Rhinegold Photo credit: Joyce Frankland Academy
Principal Gordon Farquhar with Joyce Frankland Academy pupils

Hanh Doan

A new landscape: music’s perilous position in schools

8:00, 2nd August 2017

One headteacher’s decision to speak to the BBC about his ‘innovative’ approach to music at Key Stage 3 – in the face of ‘ever-restricting financial circumstances’ – led to a vocal and negative response from far beyond his local community. But the decision was not taken lightly, finds Hanh Doan, and music’s perilous position is replicated across the country

From the moment I entered the profession in 2002, I very quickly learned that no matter how many students you inspire in your life, that you seem to have to justify your role, and argue the case for music education among your colleagues, both in your school and in the wider community. All of this is born from a lack of understanding of music education, particularly in terms of progress and assessment.

In recent years, music education has been fighting constant battles to maintain its place in the education system. The introduction of the EBacc has angered educators across the arts sector, prompting a variety of responses, from demanding that the EBacc includes music, to calling for its abolition (I’m with the latter, in case you were interested). On top of this, the Progress 8 bucket system feels like the government’s attempt to put a nail in the coffin of arts education. Is it any wonder, then, that when times get tough, music is one of the first subjects to suffer through cuts?

Education spending is at a significant low, and headteachers are faced with incredibly challenging decisions regarding how to manage their ever-decreasing budgets, particularly in areas made worse-off by the new schools funding formula. According to a report from the National Audit Office, schools face cuts of 8% in real terms by 2019-2020. How headteachers are managing their ever-increasing budget deficits really depends on their specific situation, though it was no surprise that when George Farquhar, the principal of Joyce Frankland Academy in Essex, announced how he would manage his budget cuts, the response from the music education sector and beyond was anger and uproar.

As reported by the BBC and local news outlets, with the departure of a music teacher (who has gained a new post abroad), Farquhar has decided not to replace him and instead is planning to change the structure of the Year 7 and 8 music curriculum. Instead of weekly music lessons, the students will receive six ‘drop-down days’ where external agencies, such as Stomp or local theatres, will come and work with the students for the day. The school runs a three-year music GCSE course (a different article in itself), starting in Year 9. The remaining music teacher is also the head of sixth form, and extra-curricular music provision will be shared by her and peripatetic teachers. The initial saving is £35,000, with some expenditure for these workshops and associated resources.

One parent was quoted in the local Saffron Walden Reporter: ‘I find it heartbreaking that parts of the curriculum are under attack. I think it’s a terrible thing because music informs so many things, like mathematics and science. It’s getting more academic and our children are becoming machines and it’s really sad.’

Across the country
The situation is by no means ideal, and this ‘natural wastage’ approach is being adopted by more schools across the country than we could imagine. Though it is not isolated to music and other arts departments, the impact on these departments is huge. Being typically the smaller departments, after such cuts there may only be one teacher, or worse only a part-time teacher. But on a practical and non-musical level, it makes sense, and Farquhar argues that this time across the year is pretty much the same as a lesson a week.

I raised a number of issues with him: tracking progress across a number of isolated activities, GCSE and A-level uptake, and general perceptions of staff, students and parents of music given these cuts in the curriculum. Faquhar believes that students will make measurable progress within these days and is not concerned about the GCSE uptake, which he feels is more influenced by engagement in extra-curricular music. As for identifying musical students who do not participate in extra-curricular music, Faquhar is confident of this happening during these six ‘drop-down’ days.

I can only imagine that alarm bells are ringing in the music educator’s head, and we are all thinking the same thing. Surely removing music as part of a school’s weekly curriculum sends a very strong message out about how much it is valued by the headteacher? If music teachers are not seeing students on a regular basis, where is the broad and balanced curriculum? What of a Key Stage 3 curriculum map? Surely the students will be inspired by visiting practitioners, but who will plan for links and progression between these six days per year? How are the extra-curricular groups really going to continue if there is no regular contact with students in lessons, with an opportunity for the music teacher to develop those relationships which can be key to the success of a flourishing extra-curricular music programme?

