Professional development for teachers MATTERS

In the summer I attended the Teach Through Music final conference and was part of a panel debate about professional development for teachers. There was plenty of discussion around the barriers to teachers coming out of school to attend events for example:

  • Schools don’t have the budget to pay for cover to allow teachers out
  • Schools won’t pay for teachers to attend training
  • Many schools are bringing teacher development ‘in-house’, whole school INSET, one-size-fits-all.
  • It takes so long to set cover, organise everything then catch up after that it increases workload and adds to stress so it’s easier to not go
  • Teachers aren’t aware of what is on offer to them and those that offer things don’t know how to reach teachers to let them know

Halfway through the session I noticed that with a couple of exceptions, discussion was being led mainly by representatives from music organisations. For some reason, the teachers in the room weren’t engaging with this discussion, it was happening around them. There were many questions directly to teachers in the room, yet very few responses from teachers were forthcoming.

I spent a long time afterwards trying to work out why.

-Is it because of a disconnect between organisations trying to provide support and development opportunities for teachers? Are we all aware of each other, what our aims are, what we do? There are so many organisations in our fragmented sector now, are we drowning each other out losing the teachers along the way? How can we work better together?

-Are teachers getting too much thrown at them, are they clear what each hub or organisation does, who they can talk to and why they might want or need to engage?

-Are we asking the wrong questions? Rather than asking why teachers can’t come out of school for professional development, should we be asking what do you want and need to develop as a music educator, a musician, a teacher, a professional? And possibly more worryingly, is training for assessing without levels, getting better grades at GCSE and A Level, How to teach Edexcel Unit 2 composition etc. actually what is needed to become more effective practitioners and ultimately ensure that all students get a better musical experience in the music classroom?

It feels like the actual practice of teaching and developing as a teacher, standing in front of a class and making music with them, has been so swamped by everything else teachers have to do that professional development has shifted a long way down the list of priorities for a busy music teacher in the UK.

Last year I even started to find teaching my lessons an inconvenience, because I had so many other things I needed to get done. At the end of every lesson I’d have at least 10-15 new emails all wanting me to do things immediately and after a full teaching day the thought of catching up with this caused a lot of additional stress. I had to work hard to make sure this didn’t distract me from what I was there to do-teach.

I find this situation really sad and I’m angry about it too. Teachers are entitled to training and support, to develop themselves professionally and to have some choice over what this might involve. To build on the initial training they received, to stay up to date with latest developments in the profession, to network and share ideas with other teachers (and by this I don’t mean downloading an Elements of Music scheme of work from a Face Book group).

I would like to see teachers feel able to demand that they get this entitlement. As with everything, in an ethos nationally where professional development for teachers doesn’t seem to be massively valued, heck you don’t even need any training these days to become a teacher, maybe teachers might need to work just a little harder to stand up and keep pestering until their needs are acknowledged.

Why not:

  • Use the appraisal system-identify training needs, articulate how this will fit into a longer term plan for the department
  • Identify how many students will benefit and how you will show the impact the training has had on them, you and the department.
  • Line training needs up with school aims-inclusion, attainment, engagement in music, use the right language in bids to attend training events.
  • Research what’s out there, as demand falls away there are fewer professional development opportunities around so chose the one that will have the most impact on the most students and make sure it’s sustainable.
  • Have some outcomes in mind, know what you want from a course and make sure you get it.
  • Share with others! If you find something and it’s great, shout about it. Let’s drown out those requests for help with what to teach at an interview lesson with some of the fantastic things that can happen when you have just a little time to focus on you, your teaching and your classes, meet like-minded people and remind yourself why you do what you do every day.

I’m leading quite a few workshops over the next year. It would be great to have these full and buzzy with teachers who are getting out there and claiming the professional development and support they deserve. I’ll see you there.

