An early Christmas present – The National Plan for Music Education. An expert perspective from Katherine Zeserson

29 November 2011

Well, there are certainly reasons to be cheerful – having a Plan at all is a very good thing. That it took so long to take Darren Henley’s January recommendations and generate these 55 pages suggests to me that making the Plan wasn’t easy, and we all need to bear that in mind as we start to pick it over. Interesting to note that this wasn’t the only Plan announced by Government last Friday – there was also Nick Cleggs’ £1 billion strategy aimed at reducing youth unemployment via apprenticeships. Whatever you may think about the causes of youth unemployment, this response isn’t foolish, addressing as it does both skills training and first access to the jobs market. Setting the two initiatives side by side is instructive – the NPME does seem to sit a little away from the core debates about education, training and employment, with its detailed focus on facilitating the more sublime aspects and outcomes of music making ...

I’m all for the sublime, as it goes. I welcome the Plan’s clear fix on positive outcomes for children and young people, and on the intrinsic value of music in all of our lives. It echoes Keith Swanwick’s oft-made point that the process of music-making itself is a sufficient argument for music in education. Musicians know that; it’s good to see it set out with such commitment in this Plan. I think there is a missed trick here too – the value of music making as a context for developing a rounded sense of self, ambition, imagination, confidence and even greater employability is under-emphasised.

There is much to welcome however. The core focus on Hubs is exactly what the last ten years of cross-sectoral development should have generated, the language of inclusion is welcome, the CPD proposals are positive and it makes a start at recognising the need for a fresh approach to music technology. There are weaknesses - the musical perspective reads narrowly; proposed progression destinations are unrealistically limited; there’s a surprising lack of interest in music’s relationship to other subjects (and to the wider cultural learning landscape. It’s not clear how the classroom and the broader opportunities connect, and there’s a lack of comment on pedagogy and practice beyond the (welcome) focus on quality – however this is probably wise, as it leaves space for creative determination and development of inclusive music making programmes.

So now to pull out something I feel very good about, a paradox, and something I’m less content with. First of all,

It’s a pleasure – truly – after 30 years toiling in the vineyard of partnership to read this robust commitment to a new structural model. I believe that if this framework is realised then we will genuinely create the conditions for a transformation of children and young people’s music-making opportunities. I welcome the appointment of the Arts Council as fund-holder – they will carry out their responsibilities rigorously, efficiently and transparently. I am glad to see the link with the new Bridge organisations – two of us are music organisations (The Sage Gateshead and ROH) and we will work hard to bring our experience and insights to the national Bridge table in support of the Plan. The establishment of Hub partnerships is already a fascinating and creative process – speaking from the North East I can say that the conversation we’ve been in towards this end for the last 18 months or so is both challenging and extremely rewarding. Through determined commitment, rigorous attention to core purpose and imaginative thinking about management, leadership and money flow I am certain we’ll be able to arrive at a strong regional framework connecting a number of Hubs working to aligned, consistent principles – this is a thrilling prospect. No more postcode lottery, no more vested interests tying money up in bureaucratic machinery, no more musical prejudices blocking young people’s ambitions ...

Okay maybe I am getting a bit carried away with myself. But that’s certainly what OUGHT to happen. Sensitive, intelligent partnership building is at the heart of the success or failure of Hubs. I am cautiously optimistic that the wealth of partnership building knowledge in the music education sector is sufficient to pull this off providing that everyone comes to the table with purity of purpose. This is NOT a moment for organisational self-interest. Music in the curriculum hangs perilously in the balance, as the Plan carefully notes, and the core and extension requirements are elegantly written to curriculum-proof it – they’ll stand either way. We know that arts subjects are extremely vulnerable in the rather old-fashioned education zeitgeist that seems to prevail the top of the DfE at the moment, and so this sagacious drafting is to be applauded. On the other hand, I’m not clear at all how the Plan works without the core classroom experience being at its heart.

This is the fundamental paradox in the Plan. I am delighted to see the thinking about more teacher training and CPD in music, concerned that it is optional (given that our primary school model is built around the ‘generalist’ teacher) but it’s a good step forward. But unless the Plan really helps teachers create vivid, buzzing micro-Hubs in their own classrooms I fear that the dream of full inclusion will remain just that. Out of the classroom music-making – facilitated by community musicians, music service staff, other adults or young people themselves – has provided a rich and vibrant context for young people’s musical development in one form or another for 50 years or more. However, it does not include the majority of children in sustained, progressive experiences and is unlikely to do so unless it is more consistently and intrinsically connected to school and community life, and affordably priced ...

The thing that troubles me most in the Plan is the startlingly myopic view of musical progression, and the notion that the highest ambition for a young person is to gain a Music and Dance scheme training place or join the National Youth Orchestra. Both of those are of course laudable ambitions but so obviously just some amongst many ... as Kathryn Deane commented in Sound Sense’s press release on Friday, what about headlining at Glastonbury? Clearly the enlightened Hub Partnerships will simply ignore this retrograde perspective. From our base at The Sage Gateshead we already run a Music and Dance scheme CAT programme, a Youth Music Action Zone, the first UK BA in Community Music and a BMus in Jazz, Popular and Commercial Music, Creative Apprenticeships, internships and placements in venue operations, as well as open access and auditioned youth ensembles, training programmes and performance opportunities in all genres. Folkestra, our youth folk ensemble, made their Proms debut in 2009 and are about to hit Celtic Connections - as well as to perform with the NYO when they join us for their annual residency this April. My point here is that the narrow, old-fashioned musical world view that at times seems to underpin the plan is just not viable – so it will be up to all of us leading Hubs to simply do the right thing by young people and ensure that all routes to musical success are valued equally.

There’s much more to say about this Plan. I welcome the Music Technology Annex, and like David Ashworth I think it shows that there has been real listening. I am delighted by the acknowledgement of Sing Up’s impact and value, and pleased that the plans the Sing Up Consortium’s been making towards the launch of our new offer (watch this space!) are congruent with the Plan’s objectives. I’m very puzzled by the odd reference to music being the greatest of all art forms ... I think that’s best ignored as I’m sure it’s not what was really intended by the Plan’s authors ... And as for funding, well, what did we expect? It doesn’t seem unfair to me given the devastation being wrought in every Children’s Services Department across the land – the challenge will be how we ensure access to opportunities for those who can’t afford to pay. All the more need for Hubs to be built in a truly integrated, cost-pruning way.

So yes – rather to my pleased surprise – I do truly believe that this Plan could work. Skillful strategic leadership and entrepreneurial management aligned to a passionate vision for children and young people as autonomous music makers could transform this Plan into a meaningful musical revolution – I think it’s entirely up to us and our courage, wisdom and leadership.

Katherine Zeserson

Director of Learning and Participation

The Sage Gateshead