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Blog post

The new model music curriculum: A step far enough?

Adam Hart, Lecturer in Music Technology at University of Salford

In the foreword to the new model music curriculum, schools minister Nick Gibb states that it ‘is designed to assist rather than to prescribe’ (DfE, 2021, p. 2). Notably, there is much detail on what students should learn at the different key stages, focusing on the ‘canon’ of pre-21st-century Western music, and less on how they might actually learn it. While this might be interpreted as avoiding prescription, some commentators have suggested that this indicates a lack of pedagogical underpinning (Guinane, 2021).

Each of the model lessons tell us to start by listening to the example, followed by a discussion (DfE, 2021 pp. 80–6). Compare those of the original 1992 curriculum, which begin with a practical and often collaborative music-making activity, before consolidating understanding through a listening exercise (see DES, 1992, p. 47). This distinctly constructivist approach is grounded in Paynter’s (1982) argument that ‘making music is more important than musical information’ (p. xiiii) and that learners can ‘use the skills they have acquired as they acquire them’ (p. 123). In 2012, Ofsted reported finding too much ‘verbal communication and non-musical activities’ (Ofsted, 2012, p. 4) and that ‘pupils made the most musical progress when they were taught in music, rather than about music’ (p. 46). The report also noted ‘insufficient improvements in the quality of musical learning through the use of technology’ (p. 56). To what extent does the model curriculum address these long-standing issues?

In 2019, the Musicians’ Union stated that technology ‘should be an integral part of each element [of music education] moving forwards’ (MU, 2019, p. 53), and the 2020 public consultation by the Department for Education appeared to recognise this gap in provision (Gibbons, 2020a). It is therefore surprising how little mention of technology there is in the new curriculum. ‘Use music technology, if available, to capture, change and combine sounds’ (DfE, 2021) is a recurring motif, but this offers no guidance to the less musically or technologically confident teacher. Of the two documents, the 1992 curriculum actually offers more practical and specific guidance on the use of technology for teaching music (DES, 1992, p. 67).

The new curriculum recognises the value of technology but goes no further, observing that ‘Music Technology is likely to play an increasingly important role in the delivery of the key stage 3 curriculum, particularly given its importance in opening routes to further study’ (DfE, 2021, p. 37). It then acknowledges that the available technology ‘may vary hugely from school to school’, and that ‘[in] schools with access to reliable technology, the use of music technology can be an important tool in giving all pupils access to a first-class education’ (p. 38). Aside from the matter of how technology can provide such opportunities, this raises the more pertinent question of what a school without ‘access to reliable technology’ can be expected to achieve. Where lack of access to technology is concerned, the pandemic highlighted not only the scale of the problem for deprived regions, but also how this impacts educational quality (OECD, 2020).

‘Aside from the matter of how technology can provide such opportunities, the more pertinent question is what a school without “access to reliable technology” can be expected to achieve.’

Ultimately, the issues facing music education go beyond the curriculum itself. It is the subject with the widest attainment gap, with students from economically deprived backgrounds 20.1 months behind their wealthier peers, and 38 per cent less likely to study it at GCSE (EPI 2020, p. 12). Zeserson et al. (2014, pp. 20–31) found that the widely documented issue of teacher confidence in the delivery of music stemmed from insufficient depth of musical training in teacher education. That this new curriculum has arrived at the same time as announcements that training bursaries for arts subjects are now due to be cut for the academic year 2021/22 casts doubt on political will to address these problems (Gibbons, 2020b). How far will the new guidance go in supporting the non-specialist teacher trying to deliver a music curriculum for students who have limited access to musical opportunities and resources? The new curriculum notes that it is ‘a model curriculum for the musical community to build upon’ (DfE, 2021, p. 5). Many will see this as a start, but also as a mark of how much remains to be done.