“Teach them music!” I came away from the Sunday Times Festival of Education on Friday with those words ringing in my ears. I now consider myself a bit of a veteran of edu-nerd gatherings (or at least blooded) and have got quite used to hearing speakers I agree with, but I didn’t expect to be inspired.
The sessions I went to were all interesting: Mori polling data on what people really think about education, Rob Coe on how to get teachers to improve, Glenys Stacey on the role of Ofqual as regulator. David Didau and Dylan William were both on top form (please keep this double-act going) when discussing whether AfL is the right response if learning is invisible. They were so animated I saw them still going at it an hour later in the cafe.
Meeting and talking with others interested in education is one of the main reasons for going to these events and I was pleased to meet up with some former colleagues – John Blake, the ‘flame-haired enfant terrible of Labour Teachers’ (©Tom Bennett) and Doug Johnson – as well as Stephen Dilley, a former student who is now a teacher. Yes, I’m getting old.
It was however, the post-lunch session that really gripped me. In Wellington’s awesome chapel (I think all schools should have a chapel like that) Howard Goodall stood talking, occasionally with reference to notes, about music in schools. I have not generally liked his TV programmes about music and I was expecting to disagree. He began with music education in Nazi Germany, with its survey of German composers throughout history: it didn’t stop them committing atrocities. I braced for an argument in favour of 100% composing, or at least listening and performing solely as stimulus for composing. He is a composer, after all.
But no. He described some compositional processes that he had gone through as a young composer. We learn by imitating and our early attempts at composing are nothing more than pastiche. Why assess children’s ability to pastiche in exams? Now he had me, as this is something I have been arguing for some time. Don’t teach them to compose, “Teach them Music”. Improvisation, which is not ‘making things up on the spot’ as all musicians know but involves hours of painstaking practise and immense skill. Don’t teach them to improvise, “Teach them music”. Western musical notation is not just one of a range of different notation systems; it is the best means of notating the language of music. Yet teachers in maintained schools shy away from teaching it to their pupils. We try to teach all of music by getting pupils to remember five things about Indian music. By now I was cheering, albeit silently.
I disagreed with some of what he said: that the content of exams should be left up to individual teachers neither takes into account the difficulty in achieving parity of qualification nor the lack of passion for music of many music teachers, some of whom would simply go for whatever was easiest to get their pupils through exams in a rather depressing way. I also disagree with his assertion that pupils should not receive chronological view of the classical tradition – while biographical detail is unimportant you get some pretty funny misconceptions if you don’t give it some historical context. I’ve never been convinced that you can or should teach themes (e.g. bass line) in isolation.
I was still inspired and rushed up at the end to gush. There were quite a lot of music teachers there and we were all convinced. Now all we need is for those who write the exams to agree (and they don’t). Maybe Glenys Stacey can help? The DfE certainly wasn’t listening: “We agree that current music GCSEs are not sufficiently broad…” No, they’re too broad. So, fellow convinced musicians and teachers, what next?
Update: here is the full text of the speech and some bits there wasn’t time for: