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Why Are So Many Schools Stumbling Blindly Over Oboes and Cellos?

Why Are So Many Schools Stumbling Blindly Over Oboes and Cellos?

Main Subject: CPD

Subject: Music

Author: -

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First Access gave children the chance to learn music through an instrument, so why are many schools making orchestral manoeuvres in the dark instead of lighting up the stage?

In 2001, the then Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett said that, “Over time, every primary school child that wants to, should have the opportunity of learning a musical instrument.’

It was from this statement that the Wider Opportunities scheme was born, with local authorities across England given funding to ensure that, by 2011, every primary school child would have had the opportunity to participate. Since 2012 the scheme has continued under the music education hubs in England, and is also being widely used in other countries in the UK, Europe and beyond, with its influence reaching as far afield as Australia!

There is no denying that the scheme is a tantalising prospect for a primary school, offering in most cases a whole year’s subsidised instrumental teaching provision for an entire class. However, the most recent Ofsted music report at the tail-end of 2013 expressed concerns that these programmes were not always being used to their full potential.

So how can schools ensure that they are making the most of their whole-class instrumental lessons? Research carried out by Music Education Solutions for the Sefton and Knowsley Whole- Class Ensemble Teaching Best Practice Project has revealed the following key questions for them to consider.

What is the instrumental lesson for?

When these programmes were first rolled out across England, many argued that it wouldn’t be possible or effective to teach instruments in such large groups. These widespread opinions, however, were indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of these programmes. The aim is not to teach children an instrument, but to teach them music through an instrument.

When we understand this, we begin to see that we can’t just leave the instrumental teacher to ‘get on with it’, but instead we need to consider her work in the context of the wider music curriculum.

What happens to the national curriculum?

In the original vision for Wider Opportunities, the scheme was not intended to replace national curriculum provision, but to enhance it. But in England, these programmes have most often been bought in simply to ‘do all the music’ for a particular year group. Yes, admittedly it would be a big ask to suggest all schools engineer their busy timetables to encompass two music lessons a week (although some do manage this), so it therefore follows that the music national curriculum needs to be incorporated into the instrumental lessons.

How will the instrumental teacher know what to cover?

To be truly effective, the instrumental teacher needs to know and understand the content of the music national curriculum. Then, she needs to know this information in the context of the specific school; what has been covered so far, what is to be covered afterwards and, therefore, what needs to be covered during the programme? So, there is a clear need for collaborative planning between the school staff and the instrumental teacher.

Who should lead the lessons?

Primary class teachers often feel that they have ‘nothing to offer’ when it comes to music. However, their input can be invaluable in instrumental lessons. They may have much more experience of core skills such as classroom management, assessment and questioning than the instrumental teacher. In addition, the class teacher knows his pupils much better than the instrumental teacher can ever hope to, and will know how to get the best out of each and every child. Inspection feedback from the Wider Opportunities pilot projects showed that the highest standards were achieved when instrumental teachers and class teachers co-delivered sessions.

What happens after the instrumental provision?

The collaborative planning process should not just consider content of lessons, but also the pupils’ musical progression throughout their time at school, and the skill-sets of the adults involved in teaching them. If the instrumental programme, delivered by a specialist, happens in the middle of this journey of progression, how can the school ensure that pupils will continue to make progress in future years when their music lessons are once again taught by a non-specialist?

So what can schools do about all of this?

To start, schools and instrumental teachers should set aside co-planning time to discuss how the instrumental lessons can be integrated into the main school music curriculum plan or scheme of work. The instrumental teacher will need to be told what the class has covered before, and what the individual learning needs of the pupils are. A shared vision or goal for the programme should be established, and agreements made about which skills, knowledge and understanding will be covered, and how these will be assessed and measured.

Evidence suggests that these lessons are more effective when co-led, so schools should give serious consideration to having the class teacher, music coordinator or teaching assistant participate fully in lessons as a leader, not just an observer. While this can be challenging (many schools use this type of provision for PPA cover) the benefits are numerous, not just for the pupils but for the teachers, who will in effect be gaining free CPD every week.

Think carefully about what happens after the instrumental teaching programme is finished. Many schools aim these programmes at Year 4, so are the staff in Years 5 and 6 musically strong enough to take the pupils’ learning forward? Perhaps the programme needs to be put into a different year group. Or perhaps the music coordinator needs to lead the music lessons in subsequent years?

While these are primarily music, not instrumental, lessons, there will be some pupils who show a particular enjoyment or facility on the instrument. Schools should consider what options are there for these students. Are there continuation routes available so that they can carry on playing, for example?

Thought also needs to go into how these routes are organised. Ideally they should have the same teacher, and certainly they should maintain the spirit of the original instrumental programme, as this was what captured these children’s enthusiasm in the first place.

If instrumental and class teachers work collaboratively together to devise an integrated approach to music across the school – including provision for those pupils who want to continue with the instrument – then there is a real chance to accelerate each pupil’s progress in music, and truly make the most of this exciting provision.

On that note

Key findings from the 2013 Ofsted report ‘Music in Schools: What Hubs Must Do’
• Too often, the schools visited expected little of pupils. They failed to ensure that all pupils understood, and could use practically, common musical features.
• Many primary schools considered, without good reason, that pupils were not ready for such learning involving musical theory, and believed that they would not enjoy it.
• Many [music hubs] showed the potential and commitment to make a real difference to the quality of class-based music teaching in schools. They noted that the First Access programme and the singing strategy, in particular, can help them reach out to schools.
• In too many cases, however, First Access lessons were separated from the schools’ own provision; and were not part of a coherent music curriculum in each school.
• Some more successful hubs had started tackling weaknesses in schools’ music teaching, for example by introducing systems whereby hub staff had periodic discussions about how they could support the school in improving music education.

For more information on Music Education Solutions’ research into whole class instrumental teaching, visit

About the author

Elizabeth Stafford is Director of Music Education Solutions, Programme Leader for the Level 4 Certificate for Music Educators at CPD Centre West Midlands, and Senior Lecturer in Professional Studies at Leeds College of Music.

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