Stormzy will save us all

A recent article on the BBC News website suggested that ‘better’ music lessons had enabled 974 students ‘at risk of expulsion’ to save their education. Attendance leapt to 95% and ‘there were also links to people taking part performing higher than expectation in subjects such as Maths and English as well as music during the study’.

The factor that enabled this transformation? According to the news article ‘they studied artists like Stormzy instead of Mozart’.

While this may make a good headline (and ‘Grime over Mozart? Better music lessons changed my life’ isn’t a bad attempt), it is – first of all – nonsense, and second of all a misrepresentation of a well-intentioned academic study undertaken over the past four years.

The study was published by Youth Music and is based on research undertaken by Birmingham University, funded by the National Lottery via the Arts Council of England.

It was designed to look specifically at ‘supporting young people at risk of disengagement, low attainment or exclusion from school to achieve the best musical, educational and wider outcomes through participation in the music-making projects.’ As well as ‘to develop new models of partnership working between schools and out-of-school music providers.’ [Exchanging Notes, p.10]

It may seem obvious to some, but it is worth saying that this is not a formal scientific study. There are no control groups, there is not a specific hypothesis being tested, the study is not setting out to demonstrate that x approach to music education will have y result.

The study, broadly, sets out to address a perceived issue that ‘young people’s creative identities outside of school often go unrecognised in music education’ [Exchanging Notes, p.9]. According to one music leader quoted in the report: ‘a lot of schools still classically deliver … music education in a way that doesn’t really engage a large section of young musicians that are interested in music, so there’s, you know, most young musicians are very interested in music but don’t see the connection between their interest in music and their music lessons.’

As a very general summation, the study found that active engagement in music improved attendance as well as academic performance, specifically in Maths and English. It is also found that teaching music was more successful if students were engaged in the music; in other words, that they studied music which they enjoyed listening to.

The report makes for interesting reading and its first two recommendations are surely in line with what every musician believes [Exchanging Notes, p.39]:

  1. We call for an unequivocal message from government about the value of music in schools.
  2. We call for schools to ensure that music is for everyone.

Their third recommendation I’m not so sure about. The report writes: ‘we call for partners to co-design an inclusive 21st century curriculum’. More on that later.

The first thing to say here is that at no point in the study is there a claim that teaching ‘grime over Mozart’ will result in better lessons or in better outcomes, nor is there a comparison between students who studied Stormzy and those who studied Mozart.

Exactly where the BBC News article got its information is unclear and – frankly – appears to be lazy sensationalism. It is disappointing for all of us who don’t just believe in the value of music education but are actually informed about its academic, social, and health benefits. Misrepresenting anyone’s work is poor journalism but in this particular case, the sweeping assumptions that music lessons across the UK are outdated, ignore contemporary repertoire, and fail to engage with the majority of children are fantastically ignorant and damaging.

Even a cursory glance at the set works of current GCSE and A level curricula would demonstrate that the intention of exam boards is to be as broad as possible. Edexcel at GCSE includes Wicked, Queen, and Afro Celt Sound System. AQA at A level includes jazz, James MacMillan, contemporary folk music, and pop music including artists such as Stevie Wonder, Daft Punk, Beyoncé, and Labrinth.

If that isn’t appealing to the widest possible collection of musicians, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps worse, though, is the news article’s implicit suggestion that the past has nothing to offer the present. In any subject, taking the approach that work carried out 50, 100, or 400 years ago is irrelevant to present day students is patently absurd.

One of the central purposes of education is to pass on knowledge hard-won by our forebears. If every generation started from scratch, we would be nowhere. The facts of evolution, of nuclear fission, of the events leading up to the Second World War, of maps of the world are an essential part of building knowledge. Imagine a situation in which we continually had to rediscover everything that had previously been known. We would lose one of the most vital skills available to us as humans.

The same is true in the arts. The manipulation of musical language both from a grammatical perspective through harmony, melody, and instrumentation, as well as from a technical perspective through computer technologies is as relevant today as it was last year or in 1910. Artists are always part of a lineage – even if their part is to be destructive (like the Sex Pistols or Schoenberg).

The arts do not belong to a different part of education just because they have the possibility to be expressive or are, indeed, open to a wide range of people and skill sets. The arts are always, ultimately, crafts. They require skills that can be learned, skills that can be developed and improved with practice. This has been shown time and again by genuine, carefully constructed research (read Peak by K. Anders Ericsson just to get started).

What the Exchanging Notes report actually finds is that students respond more enthusiastically when they are doing something they enjoy. While that sounds like a fantastically positive result, I think that anyone who is involved with children doing anything could have told them that four years ago. No-one ever has a problem engaging children in activities they enjoy and many of the pedagogical methods offered to new teachers are specifically aimed at student engagement. Ultimately, though, the purpose of any kind of education has to be in the value that is added to the recipients. We need students to leave each lesson being in a better position than when they arrived. Through tiny, incremental steps, we help them learn and learn how to learn.

If the contents of curricula were driven purely by enjoyment then they would be filled with pop music and YouTube videos interspersed with lunches consisting of chips and Haribo. Those may have a place in a child’s education but let us hope that they are not the driving force.

There is much more to be written about what the true value of music is and there is clearly an argument to be won nationally as class sizes for music apparently continue to dwindle. What is certain is that we will get nowhere by offering up lazy journalism and all this news item does it distort and misinform.

Music is one of the most complex subjects with which to grapple. It is difficult to understand and requires skills in many different areas – getting better at music is not a linear process and there is no way that teaching grime over Mozart will solve the crisis in music education, perceived or real. For those of us that do know what music can do, it is time to share the science and data that clearly show its value. It is time to do away with populist solutions and easy answers. It is time for clear advocacy demonstrating why we should care about music education what it materially adds to all our lives.

One thought on “Stormzy will save us all

  1. I’ve just got back from Josh’s NYCoS concert, and the piece he most enjoyed learning and performing was Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. The other pieces were much more modern and mainly from musicals. He enjoyed them, but not as much as the Verdi


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