Music education in the UK-a perspective from afar

Guest blog

Guest Blog by Ian Harvey, Director of Musical Futures Australia and written in response to THIS article published in The Guardian, December 2015

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Yes every child should have access to music education, to learn an instrument and benefit from the multitude of aesthetic, social, intellectual and personal outcomes that making music brings.

But how are you going to solve the problem? Regular articles give oxygen to the issue but what actually changes? Here in Victoria we have a story to tell that might surprise you.

Our State government this year effectively included music as part of every child’s schooling under its mantra of ‘every child, every opportunity’. Behind the catchy line all students attending our 1,600 state system schools, should by 2018 have access to a quality music education – just like the students do in our private schools where music is a key demonstrable of a school’s depth of educational opportunity.

The Premier, Daniel Andrews, made his commitment back in November 2014. Since then work has started with an initial group of 150 teachers from 100 schools on improving music education provision, the quality of the teaching and the resources they have to work with.

How are they doing this? Through the implementation of Musical Futures, a British music education approach. So, by 2018 at least 800 of the 1,600 Victorian state schools counting a student population of more than 500,000 pupils will have benefited from this innovative British approach.

The principles of Musical Futures were researched by a British academic from a leading London university, it was conceptualised and systemised for use in schools by a British educator (who has since been awarded an OBE for his work in the field) and it is run day-to-day (including assisting the music education provision in far flung Victoria) by a team of expert British music educators. Apart from some modest local tweeks and a good dose of Australian energy Musical Futures is thoroughly British.

And Musical Futures works for all the reasons that many existing programs struggle or fail. Students are placed at the centre of the learning, it is relevant and engaging for students and teachers, it is delivered as a classroom activity, it is affordable and sustainable for schools, it builds musical skills and literacy and provides pathways for any form of musical exploration individual students may choose to take.

And yes Musical Futures de-mystifies the learning of music. Musical Futures is an approach that takes the best of what has gone on in the past and builds on and repackages those approaches into a 21st century context. And it delivers – greater access to music, greater longevity amongst young players, increased numbers of students opting for additional instrumental lessons, improved job satisfaction amongst teachers and, greater numbers of students continuing on to complete music at year 12 – your A levels.

Sure current government policies in the UK seem not to support music in schools in the way they should. I have seen this first hand. But I also see a music education sector needs to look at itself and recognise that its practices and approaches need to be reformed so that the music education offered is relevant and therefore can’t be ignored by governments. For many years the problem with music education is that ‘we want to do what we have always done, but just do more of it’. But most of the approaches used are approaching their centenary and, that suggests, that nothing has happened in music or in the development of children and adolescents in the last 70 or 80 years.

That clearly is not the case and that thinking it is as stultifying an approach to music as the writer accuses your ‘tightwad, snobby’ government of being. Why? Because the ‘way we had always done things’ is one of the reasons music in schools had become marginalised in the first place – poor levels of student engagement, low retention rates amongst instrumental learners, teacher burn out and apathy and music being a too problematic area of the curriculum relative to its importance for school leaderships to deal with day to day. Music had no real place in the timetable and it was expensive to service relative to student access and involvement.

All this despite the overwhelming parental expectations that music is included as a core part of their child’s learning.

There is a very British solution to your issue, though the solution might require some very un-British behaviour. Stop whinging, start reforming and re-thinking the music education space, toss out some of the traditions along with the ’this is the way we do things around here’ thinking that is the real cause of what is holding you back from the thing you most want to achieve – that every student has access to a quality music education.

You don’t need to look to the US nor do you need to look to Australia because what we learned we learn from you.

It’s called Musical Futures, it doesn’t solve every music education issue in every location but it works and if we can adopt it from 12,000 miles away you can too.

Musical Futures: Just Play has been developed in partnership with Musical Futures Australia and is currently rolling out to 400 schools across the state of Victoria.

Resourcing Just Play


Once we asked our school families to consider donating any unused guitars or keyboards they or their extended families had (I reckon everyone has a dusty guitar in their garage!) we managed to put together enough instruments to implement the program.