The answer to many of these questions, I fear, is that without a weekly or even fortnightly lesson, music will become even lower on the agenda at the Joyce Frankland Academy and many schools like it – and once down this path, it will be incredibly difficult to pull it back. Across the country, similar or even worse stories can be told: after an informal survey on social media, I have been horrified to hear of significant cuts to the music curriculum and redundancies of music teachers. Those of us who still have jobs and our own subjects to teach are the lucky ones, and that’s not right. But what on earth can we do to fight this ever-increasing trend?

One way forward
Here is my answer. It’s not the only answer and I certainly can’t guarantee that even if we all fulfilled it, we wouldn’t find ourselves cut, but hear me out. I love a good petition. I’ve signed countless. The Incorporated Society of Musicians and others are constantly fighting this battle, particularly in terms of the EBacc, and there are plenty of opportunities to show disdain for the current educational climate, particularly online. All of these are valuable pursuits and of course must be continued.

But on a daily basis, at the coal face, I truly believe that as part of our fight, we have to become or remain the best practitioners we can be. Musically engaging our students is why we came into the profession and we must not forget this. Be passionate and show the students how much you love music. Provide them with an engaging curriculum and throw your heart and soul into lessons and extra-curricular music.

If students see how much you care, they will come to engage with you. If you are in a small department, engage with local schools and your hub or music service and collaborate. If you are struggling and have nowhere to turn, there is an online community out there ready to support you. We need to stop moaning and show our headteachers, SLTs and parents why our subject should not be reduced. We need to do this by making music with our students and celebrating this in our school and our local communities. Do your bit, and we will fight this together. In a well-known blog post in 2014, Robin Hammerton (then the lead Ofsted inspector for music) quoted the words of Heinrich Heine: ‘Where words finish, music begins.’ Let’s practise what Heine preached and make music central to our fight.

School’s statement to the press: ‘Music is NOT off the Joyce Frankland curriculum

Following widespread coverage of Joyce Frankland Academy’s decision to drop weekly music lessons at KS3, the school published the following statement
Much has been made in recent months about the predicament that schools and academies face in ever-restricting financial circumstances. Many of you have written to our local MP to help the campaign to raise the overall funding for schools and this is much appreciated by all the area headteachers. What is important to note is that whilst the campaign has been successful in raising awareness and, perhaps, pressure, not a single extra penny has been added to schools’ budgets for next year to address the 8% drop in funding that Heads claim is affecting their schools.

Joyce frankland logo egMany of you have asked to know what this means in real terms so last week Joyce Frankland Academy, Newport gave an example. When one of their two music teachers chose to take a wonderful opportunity to work abroad they made the difficult decision not to replace him. It was then widely reported that the Academy had removed music from the curriculum but the school are adamant this is not the case. In a recent email to parents, JFAN stated:

‘From September, music in Years 7 and 8 will be taught in a series of drop down days throughout the year. During the course of these days students will cover the current music curriculum. The intention is that we will set these sessions based on musical experience and aptitude to ensure that the curriculum meets their needs and provides the appropriate amount of challenge for all students.

Our intention is that we will deliver these sessions in an innovative way and we have already lined up some guest musicians to deliver some of the sessions. We will also be able to do some off site teaching in specialist facilities like music studios, theatres and concert halls.’

This represents a move away from the traditional music lessons many of us remember from school where students of all aptitudes and abilities are in one group. The Academy is confident that by taking this approach they will better challenge their students in music and that the work covered will be better differentiated to meet all student needs. They have also reassured parents and students that extra-curricular music, peripatetic lessons and GCSE music lessons will continue.

When asked about the decision, Principal Gordon Farquhar said:

‘Being a small school and knowing every student is something that we are immensely proud of at JFAN. Therefore we have had to look at this difficult choice in a way that ensures students can still access such a key part of school life. It is regrettable that when a teacher takes a new opportunity we have to consider the most cost effective way of replacing them. In this instance I am confident that what we have put in place will allow our young people to flourish and hopefully experience music in new and exciting ways.’

It is clear that music will be different at the Academy next year, it remains to be seen how effective this ‘innovative’ approach will be. What is true is that JFAN is confident about the music provision and has already extended an invite to local journalists and the BBC to visit one of the sessions.


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