Why We Need to Stand Together To Bring Music Back In Every School by Emily Crowhurst
by Music Teachers Association
It’s no secret that this is a difficult period for music teachers, school leaders and musicians. It’s also no secret that these jobs, like any worthwhile occupation, are always difficult.
Unclear guidance, mis-information and ill-judged government messaging have all contributed to the latest challenge music teachers find themselves working through, but our response, as always, must be collaborative, innovative and assertive if we are to bring music back in all schools, not just in the way it was before, but with something even better. Our students need it, our communities need it and the arts sector at large need it too.
It’s been too easy for some schools to dismiss the possibility of teaching music back in specialist classrooms, of bringing back visiting instrumental teachers and ensemble music making, just as it’s been too easy, in recent years, for some schools to operate carousel structures for arts curricula and three year GCSE courses that rob too many students of the full three years of secondary music education to which they are entitled. This, in part comes down to the mindset, values and decision making of school leaders, but we must also take responsibility for this as music teachers, stand up together and turn the tide. Music can and should be back in every school and every specialist music classroom this term and we must be thinking about what this looks like, not just from a safety point of view, but from the perspective of quality, richness and purpose. Safety has, understandably, dominated the conversation, but now that there are so many schools demonstrating that ensembles, music education in music classrooms and instrumental tuition can be done, it’s important we share what’s happening and expand the conversation. Other schools need to see it, your local MP needs to see it and our education ministers need to see it too.
In this spirit I have summarised a few examples from the school in which I work, linked to three key factors we must be thinking about in order to get the very best out of our current context.
1. Working effectively with school leaders
“It’s better to ask for forgiveness than seek permission” - ie. if it’s a good idea, go for it!
Headteachers, particularly at the moment, do not have the bandwidth to know every solution for every situation, and as such, if you ask for something that seems potentially complicated or challenging, you are likely to receive a “no”.
Staying in a music specialist space was key to everything we would do this term, so we did not ask permission for this. Instead we invited feedback from school leaders on our thorough plan to do this safely, leaving no logical reason for it not to happen. These solutions included collaborating on carefully planned transition times and routes in and out of the department to override the increased risk of crossing bubbles, and cleaning routines introduced to the final 5minutes of every lesson. Head teachers want great music in their schools. We have to make it as easy as possible for them to go with us on how we do that.
2. Managing the logistics
Social media teaching feeds are awash with practical, tangible solutions for enabling safe music making. Organisation and close liaison with the school site team are crucial to this- skills that all music teachers excel in. As in many other schools, our solutions have included knocking through walls and building opening windows to increase ventilation, marking out safe distance zones for students to wait for and participate in instrumental lessons and ensembles, building plexi-screens for our wind, brass and singing lessons, and fully briefing our peripatetic team on the cleaning and distancing measures they must follow and enforce with their students. We regularly review this, and actively seek feedback from our instrumental teachers in order to ensure we are providing the safest possible environment for them as well our students. As a result there are 220 instrumental lessons running each week for students from Y4-Y13, students are working in ensembles (always working in the same year group based mini instrument bubbles) as part of their music lessons, and we are working towards our usual end of year concerts (albeit a re-imagined iteration that will be pre-recorded), celebrating our 4-18 music curriculum and every child in our community.
3. Expanding (not limiting) our curriculum
Even in our music classrooms, with all the safety measures in place, there are apparent limitations to the way the curriculum physically operates. To ensure this has not detracted from our curriculum intentions, we continued to design everything we are now doing from the core practices and values we have always built our curriculum upon (ensemble, mastery, creativity, community and flow). Maintaining this mindset for planning has ensured that any new ways of doing our curriculum have served to expand what we are non-negotiable about offering in the first place. For example, through having less capacity to share instruments amongst our Y9 students, we have elevated the process and purpose for the lyric writing in our latest blues project. It inspired a more rigorous approach to the process of lyric writing and inspired a community focus for the project, in which students tell the stories (as told via interview) of unsung heroes of our local community through their blues writing. This has made the project richer than previously, and given a purpose and authenticity to the music making we’ve been doing with these students.
We are a community of teachers and leaders with so much to offer. Now is the time to turn the tide, stand up for arts communities struggling for survival and through what we model and do in our schools, show our sector, our society and our government that we CAN DO MUSIC.