Confident Kitt

My second school visit this week was to Wymondham to visit Musical Futures Teacher Kitt. I was looking forward to seeing how he’s been getting on in his first Head of Music role. Kitt spent his second placement at Monks Walk and he has always been committed to embedding Musical Futures approaches, pedagogy and ethos into his teaching, giving it a personal twist to suit his own teaching style and musical values.

In both schools I visited this week, I was impressed not just with the engagement of the classes we watched but also the consistency of expectations and musical competency the students showed. They all participated, performed, shared, played informally to each other, talked about the work and stayed on task. For the majority of the lesson they were engaged in musical activity whether this was warm ups, rehearsing in groups or listening to each other. There was no written work in either lesson, no painful Q and A about the elements of music, however there was clear musical progress made and no question at all that they were learning-I could feel it, see it, hear it. It was in the conversations between the students during group work, the nodding of heads in time to the pulse, recognisable musical outcomes, ensembles coming together.

This week I saw Musical Futures teachers with a very clear understanding of what they were teaching, how they wanted to facilitate learning and why this made sense in the context of their personal musical values, their departments and tailored to suit the demographic of their students. But I also saw how embedded Musical Futures is into every year group, it’s definitely not a “MF-style 6 week rock and pop project” in these schools!

In just 5 weeks at Wymondham, Kitt has gone into his new role with a clear vision. Desks have gone, new equipment prioritised, ordered and set up, other staff supported to bring in MF approaches with all year groups.

This is what we have been looking for

But I was most impressed by what happened at the end of the day. MF Australia director Ken and I delivered a practical session after school to 6 local primary school music co-ordinators, a music hub representative, a woodwind teacher from the school who stayed unpaid because she was interested and 2 6th form girls who thought they might like to be primary school teachers.

We worked through a couple of the Musical Futures: Just Play resources and at the end discussion started about how this group could make Just Play possible for their schools. What really seemed to resonate with the group was that because JP is scaffolded for generalist teachers it has the potential to be sustainable, for the primary children in feeder schools to then progress through to an established and secure Musical Futures experience that really does build on what they can already do and have learned. Imagine what impact a shared cross-phase approach or pedagogy as opposed to a transfer of information between year 6-7 could have.

Credit to Kitt for pulling this group together and generating such interest in only 5 weeks in the job and for engaging his classes impressively quickly in a new approach, so different from what they were doing before.

I love the idea of local clusters of schools coming together to design, create, drive and sustain an Musical Futures cross-phase approach that works for them. I’m hoping that I’ll be back in Norfolk soon to work with teachers who are doing it for themselves.

Fabulous Fiona

With the release of yet another report that outlines the problems with music education in England, I still feel we aren’t hearing enough about how we could be addressing them. I’ve asked in a previous post about who might be able to help teachers to find some solutions, but as yet I don’t think we are much closer to solving this.

In the next few weeks I’m visiting Musical Futures schools across the UK and I’m interested in what teachers are doing at the chalk face in response to some of the challenges they are facing.

This week, my colleague Ken from Musical Futures Australia and I drove out to Norfolk so visit Fiona. 15 years into her job at Flegg High School, she has built a vibrant and musical department. However being unable to recruit a part time member of staff and increasing financial constraints means that she has found herself alone in the department.

Fiona is pretty honest about the challenges that frustrate many music teachers at this time. But she has found an answer. It’s her. She teaches every lesson (except where they are timetabled together when a cover supervisor helps as she goes between a GCSE and Btec class), she runs all the extra curricular groups including those which build on work done in lessons-the year 7 and 8 music clubs, choir, ensembles and more. A decline in the numbers of primary children learning traditional instruments hasn’t stopped her supporting a team of visiting instrumental teachers and concerts and performances continue as usual.

But as Ken pointed out, this just doesn’t seem fair.

So to all the Fabulous Fionas out there who recognise that unless they step up and do more than ever before, music will be at risk in their schools, thank you. The musical opportunities you bring to your students just couldn’t happen without you.

Music Music everywhere…..

