The Model Music Curriculum: Promising Beginnings and Healthy Challenge

January 29, 2024 by Dr Steven Berryman

8 minute listen

Originally published 27 March 2021 by Dr Steven Berryman

Any attention at a policy level for a subject that has been considered in decline is welcome, and the publication of the Model Music Curriculum presents the beginning of some positive steps to propel the classroom music conversation forward. Its thorough consultation, and slower pace due to the challenges of the present time, have resulted in something that will land well for many. For others, there will be some cognitive dissonance (rightly so) and they’ll be fearful of what non-statutory guidance represents. I would implore us all to keep the conversation going; in some respects, it is the continuation of a healthy history of academic, political and policy discussions around what, how and why we teach music.

Schools are considering their curriculum with increased intensity, fuelled by the focus on curriculum intent by those that hold schools to account. Accountability aside, what we teach is hugely exciting for a teacher. You get to find content then brings you joy (reminds you of why you fell in love with the subject) and what you hope will bring that same buzz for your students. The energy, vibrancy, and proliferation of the curriculum conversations in classrooms, departments and on social media has been a joy to see. Teachers are sharing their resources and thinking with generosity through blog posts, articles, and tweets; a positive of the curriculum focus has been a huge amount of care for ensuring what we provide our students is the genuine best for them. Undoubtedly what one considers ‘best’ for their students will not be the best for others, and this fuels an engaging debate about what should and should not feature in a curriculum.

Publishing non-statutory guidance was always going to stimulate quite ferocious dialogue in music education because we all care so deeply about our subject; we all have distinct musical enthusiasms we are keen to champion in our classrooms and when we don’t see our passions in guidance (however non-statutory) we feel a sense of loss and lack of recognition. Capturing such a broad ecology of music(al) education endeavour – not only the range of practices living and thriving in schools and beyond today but also technology – would always be an unachievable challenge. We have many organisations that champion a range of diverse and inclusive practices that are have an important place in our classrooms and our curriculum thinking; whilst we might spot an absence of something there is much to celebrate in what is included.

The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP writes in the foreword of the Model Music Curriculum (henceforth MMC) that ‘in setting out a clearly sequenced and ambitious approach to music teaching, this curriculum provides a roadmap to introduce pupils to the delights and disciplines of music, helping them to appreciate and understand the works of the musical giants of the past, while also equipping them with the technical skills and creativity to compose and perform’.

‘The MMC takes as its starting point the ambition that every young person should be able to experience music and to make progress. It is founded on the belief that music enriches individual lives as well as a school’s wider community’. No arguments from any of us here, and I welcomed the emphasis on progress and progression (whatever that might look like, and however non-linear it might be too). Anecdotally, I’ve always welcomed a stronger steer about how we can plan for students to progress as musicians and this guidance provides an attempt of what progress could look like. There’ll of course be a wealth of perspectives on how a child progresses as a musician, and I look forward to reading the challenge and different perspectives.

‘The MMC takes account of the many different school contexts that exist. Effective delivery is likely to come from a combination of schools, teachers, practitioners, professional ensembles, venues, and other Music Education Hub partners working collaboratively’. Partnership has been a vital component of music education, and it is this densely packed ecology of partners that makes it such a rewarding subject to work in. The MMC provides the beginning of some shared thinking and language; I imagine hubs and their schools will see an opportunity to consider their own models, their own values and their own preferences of what to champion through their curricula. For some, this guidance might help rebuild and launch music where it has been present in recent months or years. For others it will represent huge relief as they have been working alone to make a functional music curriculum and perhaps have not found the support they needed.

It’s hugely exciting to see some flesh on the bones of the National Curriculum; the sparse two-page programme of study was a springboard for welcome freedom in approach for the confident teacher but many were paralysed through a lack of detail. ‘Teachers are encouraged to use pieces from a wide range of cultures and traditions that truly reflect the community in which they are teaching’. This is important to note. It’s easy to skim this and see suggested repertoire as compulsory. The suggested repertoire will be of huge benefit for those looking for a starting point, and for those with confidence they’ll see opportunities to find music that resonates with their community more appropriately. The suggested repertoire attempts to show how revisiting music is possible, and again champions that desire for progression through the key stages.

We’ll all quibble over the detail in the MMC and this is where it will get exciting; we’ve been a little starved of meaningful and purposeful dialogue in music around classroom music curriculum design and this guidance provides the beginning. I sat down with a pencil and started to annotate my copy; considering things I’d do at a different point, things I’d edit slightly, and music I’d use instead. This is why guidance is so useful. We finally have something quite meaty to interrogate and enable some shared thinking. We can join the ranks of those school subjects that are already doing this well, such as History, by revealing to the world in its 100-page glory that this is a subject with a wealth of powerful knowledge, skills and understanding that are worthy of serious consideration by teachers, parents and leaders. I can’t wait to see the ensuing conversations over the months ahead as colleagues continue to discuss and debate the details; let’s hope it’s one of many models that will appear in the coming years.

Can you imagine what implementing this model could mean for your students? Implementing this well could mean we have renewed energy around professional learning for music educators, and renewed energy for senior leaders in schools who can now see a tangible attempt to show the majesty and magic of our subject. With the recommendation of minimum classroom time and/or regularity of lessons at all Key Stages senior leaders will be propelled to question how far removed their offer is from this guidance. Over 100-pages of guidance for the subject means senior leaders and governors can begin to understand this is a subject that needs serious consideration, serious resourcing and serious implementation. Let’s keep talking about the MMC and let’s begin to think collectively about what we can do as sector to ensure every child and young person has the music education they deserve.