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Working with primary schools to advocate for music education – Q&A with Nicola Hutton

In this Q&A (originally a podcast), I chat with Nicola Hutton a primary music and early phonics specialist who spent 30 years in primary education including as a senior leader. This Autumn she takes up a new role as lecturer for primary education at Liverpool Hope University. We talk about primary teacher training, the Model Music Curriculum, the Primary Teaching Toolkit and Teaching Standards, and much more.

How did you end up where you are today? And why is it so important to you personally?

I started to play the clarinet at age 11 because it was my dad’s favourite instrument. In those days, instrument hire and lessons were free. I joined the Knowsley Youth Orchestra, and worked my way through lots of ensembles. Then I went to a guitar workshop and the tutor had gone to Dartington College of Arts. They talked really enthusiastically about the Music degree and the community music route there and I ended up applying. Going there changed my perception of absolutely everything music education-wise. I was introduced to all sorts of different types of music, different approaches, and it was a really formative experience.

I went into teaching, and got my first job at a primary school in Wigan. Since then I’ve been both a generalist primary teacher or a specialist music teacher, depending on government policy and the vision of the head teachers. And that’s been a thread that’s run through my whole career really, responding to the needs of the school and the head teacher.

That’s a great progression route, because you span community music and general primary teaching, a really valuable set of skills.

I was quite frustrated at times to not be doing music. But it’s given me a perspective that I can then apply to music, especially because I went into school leadership. When you go back into music as I have done recently – I came out of school a few years’ ago and started my own music education consultancy – it meant I had a much broader perspective.

I’ve always understood that only a few hours are given to music in primary teacher training, or initial teacher training at it’s known. Is that right?  

Well, when I first started doing this in 2003, there seemed to be a really good chunk of time given to music. I returned about 10 years’ later to do a couple of one off sessions, and was surprised to find that the time had been halved. Teacher training, of course always follows Government priorities.

But it looks like from this year, the time has increased again by around a third for undergraduate courses – ie primary education degree courses – and we’ll be offering 14 two-hour sessions of music training (28 hours in total). PGCE courses – which people complete in a year after their main degree – are a little bit more difficult, because it’s only a year.

And also, starting this year, we’ll be offering a specialist primary music course for general primary teachers, who want to specialise in music. Which I think is a brilliant idea, particularly with what’s happening in music education at the moment.

Is that common?

There was a new Ofsted Framework in 2019, that put foundation subjects back on the map, so to speak, so I imagine there will be a similar pattern in other institutions.

Can you explain what’s happened with Ofsted in relation to foundation and core subjects?

Ofsted embarked on some research and found that the curriculum was narrowing in primary schools to focus on English, and Maths, and what you’d call the core subjects (also Science and RE). And teaching to simply get pupils through SATs.

When I had my first Ofsted inspection, they inspected all subjects. But as time has gone on, the focus has been more on English and Maths and those basic skills. But because of this desire to rebalance the curriculum, there’s greater recognition of the role of the foundation subjects (Art and Design, Citizenship, Computing and IT, Design and Technology, Languages, Geography, History, Music and P.E) and making sure that curriculum intent, curriculum implementation, and curriculum impact are measured in all of those subjects as well.

And that’s really good news for everybody. So I’d like to ask your views about the Model Music Curriculum. As there’s been a lot of debate about it already (and a couple of great podcasts by Soundstorm Music Hub), I’d like to set you a challenge: which is to sum it up in ‘two stars in a wish’, and then tell me how non specialist teachers can make the best of it.

Okay, so my two stars would be, one: that it puts musical progression at the heart of the agenda. The second star is it mentions active listening, although they missed a trick in not defining this. I think for many, many years, there’s been a lot of passive listening where pieces of music are being put on and children have been asked questions at the end of it. And that’s not good teaching. My wish would be that the pedagogy of composing was more thought through.

For years, we’ve had documents coming out of the DFE that we don’t all agree on. Far too much energy is put into pulling apart anything that comes out of the Department. And if we had to wait until we had a document we all agreed on, we wouldn’t ever teach anything.

And when we’re pulling it to shreds in public, it adds to teachers’ worry and confusion about music education. These debates are miles away from what’s happening in most primary school classrooms. We need to bridge the gap and not make it wider.

So I’m a pragmatist. Whether it’s national curriculum or a non-statutory document, we have to make it work. We’ve got to be able to adapt it, add to it, and use the content to suit our own philosophy and curriculum intent.

One thing you’ve said to me is that perhaps the most helpful thing primary heads or teachers can do is to break music down into why we teach it, what we teach, and then how we teach it.   

I think we’ve perhaps forgotten why we teach music in primary schools, and the new Ofsted framework does seem to address this. But when we talk about curriculum intent, what has tended to happen is that we’ve just had a little rejig of the subject material and not had a really good think about why.

Over the years music education in the primary sector has suffered a number of blows. For one thing, through the cross-curricular approach. There can be a lack of understanding of subject matter, that meant music was relegated to things like, singing your times tables, just using music to teach other things.

But I think we’ve swung the other way now, ignoring some of those wider applications as well as the wider benefits of music. We need to start to address them if we’re going to fight for a place for music in the curriculum.  Music needs to be integrated into the fabric of the curriculum.

I know Music Mark has been addressing the wider benefits of music with the 10 things leaflet and their #GetPlaying campaign, and ISM as well, promoting benefits of the arts and it’s really, really useful to focus back in on that again.

But it needs to go deeper: it needs to be part of the school language.

Some people would say that advocacy that promotes the ‘instrumental’ rather than just the ‘intrinsic’ purposes of music education – the other benefits like wellbeing resilience, executive functioning – isn’t helpful. The recent Ofsted review of music unearthed that binary argument again, saying ‘music is wonderful in and of itself and needs no justification’. But I think what you’re saying is that we need to look at all those reasons that we teach music education, and not get hung up about a sort of purist ‘music for music’s sake’.  

Absolutely. I don’t think it needs to be an ‘either/or’ at all.

Music education does still depend very much on the views of the headteacher, even though it is statutory.

In order to sell music, or elevate music within a primary school, we’ve got to connect it to what else is going on and what else is valued and make music part of that language. If we stay in our musical ivory towers, we can have the best views and opinions in the world, but that doesn’t make it happen in schools.

I’ll give you a few examples. One of my roles as a primary school senior leader, was as the Pupil Premium lead. And when you’re writing the school’s Pupil Premium strategy, the first place to look for evidence-based research on successful learning strategies is the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

If you look at the evidence for arts participation and learning it’s poor. And yet, we all know that there’s so much research out there about the value of the arts to improving learning outcomes. So why is it not being used? If we look closely at the three of the most successful learning strategies in the toolkit:

  • metacognition or self-regulation and ‘learning to learn’
  • collaborative learning
  • and peer tutoring

music education has been a trailblazer for these approaches.

Metacognition is about being aware of your own learning, what works or doesn’t work for you and how you can regulate yourself during learning experiences. That idea of thinking about your learning and regulating yourself when thing go wrong, lie at the heart of learning an instrument and making music with other people. And all of that makes young people more resilient.

We could be adding to the collective knowledge on metacognition and self-regulation, using music education examples from whole class instrumental lessons and composing activities or improvisation, because we’ve been doing this for years without naming it.

I just think we missed so many tricks. For example, an over-emphasis on performance and performing in primary schools has left composing and creating as a bit of a poor relative. So we need to argue for its place back in the curriculum, through its role in developing collaborative and peer learning.

Anita Collins, the Australian music educator and music education advocate and researcher has talked a lot about how music builds executive functioning skills. And there’s a lot of neuroscientific research to back that up.

If we can get some of that research in front of primary school leaders: to the places where primary school leaders are looking, then perhaps it’s not so much a case of, music education being valued because a particular head likes music or the arts. It’s more that they can see its wider value.

Music education hubs need to be considering, if schools aren’t buying, is it because it’s an old model based on ‘what they can deliver’ rather than shaping it around the primary school priorities, and these things like metacognition, collaborative learning, peer learning. Those things are top of the agenda in many primary schools, particularly those with high Pupil Premium. And if they could understand that, then perhaps Hubs can support learning not only in music, but also through music.

You also mentioned what is taught and how it’s taught. I don’t know if you want to just talk a little bit about that?

Yes, well it’s a vicious circle isn’t it? If there isn’t the subject knowledge in the senior leadership teams, then they’re not really able to make any judgment as to whether a scheme is suitable, whether it suits the needs of the school, whether it’s got the progression that they require.

I think there’s also a danger when you buy in music education, and I’ve done this myself as a freelance music teacher, you go from school to school, and perhaps don’t have the time to find out whether what you’re teaching is linking with anything else that they’re doing.

What we don’t want is for music to be a bolt on. Because if it’s a bolt on, it can also be a bolt off, which is, I suppose what I’m trying to say about integrating this across the curriculum. It can’t be seen as a luxury item.

If you think about how we teach in early years, it’s very much a holistic approach. We’re teaching the child through the subject, and which is quite a different approach.