Music really is everywhere. Today as I stepped out of Haggerston station on my way to visit a school, I could hear piano music. It turned out that the mobile coffee stall right outside plays classical music as staff serve commuters and the music echoes through the station. Later as I had coffee with a friend visiting from America we were talking about the American Band model and how the university where he works has a band of over 150 students. Many of them ‘take band’ in school, they continue at university and so a tradition is established and the fact that the band plays at all the sports fixtures means it’s firmly embedded in the culture of the establishment.

As we talked, loud music was playing in the cafe, this time contemporary urban music setting the tone for a central London coffee bar. As we looked out of the window we observed how many people walking past were wearing headphones. Train carriages full of commuters are pretty quiet these days as we lose ourselves in our own world of personalised sound that’s delivered straight to our ears via our headphones. Talking last week to a 6th form student about how he uses digital platforms to support his music making, he said that he often uses the recommendations that pop up on Spotify, You Tube or Sound Cloud  and he follows these through to discover more and more new sounds. Music really is everywhere and it’s more accessible than ever.

But there’s one place where you don’t hear a lot of music.

I am talking generally here and my focus is on secondary schools so apologies to schools that do play music in corridors or embed it into school life. And judging by how often my primary-aged children come home singing, I know they are making music at various point across the week. But my experience of secondary schools has been very different.

It’s common in most schools for headphones to be banned, students are very creative at hiding them but there’s often a tell-tale white lead tucked under their collar or hanging from their sleeve as they use music to challenge school rules. In secondary schools, it’s rare to hear music played in assembly or in the corridors or canteen at break time unless somebody happens to be practicing in a public space. But mostly this is confined to the music department where it seems the sole responsibility for the music education of our students lies.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if, just like in real life, schools were open to music coming out of the music department and spreading across the school? if just like literacy, numeracy and more, cultural and arts education became the responsibility of everyone. Could we bring music into lessons and assemblies, building on the strong tradition of primary school music assemblies, singing assemblies and more? If primary teachers are expected to be able to deliver some form of music learning despite limited training and support, is there any reason why secondary teachers can’t do the same? Break time busking, music in the canteen, samba bands or taiko drummers at sports fixtures-music could really bring a school to life!

But that’s not what the #mufuchat question is asking. What is the place of classical music in the classroom? Is classical music the main genre through which music should be taught? Our exams system certainly seems to support this view. Taking GCSE and A Level music is a heck of a lot easier if you’ve had a private instrumental lesson or two! And westernising other musics in order to mark understanding of them (can you hear dynamics in this piece of gamelan music anyone?) is another thing that I’m not sure we have got right yet.

So when I think about the debate about which music should be taught in schools and how, I keep coming back to the same questions, which as usual I don’t have all the answers to!

  • Is it really possible to replicate the experience of a one to one instrumental lesson where you can learn repertoire, theory, technique and relevant notations with 30 students and a few keyboards or computers? Where is the classroom pedagogy for teaching music and are different pedagogies, approaches and teachers needed for music of different genres? Who decides on the content, the approach and how do we know it’s any good?
  • How important is authenticity? I remember playing Pachelbel’s Canon to a class as they came in and heard an excited voice ask “Woah Miss are we going to play violins?” Well I didn’t have any violins and if I had I didn’t have the knowledge or skills to teach 30 year 8s how to play that piece on them in a classroom setting. We explored it vocally and with ipads. We unpicked how the melodies were constructed and knitted together, but it didn’t feel very authentic to me. I felt that their experience of the music had been a bit one-dimensional and I felt really guilty when I saw that child’s face fall when I said we wouldn’t be playing violins (but if his parents wanted to pay, he could have some lessons).
  • What about progression? My daughter did a year of First Access brass in year 5. At the end she could get a few notes from a trombone and performed with the class at an assembly. But she didn’t know how to hold it properly and without some serious work she wouldn’t have progressed much further because she simply didn’t have the technique to produce more sounds. if I’m being honest, the performance at the end of the year wasn’t great and I reckon that time and money could have been spent a bit more sustainably elsewhere, perhaps on training for classroom teachers on how to link music to topic work or on some instruments that the children were likely to find in their secondary school.
  • What about the reality? I’m talking secondary here. One hour each week, if we are lucky for three years. What is a realistic expectation, bearing in mind the diversity of experiences year 7 will have had in primary school before they get to secondary school? Can we ever expect to replicate those years of one to one instrumental lessons in these circumstances? Is theory, notation, instrumental skills to a level required to take A level music ever really attainable just in the classroom?

