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Can we get generalist teachers to teach music? Yes we can!

Lindsay Ibbotson, First Thing Music Project Lead at Durham University

Teachers in the UK need better professional development, especially in music education where the limited opportunities for training offered by teacher training providers have raised concerns (see Hennessy, 2017; Bath et al., 2020). Enhancing the professional development of music and arts teachers is one of the main recommendations of the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education and the aim of the Arts Council’s 10-year strategy, 2020–2030.

‘Little attention is given to the professional development of in-service teachers and preparation of pre-service teachers in delivering music in schools, even though all schools are required to teach music across key stage 1 to key stage 3.’

The introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 and the English Baccalaureate, which put emphasis on the core curriculum of maths, languages and science, have resulted in the marginalisation of arts and music in schools as these subjects are not included in the performance measure (See & Kokotsaki, 2016; Welch, 2020). As a result, little attention is given to the professional development of in-service teachers and preparation of pre-service teachers in delivering music in schools, even though all schools are required to teach music across key stage 1 (age 5–7) to key stage 3 (age 11–14) (Roberts & O’Donnell, 2019). In England, generalist teachers in primary schools are often deployed to teach music but without appropriate training. It is not surprising that teachers are finding it challenging and demoralising, and the lack of confidence and perceived personal musical inadequacies have been widely documented (Digby, 2020; Kulset & Halle, 2019). There is clearly a need for the development of music skills among teachers who are charged with delivering music (APPG, 2019; Digby, 2020; Welch, 2020).

A way forward

One promising approach to training for teachers is the First Thing Music programme, a simple Kodály-inspired approach to music, supported by specialist mentors. The approach is child-centred, playful and physical, and taught in a logical, sequential manner. It requires no musical background and utilises the voice of the teachers. A new study by Ibbotson and See (2021) shows promising evidence that this approach can improve teachers’ pedagogical skills, their self-efficacy and competence, as well as children’s self-confidence and disposition for learning.

The study involved 54 teachers and 1,492 pupils, aged 5–6. The process evaluation showed improvements in teachers’ knowledge and understanding in delivering music lessons. Teachers had developed confidence and self-efficacy through singing and movement. They also reported development in their musicality. Results of the impact evaluation showed a small positive impact on children’s reading (Bohling et al., 2021). Where teachers attended at least four training sessions and delivered more than 80 per cent of the music sessions, the effect was twice as large, pointing to the benefit of the Kodály-inspired approach to teacher training. The pedagogical concepts of this approach are also applicable across the curriculum.


This inexpensive and simple approach may be a way of addressing the lack of skills among generalist teachers of music. But more importantly, this approach to music training is also enjoyable and fun. As one teacher reported:

‘This is, without a doubt, my favourite part of the day. And what’s even better is that it’s the children’s favourite part too. It’s so nice to see the children learn through play, as they should.’


All Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education [APPG]. (2019). Music education: State of the nation. 

Bath, N., Daubney, A., Mackrill, D., & Spruce, G. (2020). The declining place of music education in schools in England. Children & Society, 34(5), 443–457.

Bohling, K., Barnard, M., Crouch, L., Whitefield, A., Murphy, B., Gunzinger, F., Anders, J., Shure, N., & Wyse, D. (2021). First thing music: Evaluation report. Education Endowment Foundation. 

Digby, J. (2020). Teacher confidence to facilitate children’s musical learning and development in the reception year at school [Doctoral thesis, University College London].

Hennessy, S. (2017). Approaches to increasing the competence and confidence of student teachers to teach music in primary schools. Education 3-13, 45(6), 689–700.

Ibbotson, L., & See, B. H. (2021). Delivering music education training for non-specialist teachers through effective partnership: A Kodály-inspired intervention to improve young children’s development outcomes. Education Sciences, 11(8), 433.

Kulset, N. B., & Halle, K. (2020) Togetherness!: adult companionship – the key to music making in kindergarten. Music Education Research, 22(3), 304–314.

Roberts, N., & O’Donnell, M. (2019). Music education in England. House of Commons Library. 

See, B. H., & Kokotsaki, D. (2016). Impact of arts education on children’s learning and wider outcomes. Review of Education, 4(3), 234–262.

Welch, G. F. (2020). The challenge of ensuring effective early years music education by non-specialists. Early Child Development and Care, 191(12), 1–13.