting and blogging their verdicts? For me, it’s telling that the music education sector’s earliest responses were broadly positive, and that only later did more critical voices emerge.

The Federation of Music Services was one of the first groups to comment, calling the review ‘a landmark report’. This must have been heavily influenced by the news that the ringfenced funding on which music services depend will remain for another year, because it could be argued that a number of the review’s other recommendations are rather light on details. For instance, what form will the National Plan for Music actually take? And how will Music Education Hubs function in reality? These may be sensible, practical ideas, but while details are still being finalised the music education sector would do well to keep a close eye on the situation. (Incidentally, it took a few days for anyone to point out that the £82.5m is in fact a real-terms cut – well spotted, NUT.)

Youth Music’s response came a few days later. This response was eagerly awaited, as the review contained a number of gentle criticisms of the way Youth Music operates, recommending it be prevented from spending its lottery funding on public affairs or lobbying. Youth Music’s response addressed these points as expected, but other comments stood out more, including that Henley had painted a ‘somewhat narrow picture of music education’, and that it ‘would have liked to have seen a broader representation of music education, encompassing the wide range of genres and styles of music-making which the sector is well placed to support.’ Similar criticisms were posted on a Musical Futures blog soon after (the review failed to mention Musical Futures or any form of ‘informal learning’).

Perhaps it was only to be expected from the chief executive of Classic FM, but Henley’s view of musical achievement seems much more likely to lead to a place in the National Youth Orchestra than a headline gig at the Brixton Academy. But music teachers know that this is precisely the kind of achievement that tends to happen outside curricular music lessons – so, having stated that he believes in it, just what is Henley’s vision for curricular music?

A week may be a long time in politics, but it’s a short time to digest and form an opinion on a complex document that looks likely to play a major role in shaping this country’s music education for years to come. Yes it’s a serious and thorough piece of work, for which Henley should be acknowledged, but music education professionals have both a right and a duty to analyse it critically and independently – whether or not they find themselves agreeing with any consensus. It’s what Darren Henley would want.

Harassed by Henley? Former MT editor Clare Stevens charts the progress of the Henley Review from its conception to the recent turmoil caused by its delay

Pity poor Richard Hallam. Charged by the previous government with ensuring that children in English state schools had access to their fair share of music-making, he has retained his brief under the coalition. Now he’s the man everyone’s been badgering about the delayed publication of the Henley Review, because he’s the one we all know. It’s just one of the anomalies of the situation music education finds itself in that Dick’s role as national music participation director actually falls within the remit of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, whereas the review was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE). Whatever – he now finds himself the link between those responsible for producing the Henley Review of  Funding and Delivery of Music Education, to give it its official title, and service providers desperate to know whether they will have a future beyond the end of March.

The review was announced in September, which was still early days for the coalition. Secretary of state Michael Gove insisted that he wanted to be kept abreast of its findings as they emerged, and expected a full report before Christmas, which could be published by the end of December in order to give local authorities time to make plans for music provision in the next financial year. Since he issued his instructions Gove has been discovering that running an education department is rather more difficult than he probably imagined; facing opposition to his cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme and lukewarm enthusiasm for his beloved academies, and forced to do a U-turn on the funding of school sports, he may not have lost too much sleep about the late arrival of the report on music education. But as the clock ticked on through January, music services and all those other organisations and individuals whose economic survival depends on the government’s commitment to supporting music provision in schools  became increasingly anxious to know what Henley would recommend, and whether the DfE would accept his proposals. Yet again Dick Hallam has had to urge providers to hang on in there and hold off on decision-making if at all possible, explaining  in an email after a meeting at the DfE  on Monday 31 January that he feels sure there will be some sort of announcement next week.

Having read some of the submissions to the review which have been posted on the Teaching Music website http://www.teachingmusic.org.uk/r/HenleyResponseArchive, I’m not surprised it took Darren Henley longer than expected to wade through all of these and many more, conduct a range of face-to-face interviews and produce his report. Individual practitioners, music services and representatives of the myriad other agencies involved in music education responded at great length and with varying degrees of clarity and objectivity to the handful of questions in Henley’s original call for evidence. Digesting and drawing conclusions from such a vast amount of material would have been an onerous task for someone who had no other responsibilities, let alone for a man who has an extremely demanding day job running a radio station, not to mention, as Henley’s Twitter followers will know, an equally demanding allegiance to Gillingham Town FC. As Dick Hallam is keen to remind us, the Classic FM boss has undertaken the review voluntarily and is conducting it in his ‘spare’ time.

In the meantime, the blogosphere has been buzzing with speculations about what might be in his report, and in the past couple of weeks a campaign in defence of music provision has gathered momentum, fuelled by interventions by the likes of Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and chair of the Music Education Council, whose credo is that ring-fenced government funding must remain in place until 2015 to support a wide range of inclusive, high-quality music learning activities, including opportunities for instrumental and singing tuition for every child, and with music guaranteed its place in the national curriculum. One of the most articulate and public appeals came from vocal coach and Pop Idol judge David Grant, who joined Christine Bleakley on the Daybreak sofa last week to make the case for music in schools, in response to an emotive film featuring the award-winning silver band of Egglescliffe School, which is entirely dependent for its survival on Tees Valley Music Service. (See the Daybreak interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_TfbaobYbw)

At a time of general economic crisis, even some of the most dedicated advocates of music education admit that it can be difficult to make the case for continued funding. Across the UK, local authorities are facing cuts that threaten Sure Start centres, welfare-to-work schemes, care for the elderly or disabled and essential services such as street lighting and cleaning and refuse collection. Against that background, it’s no wonder that some feel instrumental and singing lessons are a luxury they cannot afford, despite their proven social value. Some music service leaders are prepared to accept that and are already investigating alternative strategies. But they need to know where they stand. No one wants to begin dismantling staffing arrangements that are based on local authority support only to find that the Henley Review recommends keeping them in place. The real problem is that funding settlements are based on the financial year, not the academic year, which is why an initiative such as Sing Up, launched as part of the Labour government’s commitment to music education in the 2008-11 allocation, is scheduled to end in a few weeks’ time, despite its acknowledged success – and why some councils have already announced cost-cutting redundancies or changes to freelance contracts for their peripatetic teachers.

There are some good news stories. In Sheffield, for example, a meeting called by music service head Mary Heyler to explain the financial situation to parents resulted in enthusiastic support and offers of practical help for whatever solutions she and her colleagues felt would be appropriate. Although deeply frustrated by the absence to date of the transition strategy promised by the government to bridge the gap between the end of the current funding package and a new system based on Henley’s recommendations, she is confident that the city council will do everything in its power to support music education in Sheffield and is optimistic about the future.

But most music services are still playing the waiting game. Let’s hope it will soon be over.