Felicity O’Halloran
Hamlyn Banks Primary School
Geelong, Australia

Musical Futures: Just Play is a whole class approach to building musical skills and complement and sustain previous musical experience gained from First Access or specialist music programmes. It is designed for guitars, keyboards, ukes, drums, bass, vocals.

There are 3 instrument packages that we reccommend (for classes of 30). Ukes and mics are optional!

Starter kit:

16 3/4 sized acoustic guitars

8 keyboards + batteries

32 pairs of drum sticks

Projector, screen and speakers-you may wish to purchase an amp to ensure that students can hear the music as they play.

Build a band:

As above, add

a drum kit (electric or acoustic)

Bass guitar(s) and leads


Vocal mics and leads

We understand that resourcing music in schools can be expensive, so here are our top tips for getting Just Play off the ground in your school!

  1. Talk to your local music hub or secondary school to see if they can help
  2. Join forces with local schools and build one set of equipment that can travel between schools on a half termly basis
  3. Put out a call to parents for donations
  4. Use our free fundraising kit for local grants and funds that may be appropriate (email info@musicalfutures,org to be sent your free pack today!)

Here are some people who have made Just Play possible in their schools.

I have kids bringing their instruments to school, accessing their own resources on the internet at home and bringing their “discoveries” into class.most of my guitars are from the coles supermarket rewards program.

Megan Mckenzie
Lara Lake PS, Australia

Space and storage-rise to the challenge!


@tallgirlwgc @musicalfutures I’m facing the problem of having no music room now! Challenging to teach carrying a few instruments on a cart

— Sandie Heckel (@SandieHeckel) October 20, 2015

We know that space is a precious commodity in our primary schools. Too often a lack of storage space means that instruments are tucked behind curtains, in cupboards and have to be moved around the school so that the children can use them as a music room is becoming a luxury in many schools!

However, there are solutions so we are calling for enterprising and resourceful teachers to share theirs! Here are a few storage solutions to kick start the discussion:

  1. Hang ’em high-Southesk Primary School, Scotland UK


2. Make your own-Steve from Musical Futures Australia with hooks he made designed to hold 2 guitars at a time when hung on the wall (this takes around 3m in width (3/4 guitars are around 300 wide and about 1.8 metres  in height)


3. Use batteries and save on space! Then not only can keyboards be stacked, but they can be moved and played anywhere without that endless search for a plug socket/extension lead/power board!

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4. Make it mobile-trollies aren’t cheap but they are versatile and they have wheels!


5. Share ideas with others! If you have a super storage solution, why not pass your tip to others? You can send a photos or suggest an idea via our social networks or leave us a comment at the bottom of this post.

Giveing access to practical music making for our students is too important to write off as space and resources are squeezed. Let’s share some solutions and rise to the challenge!

Just starting Just Play

Guest blog

Guest blog by Robert Wells @musiced_

Rob Wells

Playing along with good music is always a buzz. It’s kind of how I got into music, I learnt to play on a mini-keyboard, putting on tapes of my favourite bands and trying to work out how to play along with them. Songbooks of the Beatles quickly followed, and before too long I was writing my own songs and music was my favourite hobby.

The JustPlay approach is fantastic because it mirrors the way that I started to get into music. Rather than someone talking at you about music, children are given an instrument, helped to find a few notes, and then start playing along with a backing track. The fact that this happens in a communal atmosphere as part of a huge rock band makes the experience even more fun.

A few weeks back we had the first training day, learning about the approach. I was quickly enjoying the same buzz I got as a kid. The room was fully of people I’d mostly never met before, many of whom had never played, but within 30 minutes we were all nodding our heads, strumming along, playing the keyboards, drumming, and singing along to the tracks.

I have a sense that the children I work with are going to have the same feelings of exhilaration as the adults got during the training day. I’ve already used a few of the resources with a guitar club I run and the children clearly have a renewed energy about their playing. As the music specialist in my school I will delivery some of the Just Play sessions, however the bigger challenge is going to be working with non-specialist teachers, passing on the approach, and seeing how they cope with 30 children, 30 instruments, and lots of noise.

Primary music, which for so long has been a little stale, is overdue for a shake up. Relying solely on music specialists was never going to be the answer, there are two few, and even many of these ‘specialists’ are perhaps a little under skilled. Just Play is great because it aims to work with normal class teachers and uses music and resources that are sure to inspire children. I’m really looking forward to the difference the Just Play approach is likely to have on the children in my school, and who knows, with the new skills the class teachers are about to develop we might even be able to start our own staff band before too long!

What makes a successful Just Play teacher?

Pilot Updates

In addition to exploring the Just Play resources by, well just playing, our UK pilot schools met again to upick how they might use them with their classes.

One of the discussion points has been around what makes a successful Just Play teacher. If you remove any mention of musical skills and experience, are there some general qualities that teachers might need to develop in order to get to grips with the approach?

In Scotland, teachers identified

  • being able to let go of the traditional teacher/pupil relationship
  • enthusiasm
  • confidence
  • willingness to let children take ownership of learning
  • ability to make it relevant

Just Play: London teachers added:

  • perseverence
  • be willing to give it a go
  • knowing when to take a step back
  • ability to improvise if things go a bit wrong!
  • don’t be afraid to repeat things
  • don’t worry that it stops and starts

As we dug deeper into these, some comparisons came up to how other subjects are taught and that with Just Play it’s possible to take a far more informal approach than teachers feel they can in literacy or maths. Some of the points raised were that:

  • in other subjects teachers might feel the need to stop and reteach if they aren’t getting it, in music, sudents can just go with the flow. It’s ok if they don’t all get it straight away-they will pick it up eventually
  • it’s a completely different way of learning
  • teachers hadn’t really thought to teach in this way before
  • there’s a lot of trust involved that you can just leave them to learn
  • JP has given a new insight into more interesting ways of teaching
  • you could use these approaches in other subject teaching
  • it’s like ‘gameification’ in maths-the answer is there, they have to find it
  • there is a pressure to teach a certain way in other subjects

We are really interested to see if any of these new approaches to teaching that come through from Just Play do spill over into other lessons and if so what the impact of this might be. Luckily we are working with some fantastic teachers who are open to trying new things in new ways and we look forward to following their Just Play journey!

Experiencing the Just Play professional development sessions



Last Friday, I accompanied my colleague Anna to Hackney New School to support her as she delivered some Just Play training to primary school teachers who would piloting the project in their schools. Not only is Just Play a fairly new project for Musical Futures – so am I! The day of the training was day five for me as a member of the Musical Futures staff, and I was eager to see not only how Just Play would work, but also to meet primary school teachers and to try out the Musical Futures approach myself. In all of these respects I wasn’t disappointed.


On arrival, Anna had set up with multiple guitars and keyboards, with a drum kit in the corner, so there was obviously going to be a practical element to the day. Now, I’m a musical person, having studied music at university and trained as a classical singer. But the prospect of playing a guitar or drum kit (which I’d never done) was a mildly terrifying, especially in front of other people! So the minute Anna asked us all to pick up a guitar, I felt very much in the same boat as these non-music specialist teachers attending the training. But by lunchtime every single person in the room was confidently playing along to a medley of songs either on guitar, bass guitar, keyboard or drums, keeping time and having fun. And by the end of the day we were able to perform a far more complex song and sing, altogether, in a way that all the attending teachers agreed they could do with their KS2 students.


As a new member of staff who has taken part practically in a training session, and following conversations with those teachers, I have found that the MF approach is all-encompassing, all engaging, inspirational and fun. If a group of slightly scared adults can learn and enjoy music in such an accessible and enjoyable way, then every child can. And I will definitely put my newfound guitar skills to use.

