Youth Music CEO on the future of music education

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Matt Griffiths, chief executive of Youth Music, shares his thoughts on the future of music education in our school system and beyond, and suggests how independent organisations can play a vital role in supporting progress…

Last week I was invited to speak at The Great Escape, which this year included for the first time an education strand. This one-day convention consisted of a wide range of panel discussions mapping music education and particularly the music industry’s role – or not – within it. A recurring question throughout the day was; ‘Is music education in crisis?’.

Everyone on my panel answered a very clear ‘No’! Let’s get some perspective here; this is not a crisis, although there are certainly challenges, particularly regarding the position of music in the school curriculum, and the training of the current and future workforce. Interestingly, across social media, the response from many in the academic community was that there is indeed a crisis, particularly in schools. Some commenters also observed that the conference panels didn’t include any music teachers from schools.

It got me thinking that while progress has been made in bringing together different aspects of music education, particularly over the last five years since Music Education Hubs started, there is still loads to do. Rather than focusing on defending or protecting the work of our individual organisations, our number one priority has to be young people: giving them the right support and inspiration to make music, wherever that takes place. Music-making that’s theirs; that’s diverse, inclusive and representative of the communities we all serve. At Youth Music, the youth voice is central to our purpose and values, and young people are exploring a huge range of styles of music in the projects we support. We recently published a blog about this.

I strongly believe that a vibrant, innovative music curriculum in schools is vital, but I also believe we need to change the music education narrative and business model to achieve this: focused on young people’s health and wellbeing as much as on their academic attainment. There is a new sweet spot emerging which combines the expertise, skills and experience of both music teachers and music leaders: schools and music organisations working together to devise and co-deliver a music curriculum. This work is taking place not just within schools, but also in a range of innovative, industry-type environments even more conducive for high quality music-making.

Our four-year action research project Exchanging Notes is focused on this emerging model, with seven collaborative partnerships taking place across England. The work has unearthed some fascinating insights in terms of developing a shared understanding between music teachers and music organisations, and also in pointing towards possibilities for scaling-up this way of working across the country. The latest Exchanging Notes evaluation report can be found here.

I don’t underestimate the challenges that exist, but I also know there are exciting opportunities to help solve them. There continues to be resources and expertise in the music education system, and the national curriculum for music is broad (and short) enough for it to be innovatively delivered between the type of partnerships I’ve mentioned. Sadly, in much of the music education commentary and chatter, I see very little, if any, talk of proactive solutions. My worry is that the cries of ‘crisis!’ will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s in our collective hands to make sure it doesn’t – we all need to step up. Otherwise, we’re doing young people a massive disservice.

Matt Griffiths is chief executive of Youth Music, a national charity investing in music-making projects for children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances. Matt originally trained as a percussionist and was a professional musician and music educator for 10 years. During this time, he led workshops and projects in prisons, young offender institutions, special schools and mental health settings.

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