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Bridget’s Blog on the refreshed National Plan for Music Education: How Refreshing!

4th July 2022

Music Mark CEO Bridget Whyte

Following Music Mark’s summit events for the sector on 29 June, CEO Bridget Whyte takes stock and reflects on her initial thoughts about the refreshed National Plan for Music Education so far.

When the DfE made an announcement in January 2019 that they would be ‘refreshing’ the National Plan for Music Education for England, I thought it a rather odd phrase.  However, after a while I realized that it was probably a good word to use.  To have written a completely new Plan would have been counterintuitive when there is so much from the first Plan that has improved music education in England.  But after 10 years it did need a review. A quick Google search tells me that ‘refresh’ means ‘give new strength or energy to; reinvigorate’, and I would challenge anyone not to agree that with the publication of the new National Plan for England, we have seen a sector reenergised, reinvigorated.

There have been so many thoughtful blogs on the Plan already that I don’t want to simply add another that highlights the changes, the challenges and the chances it has to improve music education.  However, having co-chaired Music Mark’s summit events for the sector last week where we were joined by speakers from the DfE, DCMS, Arts Council England, and the Expert Panel, I wanted to share three initial thoughts. Watch the recordings of the two webinars here.

1. Should we look at the plan from the stalls or on the balcony? I did a leadership retreat last autumn and was given the recommendation to explore the teachings of a leadership guru called Brené Brown.  A few months ago I finally listened to one of her podcasts where she talked about leaders needing to spend time both in the stalls getting involved in the day to day, as well as going up to the balcony to see the bigger picture.
As I read the chat in the webinars and listened to some of the discussions in our Big Meets last Wednesday I reflected that the Plan is that balcony view.  The detail of the new Plan, which of course we need and which I understand is being worked out at speed, is the view from the stalls.  We need both views, but the wider view – the headlines – are what we needed first.  Now we have a Plan, we can discuss it, dissect it, and work out how to deliver it, together.  The DfE and Arts Council made it clear they want to consult the sector going forward – I will hold them to that!

2. The DfE have caught the ball! In 2019 I made a comment at a Westminster Forum which ended up as a headline of an article published by the TES.  I said that the government had dropped the ball with the first Plan by not telling schools about it when it was published.  I stand by that comment, but I think this time was different.  (I had to smile at the photo used in the press release from the DfE of a pupil kicking a ball!)  Yes, the Plan was published on a Saturday which isn’t quite in line with the DfE’s own guidelines for sharing news with schools, and many school leaders have taken to social media to comment on the ambitions of the Plan being at odds with the reality in their schools, but it is clear that they know about the Plan this time and over the coming weeks, months and years I hope that schools will engage with it.  Things won’t change overnight. Indeed, Karen Marshal perhaps best summed it up in her piece in Music Teacher Magazine; ‘view it as a journey over time’.  The conversation has started, now we need to keep in going.

3. Howdy Partners – apparently John F Kennedy once said ‘partnership is not a posture but a process – a continuous process that grows stronger each year as we devote ourselves to common tasks’. At the root of the first Plan was the call for stronger partnerships – for organisations and individuals to work together to create a holistic music education ecology for every child.  That emphasis on partnership is reinforced (dare I say ‘refreshed’?) within the new Plan, which is great because we all now know more about partnership working – it’s grown stronger each year!  There are more partners working on a local level as part of Music Hubs, and wider regional partnerships have also been developed and are flourishing.
The call within the new Plan for fewer hub leads is perhaps the hottest topic right now which isn’t surprising.  It seems at odds with the narrative within the Plan for more of a focus on local need and less on a prescriptive, universal offer.  I don’t think that the two are incompatible though.  The idea of fewer Hub Lead Organisations is not a call for ‘mergers’ or for fewer organisations.  There are currently 118 Music Hubs in England, and around 140 Music Services. I would expect that number of music services to remain, however many hubs there are.  It’s about partnerships working on a ‘common task’.

We await more information about the tendering process and hopefully it will be available soon.  This consultation promise is key, and as such Music Mark will run more Big Meets where we invite colleagues to share thoughts and ideas.  I also want to have the opportunity to consider the timeline and process, since we all know that partnerships are built over time; you cannot force them if you want them to truly flourish.

I’m looking forward to the coming months.  Yes, there is a lot we don’t know about the specifics, and as many have said, the devil is in that detail, but for the government to have made a long-term commitment to music education and to have articulated it in such a way that school leaders are considering it (regardless of whether they like it or not), I think is good.  I, and the Music Mark team, will be working to identify how we can support our membership and the wider sector now and into the future so that the thriving network of organisations and individuals who are already doing an amazing job to support musical learning can continue to provide opportunities for every child.

As I said at the end of the second webinar, the word ‘hub’ always reminds me of a wheel with the child at the centre and the many different musical learning opportunities they engage with representing the spokes. Without connecting those spokes together, there is no wheel. However, when connected, the set of opportunities and experiences  provided for the child are rich, meaningful, and life-enhancing. Now it’s up to us to take the balcony view and head down to the stalls to build strong local and regional partnerships, especially with schools, connecting the spokes of the music education wheel for every child and young person across the country.