Music must take centre stage in primaries or we risk striking a bum note for society

24th September 2010 at 01:00

In periods of austerity, there is a tendency for music education to be seen as an optional extra, something that can be cut easily without damaging pupils' overall attainment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Making music in the early and primary years increases listening and concentration skills, and enhances a child's ability to discriminate between sounds. This improves phonetic awareness and helps to develop language and literacy skills. There is also a positive impact on spatial reasoning, which is linked to mathematical thinking, and on physical co-ordination, which supports handwriting skills. Music-making in small groups promotes teamwork and the development of leadership skills, as well as being hugely enjoyable. Pupils' confidence can also be enhanced if they have opportunities to perform.

Given these benefits, why is music not allocated sufficient curriculum time in many primary schools? If it is fear of pupils falling behind in academic work, there is very recent evidence that where schools in deprived areas have given more curriculum time to music there have been demonstrable improvements in early years profile scores and Sats results. The In Harmony initiative - inspired by the hugely successful Venezuelan project, El Sistema, which encourages children in poor areas to join an orchestra - is one such scheme.

Making music in the early years and in primary school is particularly important for another reason: fewer children are starting school knowing traditional nursery rhymes, songs and games. This suggests that there is little musical activity in many homes. Last year's Ofsted report, Making More of Music, indicated that, overall, children joined Reception classes with lower than expected musical skills and knowledge. This is especially worrying given the benefits of making music to listening skills and language development.

Of course, some schools do give music the attention it deserves, but many do not. This might be because many classroom teachers lack confidence in teaching music (see box) and headteachers are reluctant to employ specialist music staff.

Overall, the report indicated that learning was better in primary schools that deployed a specialist teacher for music in all or most of the classes. There were exceptions, but these were usually where there was a skilled subject leader who was able to support colleagues in providing a stimulating music curriculum.

The implications of this for children are profound. Not only are some missing out on the high-quality musical experiences to which they are entitled, they are also being deprived of the wider benefits that these activities can have on their intellectual, personal and social skills.

There are also implications for music in the secondary school where teachers are faced with huge diversity in Year 7 pupils' attainment. Some children have had an enriching musical experience in primary school, and can play an instrument, sing well, improvise and compose. Others have had very little active engagement with music. These differences are further exacerbated as some children, whose parents can afford to pay for instrumental lessons, may already be playing at GCSE level.

So, in this period of austerity, the Government would be well advised to target available resources at early years and primary education with specialist teachers either supporting class teachers or delivering the music curriculum directly. Up to the end of Year 1, the focus should be on general musicianship, with whole-class instrumental ensemble work introduced in Year 2. This should continue through to Year 6, and schools should adopt the In Harmony model where the ensemble is central to learning rather than the instrumental lesson. Children who show a particular interest in music should also be given tuition, either individually or in small groups.

The pupil premium that schools are to receive from next September for teaching disadvantaged pupils could be used to finance these lessons where parents cannot afford to pay. This would ensure that every child had access to a high-quality musical education with the wider benefits that this can bring for not only individuals but our society.

Professor Sue Hallam is dean of the Faculty of Policy and Society at the Institute of Education, University of London, and a former professional musician


The challenge of teaching music

The national curriculum for music at key stage 2 is daunting for those with no musical expertise. Pupils are expected to be taught how to sing songs in unison with clear diction, control of pitch and musical expression, play tuned and untuned instruments with rhythmic accuracy, and present performances with an awareness of audience.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Making More of Music report showed that in Years 5 and 6, when the focus switches to KS2 assessments, the standards attained dropped. Inspectors said that children were insufficiently challenged and raised concerns about the amount of time given to music. In fact, there were examples of music ceasing altogether during Year 6.

Where teachers were supported through the school's involvement with instrumental or vocal programmes (such as Wider Opportunities or Sing Up), the classes were often judged to be good or outstanding. This was particularly likely when staff could work alongside music specialists. Not only were there positive outcomes for teachers, in terms of skills and knowledge, but heads also commented on the particular benefits for boys.

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