Wind of change

28th March 2003 at 00:00
By focusing on children's own choices, music education can benefit the whole school, says Tony Knight

Music is at the heart of young people's culture; it is exciting and constantly changing. There's a growing awareness that music education must reflect their enjoyment and fulfilment, and this is the basis of a quiet revolution in the way the subject is being taught.

Research carried out by Roehampton and Keele universities with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has reinforced the importance of music for children. Researchers interviewed 1,500 children, and the findings show that a great deal of their time is taken up with music - not just passively listening, but composing, playing and singing. It was also discovered that musical learning can occur at almost any time and place, with or without a music teacher.

At the heart of the revolution is the realisation that schools must give equal emphasis to informal and formal learning and build on different musical experiences. What a child learns while making music outside school should be developed in the classroom. Pop groups often haven't been to traditional music lessons - they've simply got together to compose and perform their own music.

The definition of what makes a musician is also being challenged. It is no longer restricted to the traditional roles of composer, performer or critic; now it can include being a DJ or sound engineer, or even singing along with a karaoke machine.

There's no doubt that music is a minority interest in terms of curriculum subjects, with only 7 per cent of young people studying it at GCSE, but the changes are not simply a popularising measure. Children listen to a lot of music, including classical, in different forms, such as soundtracks on film and television - and there is evidence that even very young children can discriminate between musical styles. We must build on this and help them understand more about the music and how it is being used.

The QCA is also exploring developing qualifications that will be relevant to a wider range of pupils, giving them the chance to progress along an academic path or develop their own interests.

Various developments are underway to bring about this musical revolution.

One area of research is looking at ways to break down barriers between formal and informal learning. Another is exploring ways of linking instrumental instruction to music making, with a specialist working alongside a classroom teacher, combining the requirements of the national curriculum with instrumental skills.

There is no doubt that teachers who have no musical background need some expert input if they are to help children develop musical skills. Many lack confidence as well as expertise, and many say that the subject they fear most is music.

The QCA is currently working with the DfES to develop units that will combine the skills of specialist and classroom teachers. However, if more young people study music - and the Government's aim is that every key stage 2 pupil who wishes to do so should have the chance to play a musical instrument - there will be a need for more music teachers. The QCA has worked with the awarding bodies to develop higher-level qualifications for music teachers. In February, a suite of qualifications at degree and higher-degree equivalent levels was accredited which will provide recognition of teaching ability and stepping stones to acquiring qualified teacher status.

Perhaps as important to the intrinsic value of music and the enjoyment it brings is the real difference it makes to pupils' achievements and behaviour. During the past three years, the QCA has collected evidence showing that children's concentration, self-control, motivation, self-esteem and commitment are all improved in schools that invest in the arts; many heads are convinced that the arts are essential for improving standards in literacy, attitudes to learning, behaviour and attendance. The QCA is soon to launch a new website that will help schools maximise the contribution the arts can make and includes case studies showing their contribution to the school improvement agenda.

There is certainly plenty of innovative and exciting work going on in schools, but at the moment music still tends to be seen in isolation. In the long term, music and the arts are a powerful means of improving the quality of children's learning. A rich and coherent range of arts experiences will enable them to be discriminating consumers and creators of music and the arts, thereby improving the quality of all our lives.

Tony Knight is principal officer for music, the arts and culture at the QCA

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