So I keep coming back to this blog that I wrote last year about breadth vs depth.

And does classical music belong in the classroom? Of course it does. But not just in the music classroom.

And I don’t feel it’s the responsibility of music teachers to bring on the next generation of classical musicians or listeners. I think music teachers need to open minds, facilitate the necessary skills and understanding to appreciate that music is music, you’ll like some, you won’t like others and that’s OK. How they choose to do this is up to them and if they are successful then pretty soon music will spill out of the music department and wash through the whole school and who knows what might happen next? Maybe some of those commuters with their headphones on are listening to Bach.

Baseline-Ours or Theirs?

As the new school year is looming, there’s lots of talk about baseline testing for music. What ‘tests’ do people use, how do they convert test scores into levels/grades/whatever the heck they are using in the post-levels era?

It seems there’s a real market for the perfect baseline test, one that solves all the problems and provides the solutions.

In this post I reflected on the minefield that is often the start of the year 7 experience in music. But whose baseline is it anyway?


What happens when you get to year 6? Chatting to a friend with a child just coming to the end of primary school they told me how suddenly everything changed. Gradually the topic work that brought together geography, history, art, science decreased and the volume of homework grew and grew. Sheet after sheet of mock questions came home, there were extension groups that meant missing younger years doing class assemblies, RE and topic left to PPA cover and the child grew disillusioned with school and increasingly stressed about the pressure they and their teacher were under. Tales of being shouted at by the deputy head and behaviour in class deteriorating worried the parents, yet there wasn’t a thing they could do. As a borderline level 6 student the pressure was on. When I asked the child about the last term before the SATs he can only remember literacy, writing and…

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Do you have to be a musician to teach music

As Musical Futures launches their “Just Play” pilots designed to be led by generalist primary music teachers (no musical experience required!) in Australia and Scotland in the next 2 weeks, I’m revisiting a debate that always raises controversy and rightly so!


Emile Holba

And do you have to be musical to teach music. Is there a difference?

I want to try and clarify my stance on this by looking at some of the things I have taught and seen others teach over the years and in particular how it has been taught.

Fresh from Uni I was armed with a music degree and having had plenty of opportunities to perform in a variety of musical contexts on several instruments I certainly thought of myself as a musician at the time. However, I don’t think, looking back, that I was particularly musical. As part of my PGCE we did some improvising and without notation, I froze. I certainly didn’t consider myself to be any kind of composer and singing without the comfort of the formality of a choir with a conductor and the music was my least favourite activity. I shied away from conducting…

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The power of student choice – Sophie’s story

On my last day at Monks Walk we held a big event for 100 children from feeder primary schools. As part of this, they watched a concert in the afternoon and then sang with our choirs and orchestra to finish the day. It was the perfect end to 11 years and I will remember it as one of my favourite days there. But the absolute highlight was that some of my year 9 class performed work they had created in class as part of the concert.

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Can anyone help?

I first blogged this on the Peer to Peer network and the comments at the bottom show it’s a hot topic for debate. The search for answers to some of these issues and in particular how using Musical Futures approaches can have an impact will underpin one of the first tasks in my new role as I visit Musical Futures teachers across the UK, spend some time in lessons, discover how they have integrated and adapted MF into their teaching and departments. I know I will learn a lot.

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