False notes

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Young people regard school music as a quaint sub-culture separated from music out in the world. We have to do better, says Keith Swanwick.

Criticism of the quality of music teaching in secondary schools flows from many sources. The Office for Standards in Education has reported that teachers underestimate pupils' abilities, spending too much time on non-musical activities, with poor performance of badly chosen material (1993). Annual reports from HM Inspectorate on standards and quality sustain these criticisms: "the curriculum in Year 7 was often less challenging than that in primary schools, and its demand increased insufficiently in Years 8 and 9" (1995); "pupils' understanding of musical concepts, shown through composition, talk and performance, does not develop beyond that expected in Year 5 and Year 6" (1996); and standards "remain poor in too many schools at key stage 3" (1997).

There is also a long history of negative attitudes to music on the part of pupils, usually when compared with other subjects. State of the Arts, a recent study of the arts in secondary schools, states that for music "the enjoyment factor remains unchanged and disappointingly low".

My own impressions from a teacher training perspective coincide with these findings. The supervision of 40 secondary PGCE students each year in London leads me to believe that music education in secondary schools is very patchy. There are bright exceptions, outstanding teachers often working in conducive settings, but it seems unwise to predicate the standards of any profession on the performance of the extraordinary person. While the musicality and positive attitudes of the students is impressive, there is an alarming difference in the same people two or three years later, when the shine has rubbed off and the system has ground their energy away.

In most secondary schools a teacher has five to seven classes of around 30 children each day, upwards of 600 different pupils every week. This teacher is expected to be a versatile musician, able to work in the music of a number of cultures, and at the same time a systematic educator making sure that each pupil is engaged in music at a challenging level and that records are kept on progress. In addition to this "normal" teaching commitment and the regular pastoral and organisational duties of a school teacher, they have to manage an instrumental teaching scheme running on a parallel timetable, run extra-curricular groups and produce musical events throughout the year, usually prepared in out-of-timetable time and rarely offset against the normal teaching load.

Being music teacher and director of music rolled into one is onerous. Music is not a single entity easily reduced to work in conventional classrooms. It is a multiplicity of activities requiring specialist know-how, varying group size and different levels of equipment. How can one teacher and every single school provide access to such musical diversity as, for example, gamelan, steel pans, western orchestral instruments in all their variety, a range of choral experience, rock and pop, jazz, Indian and African music? Rarely can pupils be said to be having a musically authentic experience. No wonder "school music" appears to many young people as a quaint musical sub-culture separated from music out in the world, abstracted by the national curriculum and subject to very curious arrangements for assessment. We have to do better than this.

There have been many missed opportunities. Within previous local education authority instrumental teaching services, work could have extended to organising special purpose groups which would not only study musical technique but would rehearse and perform, compose and listen to the music of other people. This possibility was largely disregarded and with rare exceptions (like the Tower Hamlets string teaching project) instrumental teachers were not integrated into the fabric of curriculums and timetables. Instead, they functioned much as they do today in a privatised system, largely on the edge of the educational "mainstream". Access is by withdrawing pupils from timetabled lessons, an arrangement which disrupts other subjects.

The opportunity for systematic integration has now passed and we have to think radically about the future and give secondary teachers a chance to be what they ought to be: professional musicians who happen to teach in schools. Music education must be reformed to recognise that we need to look outside schools at the diverse and busy world of musicians for the necessary range of experience.

A recent study at the Institute of Education on the effect of professional musicians on the school scene offers some clues on possible benefits of collaboration. Over three years, teachers and pupils from six south London schools had access to the resources of the South Bank Centre, including the Festival and Queen Elizabeth Halls and the Gamelan room. They worked with professional performers and composers representing many different facets of music, including contemporary and non-western music. Central to the rationale was that their experiences should be musically genuine, "authentic", led by "insiders". The pupils' attitudes reinforced what teachers and students told us in interviews. Participation in the scheme helped to reduce negative attitudes to music in school and over three years the classes were perceived as becoming musically more able than parallel "control" groups.

We have to consider involving musicians of various kinds as part of a music education network, rather than seeing them as exotic novelties. The resources of nearby schools might also be pooled, especially the musical expertise of teachers. Secondary schools might see themselves as more as facilitating agencies than sole "providers". Thus easing a real problem for secondary music teachers, who find themselves uncomfortably veering between their own musical specialism (which may or may not be valued by students) and an insecure "generalism", for instance, in the areas of popular and what have come to be known as "world" musics. At the same time we need a radical look at the conventions of the timetable. In American high schools music is usually an "elective" with internal electives, usually band or choir. Students can expect up to four timetabled rehearsals a week usually in rooms designed for the purpose. I would resist this arrangement for several reasons, principally because the sole activity is usually rehearsal of a limited repertoire towards a distant performance date, whereas in the UK we see the value of composing, listening and performing.

The aim is for each secondary school to give access to a range of instrumental and vocal groupings led by confident teachers. Pupils will elect into one of these and in this context they will indeed learn to perform but will also compose, listen to and discuss music. Some of these activities will be on school premises, but not necessarily all.

There will be resistance to such reform, not least because our schools are now locked into a rigid system. One effect of the national curriculum is that teaching takes place almost entirely in classrooms where it can be subject to scrutiny by OFSTED and LEA inspectors. Every school is now a small business in competition with those nearby and it seems unlikely that sharing of expertise will easily take place. Why should one school enhance the profile of another?

Yet there is a musical richness beyond the school gates if only we could systematically find and use it. Perhaps our new educational mandarins might look at alternative timetable models and ways in which music in all its diversity can more profitably be offered in the curriculum. The division between curricular and extra-curricular music would then be eroded and the job of secondary music teachers become realistic.

Keith Swanwick is professor of music education at the Institute of Education, University of London

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