Fail Again, Fail Better – The National Plan for Music Education 2.0

The new National Plan for Music Education micromanages teachers, schools and Hubs, telling them to carry on doing the same as before, only better. "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Instead what's needed is for schools to stop teaching classical musical instruments in whole class lessons and to focu on easy to play instruments and the music styles that the children actually want to play.

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The first National Plan for Music Education (NPME) had a wonderful vision: it established the right of every child to a “high quality music education“ and to the opportunity to learn a musical instrument.

But 11 years on, it’s sadly clear that the vision didn’t become reality.

“Around half of respondents (to the Government’s “Call for Evidence*) said that music education is being delivered in line with the government’s vision, whilst half of respondents did not“.

Despite the good intentions, an enormous amount of work by dedicated and skilled teaching staff and the investment of nearly £1 billion, the plan failed. Tens of millions of children have over the period exited the education system without a high quality education and unable to play an instrument in any meaningful way.

And now we’re presented with NPME 2.0The vision is the same: “to enable all children and young people to learn to sing, play an instrument and create music together, and have the opportunity to progress their musical interests and talents”.

But there is no analysis or understanding of why the first plan failed. Instead teachers, schools and Hubs are told in great detail (there are 246 “shoulds” in the new plan) how they should carry on doing essentially the same as before, only better.  

Or as Samuel Beckett put it: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Worstward Ho, 1983)

But before wasting another 11 years and another £1 billion, isn’t it time we understood what we’ve been doing wrong, and to get it right going forward? Don’t we owe this to the tens of millions of children already in our education system, and who will be entering it over the next 11 years?

Why did the first Plan fail, and why, unless we all take action, is the new plan also going to fail? 

The original Plan made the fundamental mistake of assuming that the classical music model (teaching classical orchestral instruments to individuals and small groups of 2 to 5 children) could be rolled out to whole classes. It assumed that classical musical Instruments could be learned by every pupil, and that the instrumental teachers in existing music services (reinvented as “Music Hubs”), could take over the teaching. There was no appreciation of the simple fact that classical instruments are completely unsuited to whole class settings with a single term, or at best a year, of lessons.

Most classical instruments – woodwind, brass, strings – are technically extremely demanding, and anyone learning them needs dedication, time, one-to-one tuition, lots of practice and patient and understanding families. I know – I write this as a violinist. I was obsessed with the violin and determined to play it, I had a fabulous teacher, a school which prioritised music and had two orchestras, I practiced daily. Even so it took me around three years to be able to produce a reasonably good sound – to reach the point where it was beginning to become a pleasure to play. Until then it was frankly a pain, for me, my family and any listeners, and it was only my obsession, and everyone else’s patience, plus funding for a half decent instrument and lessons, that enabled me to reach the critical point of making a good sound. Now the violin is one of the more difficult instruments, and the critical point for some other classical instruments comes sooner. But I can’t think of a single one, apart from some orchestral percussion instruments, which takes less than a year. 

So how could anyone ever have expected whole classes at school kids, most of whom have no interest in classical music, to benefit from learning violin or any classical instrument for one whole class lesson a week for a term, or even a year? It’s quite simply torture for everyone involved, and I can’t think of a better way to put kids off music making (or at least in-school music making). It could never have worked then, and it can’t work now.***

But what’s done is done. What can we do now? How can we stop failing better, and at long last start to give our children the music education they deserve?

It’s simple, it’s affordable and it can be done within the terms of the new plan.

First we need to accept that classical instruments don’t work in a whole class setting, and stop trying to flog this dead horse. It’s long dead and no amount of effort and resources will bring it to life****.

Second, we need to recognise that whole class ensemble teaching can work fantastically well when it’s done using easy to play instruments and accessible music styles (like African drumming and Brazilian samba). This way of doing it works because the kids can make a good sound from the first lesson, and they can focus on the music and the playing, rather than on the instrument. It works because the styles are rhythmic, fun and new to everyone, so everyone is engaged and no one has a head start or is left behind. It works because these styles and instruments can be taught by the class teachers, who know the kids. It works because the collaborative approach means that everyone progresses rapidly, and can get to performance level by the end of the term.

Third, schools should chose for WCET only those musical styles and instruments which the children want to play and which can give musical satisfaction and real results within a term.

Fourth, Hubs should stop offering schools WCET in classical musical styles and instruments and focus on retraining their staff to be able to deliver CPD and mentoring in the easy to play styles and instruments chosen by the schools.

In short it means out with classical WCET and in with world musical WCET, and it can all be done within the framework of the new Plan, simply by being selective – by focusing on the activities that will work and not spending time and money on activities that we know can’t work.

Talking of money, easy to play instruments aren’t expensive and they last a long time, so £2,000 is enough for an average sized Primary school to make the change. £10,000 spread over 5 years is enough for total transformation. That works out at a lot less than the Government is planning to spend failing better.

Just the above will make it possible for really effective WCET to be available to all year groups, not just Year 6 as at present. This is because one class set of easy to play instruments (djembes, samba, gamelan, steel pans) can be used for the whole school, and because class teachers and non-specialists can lead the classes.

If all schools follow this approach, within a year every child will receive a high quality music education, develop real musicianship and be able to play an instrument and perform in an ensemble with their classmates. It really is that simple and can happen that quickly, but only if we stop repeating the old mistakes.

Isn’t it time we stopped failing better? For sure our children deserve it.

References and further reading:

*Music education: call for evidence published 9 February 2020

**The power of music to change lives: a national plan for music education published 25 June 2022

***There will always be a need to individual and small group classical tuition and, as the population of confident musicians grows thanks to successful easy to play WCET, it’s very likely that Hubs will find that the demand for classical tuition grows with it.

****This is not to say that WCET can’t ever work with classical instruments. It can, but only in the context of multi-year programmes, individual and small group lessons, dedicated in-house teaching staff, good quality instruments, deep pocket funding and lots of parental support. That is exactly what happens in the better private schools, and even they struggle to get 30% of their pupils playing a classical instrument. It’s not possible in 95% of state schools and in any event the easy to play world music model is much quicker (you get results in the first term), more inclusive (100% of pupils), it costs a fraction of the amount to implement, and it can be taught by class teachers.

Schools, pupils and their characteristics Academic Year 2021-2022 – useful facts and figures about the school population in England.

Whole Class Music Solutions – a quick scroll-through overview of the advantages of the easy to play world music approach and the practicalities of implementing it.

The Benefits of the World Music Approach – a more detailed article summarising the costs and benefits of the world music approach for whole class ensemble teaching.

The Drums for Schools Advantage – how the world music approach compares to the Classical music approach

Andy Gwatkin, Director, Drums for Schools

After a classical start with violin and piano, in his early twenties Andy discovered jazz and a new musical world of improvisation and playing by ear. In the 1990s still he fell in love with the "anyone can do it" ethos of punk and played violin in several punk bands. Then in the early 2000s he was wowed by the accessibility of world music and "easy to play" instruments, and after meeting teacher and world music expert Andy Gleadhill, saw the potential of world musical styles as a fast track enabling everyone to become a hands-on musician. Andy founded Drums for Schools in 2006 and since then the company's single focus has been on bringing world musical styles into the classroom.
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