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Alternative models of Key Stage 3 music provision

Written by: David Guinane and Hahn Doan
5 min read

On 26 May 2019, a range of news sources reported on a ‘crisis in music education’ (Alberge, 2019), telling of how A-level and GCSE music entries are falling sharply, particularly in deprived areas. The original research, conducted by Birmingham City University (Whittaker et al., 2019), complements findings in the ‘Music education: State of the nation’ report published by the All-Party Group for Music Education in early 2019 (Daubney et al., 2019), regarding the diminishing provision of music in schools. A 2018 report on music curriculum provision in schools (Daubney and Mackrill, 2018) notes that compulsory music provision for Year 9 students has fallen from 84 per cent in 2012/13 to less than 50 per cent in 2018/19. Music in many schools is no longer a sustained part the curriculum, and often occurs as ‘one-off’ enrichment days or as part of a carousel with other ‘marginalised’ subjects. Is a diet of weekly music lessons the best model to ensure optimum musical learning and progress? Do these alternative models of music education offer the effective delivery of ‘powerful knowledge’?

We must remember that there is more to music than learning an instrument or singing in a choir. Aside from technical skills, critical engagement is a key element of any musical education. John Finney suggests that this critical pedagogy has become ‘the lost dimension of the music curriculum’ (Finney, 2019), buried under debates about cultural capital and concerns over ‘whose’ music we are teaching. According to Finney (Finney, 2019):

To be critical is to be thoughtful, discriminating, analytical, reflective, evaluative, knowing, insightful and a symbol of becoming wide-awake to the world; musical experience calls for this. It calls for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated. It calls for a recognition that music has ‘human interest’; social, cultural and political. Without criticism music ceases to be a subject of significance.

According to authors such as Finney, a ‘knowledge-rich’ music education encompasses a complex mix of procedural and declarative knowledge, ultimately giving students an understanding of what music is, how it works and how to do it. It follows that those responsible for this education need a coherent model for delivery and progression. The fragmentation of music provision, characterised by the carousel/enrichment model, subverts this cohesive approach. Musical experiences under these models are often provided by third-party organisations, and regardless of the quality of these practitioners, it is difficult to argue that they provide much beyond music experience, as opposed to music education. This difference is key if we accept that critical engagement is an essential part of music education.

As well as quality of teaching, the inseparable notion of progression is also a key concern. One yardstick of progression, the spiral of musical development (Swanick and Tillman, 1986), will be familiar to many music educators, and is a core aspect of musical pedagogy. A subject-specific adaptation of Bruner’s (1975) ‘spiral curriculum’, a music student’s ‘spiral’ will contain a number of core concepts/skills/ideas that will be revisited and built upon over the course of an education. A student may develop mastery of the conventions of reggae, rising up her spiral, but when moving on to study Renaissance plainchant, she will naturally begin at a lower point on her spiral, retaining the core knowledge but developing it in a new context. This concept is, or should be, an essential part of long-term planning for any music educator. A carousel/enrichment day model almost certainly results in a lack of a ‘sustained offer’, referred to in Daubney and Mackrill’s aforementioned research (2018). While there is clearly learning to be done during one-off enrichment days, it is likely that students are not given the opportunity to build upon their knowledge in a meaningful way, countering Ofsted’s advocation of a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum (DfE, 2019).

The EBacc is often cited by school leaders as a reason for a reduction in sustained curriculum time. This has led to a decline in GCSE and A-level music entries, which have dropped by over 38 per cent since 2010. And, according to the ASCL (2018), music is the fastest disappearing A-level subject. Not only has curriculum time been cut but music teachers have reported having less access to CPD compared with their EBacc colleagues (ISM, 2018). There is no doubt that music has suffered because of the EBacc but this does not have to be the case. If a school leader believes in a broad and knowledge-rich curriculum and the intrinsic value of music, it is possible to plan and budget for a model that includes a sustained arts provision alongside EBacc subjects.

One could argue that as long as music teaching is meaningful, consistent, considered and high-quality, then the model of delivery becomes less important. However, the vast majority of schools changing their Key Stage 3 delivery of music are considering budgets, league and/or external data (EBacc), over ensuring that they provide the best possible music curriculum. The alternatives to weekly classroom music lessons provide significant barriers to the music education outlined above. In almost all cases, these alternative models leave music educators with less time to deliver a meaningful education in their subject. For a subject ‘in crisis’, this is perhaps the last thing we need.


Alberge D (2019) Postcode lottery denies poor A-level students a musical career. The Guardian, 26 May, 19. Available at: (accessed 1 June 2019).

ASCL (2018) Funding crisis puts A level music and languages in peril. Available at: (accessed 11 June 2019).

Bruner J (1975) Entry into Early Language: A Spiral Curriculum. Swansea: University College of Swansea.

Daubney A and Mackrill D (2018) Changes in secondary music curriculum provision over time 2016–18/19: Summary of the research by Dr Ally Daubney and Duncan Mackrill. University of Sussex. Available at: (accessed 1 June 2019).

Daubney A, Spruce G and Annetts D (2019) Music education: State of the nation. Report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the University of Sussex. Available at: (accessed 15 July 2019).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) School Inspection Handbook. London: HMRC.

Finney J (2019) In search of music education. In: Music Education Now. Available at: (accessed 4 June 2019).

ISM (2018) Consultation on the future of music education. Available at: (accessed 11 June 2019).

Swanick K and Tillman J (1986) The sequence of musical development: A study of children’s composition. British Journal of Music Education 3(3): 305–309.

Westminster Education Forum (2018) Developing the curriculum at secondary level: Design, improving outcomes, and assessing the impact of the EBacc, London, UK, 29 November.

Whittaker A, Kinsella V and Fautley M (2019) Geographical and social demographic trends of A-level music students. Royal College of Music. Available at: (accessed 2 June 2019).

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas