Stormzy or Mozart, Who Knows?

There has been a stormzy brewing for some time about curriculum content. The National curriculum says we ought to teach ‘the best’, I don’t agree, we each have our subjective tastes and sensibilities, I think it is better to teach children to enter into the conversation about what the best might be. That is not to say that all is equally good or valuable, just because someone tells me the Big Mac is the best food in the world I don’t have to demean all other food by thinking that it is all down to personal taste and opinion; some things are better than other things.

In the arts this means there are really difficult and important curriculum discussions about personal taste and about quality, for example should we open up the world of art by engaging children with their tastes as they are? Let’s try a food analogy, not sure how far this can go but… – ‘our kids like McDonalds so we will take them to McDonalds and then try to develop their tastes by introducing them to different types of fast food or burgers with the hope that, eventually, their taste buds will undergo a miraculous change and they will be dining out at Jamie’s Italian restaur… oh.’ What food is ‘the best’? I love Sushi, should I impose my likes on the pupils I teach?

This is where teachers can come together and decide on their curriculum, bearing in mind that they have a duty to the children they teach and to the quality of the work they are bringing into the children’s lives. The children’s tastes might be geared to salt and sugar, how to ween them off this narrow range and open up bitter tastes, herbs and spices, how to think about ethical issues around animal husbandry or not eating animals at all? How to look at different cuisines and children’s own culinary experiences in their homes and what they can realistically make in one, one hour lesson over a couple of years or so…

The most recent furore about what to teach children has been ignited by a report called: ‘Exchanging Notes’ from the charity ‘Youth Music’ that funds projects to make music, mainly outside of school environments. The report was featured in the Daily Telegraph under the headline: ‘Stormzy should be taught in schools instead of Mozart to prevent exclusions, charity urges.’ The report is based on an action research project they carried out, its aims were:

To support young people at risk of disengagement, low attainment or exclusion from school to achieve the best musical, educational and wider outcomes through participation in the music-making projects.

To develop new models of partnership working between schools and out-of-school music providers.

I feel I ought to emphasise that this was a targeted programme aimed at young people who were thought of as being at risk from ‘exclusion, disengagement or low attainment.’

The report states:

This was an action research project, which meant that the researchers were involved throughout: feeding back findings and encouraging projects to think about new ways forward, so that the research made a difference to the programme as it unfolded over the four years.

I am not aware of a control group of pupils targeted who received no input, nor another group who received a similar programme but, say, in Physics. This is a weakness. I wonder if a similar programme in science in which teachers also worked with:
• Social workers
• Carers
• Independent reviewing officers (social workers)
• Music therapists
• Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs)
• School pastoral staff
• Learning support teams
• Medical professionals

would have had similar, or markedly different, results?

The judgements as to the quality of education in each project were made by the research team visiting: “…up to three times per year, and part of the visit included an observation. A total of 75 observations were conducted across the four years and the observations improved over this period.” This was very much a qualitative project, with no ‘hard’ evidence being gathered. I am not sure that this should be a problem, especially as it is a look at an art form, no GCSE or music grades seemed to be taken into account but this was not the aim of the project. Teachers reported improvement in ‘literacy and numeracy’ though this could not be verified. Instead attainment was a secondary consideration to “an approach that placed more emphasis on personal and social needs” This meant that “The curriculum became ethical, in that children’s views were genuinely listened to, which in turn helped to improve their experiences of learning.” This is a different ask to the challenging task of teaching music in schools in the curriculum.

A sample piece of qualitative feedback:

“As the warm up progresses, the music leader continues to encourage the participants to lead warm-up activities. Latecomers are welcomed into activity seamlessly. New participants are greeted without a great deal of attention being drawn to them so that they feel comfortable – told to join in where they can…”

There was a reported improvement in ‘resilience’ though this is difficult to judge, one ‘young musician’ reported: “We are now patient with ourselves and we have confidence in ourselves as well because before we would have just wanted to give up.”

The limitations of the project’s methods were referred to explicitly, in a paragraph that might raise concerns as to the longer term efficacy of this approach:

“One regular method of data collection used by the research team was baseline and follow-up perception surveys with music leaders, music teachers and young musicians. One question asked whether young people tried hard in sessions. Music leaders and young musicians perceived that engagement at the end of the programme was lower than at the beginning. This could be due to methodological limitations of the data collection method used, but it could also point to difficulties in project-based work maintaining engagement over a long period of time.”

Despite this concern, three changes in learner behaviour were observed:

Young musicians’ musical and non-musical perspectives changed
The young musicians’ new understanding – of music, of education, and of themselves – led to new behaviours
This resulted in a ‘re-authoring’ of self, in particular through having a new identity as a musician. For the majority of the young musicians these new practices are unlikely to be forgotten or unlearned.

Further outcomes reported were:

During the four years… there were many ways in which the projects challenged the accepted norms of doing music education in schools. In order to challenge school constraints, projects had to find ways to explore new approaches that were democratic, relational, and collaborative.
Many of the Exchanging Notes projects re-evaluated measures of success based on musical standards, or level of skill. New measures of success took account of musical, communicative and discursive practices. Teachers and music leaders had conversations that explored new ways of thinking, being and doing.
These processes enabled many organisations to begin to move towards a realignment of music education as being socially, culturally and politically conscious, and a change in practice and policies for accounting for progress and progression. They took a more ethical and inclusive approac

At no time should we underestimate the social and emotional needs of our pupils, nor for the arts to be able to offer different ways for some children to encounter the world but before asking for wholesale changes in school music provision, it would be good to see the findings of some work carried out in mainstream music curriculum teaching. The children’s ‘re-authoring’ themselves in the criteria suggested by this project might have been a wonderful outcome but it is a very different aim than that for most music teaching. The ‘new measures of success’ might be okay for people involved in this action research project but might be more difficult for teachers delivering the mainstream curriculum in which the child and their music have some different measures of success to contend with. To be fair the report alludes to this, but the fact that it suggests wholesale changes to teaching and learning based on findings from working with a core of 163 ‘young musicians’ over four years when the collective knowledge of music teachers across the country will have far more experience and anecdotal evidence to call upon makes me question how far we should take the report’s findings with more than a pinch of salt.

However, the limited evidence clearly hasn’t deterred the reports authors from telling teachers what to do:

“Young people’s existing musical tastes should be the starting point to ignite their passion for music in the classroom. The personal and social outcomes of music, such as wellbeing and resilience, should be tracked and valued. Music in Key Stage 3 should have less emphasis on preparation for GCSE Music.”

163 core young musicians who are at risk of disengagement, low attainment or exclusion from school are an important focus. Maybe music can be used to target individuals to whom schools are a difficult place to be. This is something I can wholeheartedly understand as I was one of those pupils and would have loved to have had an arts programme targeted at me. But this is not evidence that “Young people’s existing musical tastes should be the starting point to ignite their passion for music in the classroom.” Some music teachers might be doing this, the aforementioned ‘McDonald’s approach’, there might be others achieving remarkable results both to pupil’s well being and to their music prowess by starting with African drumming, singing folk songs from Bulgaria, or by getting pupils to listen to the Magic Flute. Stormzy or Mozart? Quite simply, this report doesn’t know.

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