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Must do better?…

It’s surprising how often we hear that there is something wrong with music education. There’s the recent series of OfSTED reports, the ‘I can do better’ campaign from Gary Peck, Rick Wakeman telling us that music simply isn’t present in some schools, and a whole host of other observations, investigations and opinions. Add to that the negative attention that education in general has received recently (PISA anyone?) and it’s no wonder that even the briefest glance at my Twitter feed shows a long line of exhausted, upset and angry music teachers.

That same Twitter feed provides a window to some absolutely inspiring music teaching. I look at tweets from the music departments at Benton Park, Monk’s Walk, Beaumont and many more and I am confronted with evidence that there are many pupils achieving wonderful things in music. Then there are the tweets from various teachers that show an insight into their teaching and I am inspired. There are teachers out there with incredible ideas, grit to break down barriers and focus to overcome the inevitable bumps in the road. Incredible teaching and incredible learning; it’s out there.

Teachers like these are the ones who take the hardest hit when there is a negative news story, report or comment. They work hard, produce wonderful things, change lives for the better and are then confronted with a narrative that tells them that they are not doing enough. It’s soul destroying to do brilliant work everyday and then hear that they’re not doing good enough. Far too much work goes into doing these things that it’s almost impossible to imagine these teachers doing more.

Peering into the wider world of music teaching

I want to take a moment looking at what it is that makes these teachers so brilliant. They are always looking for new things to do with their pupils. They are always refining what they do and reflect on the successes (or otherwise) of the lessons, events, clubs and initiatives that they are involved with. They speak to colleagues to identify good practice elsewhere in the school. Similarly, they spend time on Twitter or other social media sites learning about what other music teachers are doing so that they can be aware of what is working in other schools. This allows them to be up-to-date with new ideas, new research, new resources, new strategies and a whole host of other new stuff. These teachers are daring to peek over their classroom walls, climb atop their school walls and peer into the wider world of music teaching. What’s more, they have the courage to say what it is that they are doing and freely open it up to comment.

This is where we get a real disconnect between the issues that are raised by the negative media attention and those that need to hear it. The people who need to be told to up their game are not likely to be those searching out new approaches, carefully blogging some reflections on their latest teaching initiative or contributing to a forum discussion about someone else’s new approach. In the same way that a soldier sticking his head above the parapet is likely to get shot, teachers taking the time to be part of the larger education community are likely to hear more of the negative feedback from the powers-that-be and the powers-that-wish-they-were.

It could be argued, therefore, that those of us who blog, tweet, research, debate, discuss and reflect can happily ignore the issues that are raised by the likes of OfSTED. For better or worse, however, I am not advocating that. 


Reflecting on the reflectors

I am aware of many teachers who I have never met and I think that they’re doing absolutely wonderful things. I have met plenty of teachers who impress me every single time they open their mouths. Given time, I could probably create a list of ‘teachers I’d like to hear more from’ and I’m confident that the total number of teachers on that list would have three figures. It’s, frankly, a wonder of the modern age that I can have contact with so many top quality teachers.

I did a quick search of the DfE website today and found that there are 24,328 schools in England. Limit that to just secondary schools and the number is still pretty big; 3,127 of them. Let’s say that I everyone I follow on Twitter (327 people) is a music teacher and that every one of those 3,127 secondary schools employs just one teacher in their music department. That’s still 2,755 teachers who I know nothing about. Now, I’m not the be-all-and-end-all of music education, so let’s look at how many people are followed by Musical Futures (1,553). We’re still missing about half of our music teachers.

This is far from a scientific or rigorous research method (for a start, not everyone following me or Musical Futures is a music teacher in England) but it still suggests that at least half of the nation’s music teachers are not actively engaged in reflective, professional discourse on social media. That is not to say that they are not involved in any reflective, professional discourse – it’s just not apparent on social media. 

A selection bias

I would venture to suggest that most (if not all) of the teachers who do have an involvement in online discourse and reflection are likely to be doing at least a ‘Good’ job in the classroom. They are likely to be the teachers who have a ‘big picture’ perspective of their work and invest an awful lot of time in being the best teacher that they possibly can be. In short, they are not really the teachers that the negative media attention is aimed at. They are, however, the teachers who are most likely to be aware of the media attention and to be heard responding to it.

Effectively, we are left with a selection bias. Things are being said about the teaching profession and music education in particular. These statements are most audible in the sphere of social media. These statements are most likely responded to by those who are investing their time in reflecting on their own practice. In essence, the teachers who need to hear these things are the ones least likely to hear it. A vicious circle emerges where many teachers need to be more reflective but the call for this increased reflection is only heard by the ones already doing the reflection. This results in a backlash as the hard working teachers feel attacked. This causes people outside of the profession to feel that teachers can’t take hearing ‘hard truths’. The circle starts again.

Now, this is all very easy for me to say. After all, the very fact that I’m writing this blog would suggest that I put myself in the bracket of the ‘reflective practitioner’. I am certainly not trying to paint myself in a holier-than-thou light, I just want to suggest that the likes of OfSTED may actually have a fair case when it comes to saying that music education can do better. The nature of OfSTED’s role means that it will see the work of teachers who are both involved in reflective work and those who are not. They see the teachers who most of us cannot (because we’re tucked away in the classroom). Equally, they must, surely, see some of the worst practice in the nation.

There is even a wealth of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that music education could be better. I have met many teachers with stories of colleagues who they think aren’t doing a good enough job. I have met many teachers who feel that they are fixing a mess left by their predecessor. I am, therefore, confident to say that there is some poor and even ‘Inadequate’ teaching out there. 

Heads in the sand?

So, why does it sometimes feel that we are reluctant to hear it? I recall the following quote from Jonathan Savage regarding ‘Wider Still, and Wider’,

Jonathan is not alone in taking such a stand and I reluctant to single him out (Jonathan, please don’t feel that this is a personal attack, far from it). That said, his quote feels like a representation of the reaction many of us have when we hear statements that tell us that only half of music lessons are good enough. Like so many people who respond angrily to such reports, Jonathan is very much involved in reflection (perhaps one of the most prolific bloggers in English music education).

As individual teachers, departments, hubs, organisations, movements or tweeters we may be doing a fantastic job. I’m sure that the number of fantastic music teachers is huge. I’m sure that the number of teachers who could be better is also pretty sizeable. 


A course of action

What can we do about it? It’s very tempting to say ‘not a lot’. Earlier, I described a vicious circle and there is a certain inevitability to that. The main thing that we can do to break it, however, is the angry reaction. The part that gives the impression that we are sticking our heads in the sand. We can forward negative reports in the media to colleagues to ensure that it reaches the people who wouldn’t normally hear it. When we forward this information, we can do so in a manner that isn’t defensive or dismissive. We can share our practice with colleagues and forward them links to some of the positive things that we find in our online reflection. Hopefully, such efforts will eventually lead to the entire profession not needing to hear the call that we ‘must do better’.

I do, however, see one small problem with my solution and it is the same problem that this entire blog entry has been dedicated to. The people who are reading this are probably the ones who already do this sort of thing…