Interesting. That’s something that Youth Music champions, and also Changing Tracks, one of the organisation’s that’s funded through their strategic Fund C programme. So that people aren’t just ‘delivering content’ into children.

Yes, absolutely. I suppose in primary, you’ve generally got one teacher who teaches all subjects. And by definition, they can’t be an expert in every subject, but they know their children really, really well – their strengths, areas for development, and can draw on those across subjects. They’ve got that holistic view of the child.

I suppose one of the takeaways might be for anyone going into primary schools to talk a lot with the teachers to find out about the individual kids and also, also about their school. Many people already do but not all, for all sorts of reasons – time, money, and also in the case of Hubs, how they’re required to assess their impact – the annual return doesn’t really capture that depth of information.   

It has to be both sides, listening to what they can bring to the table.  And making sure the leadership team in a primary school understand that, because music’s going on in the classroom, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re learning. I did a joint observation with an Ofsted inspector. It was a lesson where they were all engaged. They were all on task. And he then said to me, yes but are they learning anything? Are they progressing? Although Ofsted now view progression over a series of lessons, the principle remains.

I think sometimes we’ve got to start looking at our music lessons in that depth. Have we got the same expectations as we do with Maths and English? Can they do this independently? Are we over-scaffolding the approach in that lesson? We’ve got to train our leaders about what to look for, what makes for a good music lesson.

What’s the best way to help senior leadership to know what good looks like?

It starts with initial teacher training and general CPD. We haven’t got enough material for what good practice looks like, such as video clips, something to start a conversation with – we don’t have enough conversations about it.

Not just looking at it from a music point of view, but in terms of general lesson criteria, what effective questioning you would expect from the teacher, what sort of feedback, the things that are part of the primary school teacher’s toolkit. I think we sometimes become a little bit divorced from that, in music education.

For example, there are many ways for children to demonstrate their understanding and their learning, without having to just ask a question that requires hands up – because you know that it’ll only be the same five children who respond. Yet it’s these things that we continue to use a lot in music education.

There needs to be a really big conversation about how we assess music in primary schools and what evidence is required. A book of photos shows you that music has happened and might be a focus for a pupil interview but it doesn’t assess anything. Music hubs and other music educators need to be talking a lot about assessment and evidence because that matters to primary schools. Do we need to have data on the whole school tracker and how useful is that? How does a music coordinator identify areas that need support or development when other subjects are analysing their data groups?

Whether it’s the music hubs who produce these resources, schools, or a joint venture, we’ve got to have a set of materials, almost exemplification type materials, as you would do in other subjects to support teaching learning and assessment.

So it could be helpful for music educators to review the Primary Teaching Standards? As that’s what every teacher is working to? And then shape our services in a way that’s easily understood by a head teacher and a classroom teacher perhaps?

Yeah, it’s both speaking the same language. Understanding what the priorities are. The Chartered College of Teaching has got some incredible resources on their website, some just one-page summaries of different approaches that are in current thinking and that will help us to understand what good teaching looks like.

We have been using monologues, we need to be moving into dialogues, and using a multi-faceted approach.

We also need to be getting some of this research and resources into the places that primary schools look. Online leadership sites that offer school advice and templates such as The School Bus and The Key for School Leaders need to have music information that’s relevant and accessible for leaders. Hubs need to be offering access to Music Mark for school leaders. We need to be looking at things like the Education Endowment Foundation and their Toolkit I mentioned earlier,  and The Chartered College of Teaching: and drawing some of our understanding from there.  

The Ofsted Subject Review has attempted to look at how we learn but uses largely secondary school examples. The review talks a lot about working and long-term memory and this is a very current topic in primary schools. Chunking down knowledge to support our working memory has been used to teach songs for years. This is a concrete example of how music education can share an approach to learning that is current and relevant. It’s information like this that music educators need to be highlighting to elevate the role of music in primary schools.

Thanks Nicola.  It’s harder than it sounds, but it can really transform your organisation and your communications, when you put yourself in your customer’s shoes. When you deeply understand their priorities and concerns are, and shape and frame what you do from that perspective. That’s a really good point to wrap up on, thank you Nicola it’s been fascinating to talk to you.

Nicola Hutton spent more than 30 years as a primary teacher, is a Specialist Leader of Education and has had a number of senior leadership roles. She has worked for Music Hubs as a curriculum and whole class instrumental teacher. She’s also a singing tutor and choir director. She ran a company called First for Curriculum where she trained other teachers both independently and through established Training providers both nationally and internationally and provided consultancy support for schools .  Find out more about Nicola here:

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