The Just Play Pedagogy and Principles

About Just Play

Posted by Anna-MF UK

Musical Futures is a tried-and-tested yet innovative approach to music learning, based on a pedagogy that is driven by the musical culture of the participants. It brings real-world music learning processes into schools and other formal settings, engaging and inspiring all and promoting inclusion and diversity.

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Musical Futures is shaped around these core values:

  • Inclusive – everyone takes part at their own level
  • Absorbing – learning is practical and hands-on
  • Relevant – starts with music that learners engage and identify with
  • Sociable – it is collaborative and with friends
  • Informal – led by learners with teachers/leaders modelling, guiding, supporting
  • Varied – learners perform, listen, compose, improvise, work on a range of instruments and voices, use technology, explore a range of genres and styles
  • Progressive – music learning experiences are high quality, authentic where possible, and with clear progression routes
  • Respectful – all learners, no matter what their ability or experience, are treated as musicians, and are supported to learn and develop.

You can get an idea of what Musical Futures looks and sounds like in our introductory video:

When music is learnt in this way learners will:

  • Enjoy learning music
  • Increase confidence to make music
  • Improve coordination
  • Improve listening skills
  • Increase their technical ability
  • Work creatively
  • Develop independent learning skills

With this in mind, we pulled together the Just Play Principles

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These are modelled throughout the Professional Development workshops and although in the first instance, Just Play is more teacher led than some of the subsequent Musical Futures approaches, the learning is fully collaborative, with the teacher leanrning musically alongside the pupils.

“You’re going to learn together and I think sometimes as teachers you’re afraid to show your vunerabilities. If you can’t do something, flip the classroom, let them teach you” Just Play Scotland pilot session, Aug 2015

And here is what Just Play might look and sound like in your classroom!

Musical Futures: Just Play-the story so far


Posted by Anna-MF UK

Back in October 2014, Abi and Anna from MF UK and Ken from MF Australia visited New York to have a look at the work of Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organisation committed to opening up musical opportunities for primary aged children in schools through their Modern Band Programme.


Abi, Anna and Ken with pupils engaged in a little Kids Rock after school inititive, NYC Oct 2014

Following the visit, we looked at the overlaps between our approaches and in particular how running an intensive musical training workshop for teachers could help primary generalists to feel confident and competent to start to use Just Play with their classes.

“The teacher felt the critical thing was that she had gone through the process alongside the pupils, could see it through their eyes, understand what is difficult, embarrassing, made her nervous etc so she felt she could relate to them”-interview with class teacher, UK pre pilot Jan 2015

We considered how best to present the resource in a way that could be scaffolded for teachers who may not have had much experience with playing or delivering music, yet keeping these in line with our clear Musical Futures pedagogies that underpin all the work we do.

“Children made good progress from being muddled in the initial group jam to a much more skilled and co-ordinated performance by the end of the day”-independent evaluation, UK pre pilot Jan 2015

In January, Ken and Anna ran a small pre-pilot in 2 primary schools in Hackney, London UK. Working first with a year 4 class (aged 8-9) and then with a year 6 class (aged 8-11) they tested the materials and worked with an external evaluator to assess the impact and take on board suggestions for improvement.


Year 4 performing to parents, staff and the rest of the school in Hackney, January 2015

In April, Anna travelled to Australia to take part in the first JP professional development workshop working with Ken, Steve, Ian and Maddie from MF Australia. Teachers played a range of instruments and all took away the resources to use with their classes.

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Steve from Musical Futures Australia leading Just Play workshops in Melbourne with teachers, April 2015

The process of refining and adapting the resources is ongoing. Working with UK Teacher Associate John and taking on board feedback from teachers, the UK pilots and rollout of the JP professional development are now under way and we intend this blog to be a place to share information and progress as we go along!

“I had this pre conception that you would have to be more musical and more knowledgeable. I can keep a beat and I can follow music, I just can’t play an instrument. But after today I think yes-I could do that” Primary teacher, Scotland, UK


Musical Futures: Just Play Scotland pilot launch, UK, August 2015