Minister’s goal of every pupil learning to read music – should it be a priority?

A Government Minister wants all children to be able to read music by the time they leave primary school – but being someone who can, I fail to understand the importance.

Nick Gibb is an MP on one of my newspaper’s patch, who also happens to be Minister for School Standards.

Writing in the Times this week, he said he wanted every pupil to understand everything from the history of music to having had the chance to play an instrument.


But while I agree creating opportunities isn’t something to be shunned, aspiring for everyone to learn music reading as a key skill isn’t going to help most of them navigate their way through life.

I played the piano for around a decade, ‘retiring’ the minute I left home for university.

It wasn’t in the classroom where I first tinkled the ivories. It was at home – so from the outset I’m probably not the sort of person who Mr Gibb is hoping to reach out to when improving access to instruments.

“I want every child to leave primary school able to read music, understanding sharps and flats, to have an understanding of the history of music, as well as having had the opportunity to sing and to play a musical instrument.”
– Nick Gibb MP –

The early days of playing piano are a distant memory but no doubt they were enjoyable. Things changed, though, and the practising and the exams became compulsory. They were a chore and eventually a source of regular unrest at home.

After flunking my grade-seven exam through a complete lack of commitment, rather than ability, the years of aggravation finally came to an end as I left for university. The closest I’ve come to playing since has been one-fingered tapping of Albie’s five-key plastic piano.

My piano ‘career’ has undoubtedly damaged my relationship with music. I don’t listen to tunes for pleasure and have never been to a gig (discounting the time I had to watch Dean Friedman with my Dad when my mum was working) or a festival.

But as a journalist I have learned to evaluate everything with a critical mind.

Casting my personal prejudices aside, I still struggle with the concept of heightening music’s importance in the education system.

Mr Gibb’s Times article references the end of primary, not secondary school, as the time by which he would like pupils to have mastered reading music.

That is more palatable then making it a key aspiration throughout secondary school, where I would argue the priority should be on improving teaching of key life skills.

My education didn’t help me much when it came to the complexities of arranging a mortgage, personal finance or putting up curtain poles in my new home.

Being able to rattle through the F-minor scale was scant consolation when it came to wading through interest rates and planning for a six-figure financial commitment.

Granted, most of the above would come through a secondary, not primary education.

A Government announcement, on the same day as Mr Gibb’s Times opinion piece, did however point to the longer term. He said: “All pupils at least up to the age of 14 should study music in school. We want to make sure their lessons are of the very highest quality and pupils leave school having experienced an excellent music education so those who wish to do so can take up opportunities to pursue musical careers.”

The flaw in my musical upbringing was rooted in its dictatorial nature. The enjoyment was sucked out of it by testing and necessity. I was pushed to continue, in the hope I would come to appreciate it in the long run.

While creating opportunities is admirable, I fear it all sounds like a road towards another government target; another statistic for pupils and teachers to be assessed on.

Worry less about who Beethoven is, the need to know the difference between sharps and flats and quit aspiring for everyone to reach the same standard. Put instruments in more hands, make it fun and optional. Then, Mr Gibb, you may come closer to your dream.

A final thought: if reading music becomes a cornerstone in the primary curriculum, thought needs to go into how to keep those who already can engaged. My early secondary school music lessons were often painful, as we stumbled through the basics.

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