What’s next for early years music? Dr Susan Young Jump to main content

What’s next for early years music? Dr Susan Young

Author and researcher Dr Susan Young delivered this speech during the 'What’s next for early years music?' panel session at the ISM Trust's Where to next for music education? conference in November 2021.

The case for early childhood music

It is very unusual for early childhood music educators to find ourselves talking to an audience of over 300 people. As an early childhood music education (ECME) academic, I am accustomed to talking to about three people not 300. If I go to a mainstream music education conference to present, I don’t gather much interest because young children are very small, they can’t do very much musically, especially not babies – secondary music education typically takes centre stage in music education conversations and work with birth to five year olds is marginal - and let’s face it, it’s low status. Likewise, if I go to a general early childhood education conference to present, I don’t gather much interest either, because music is considered to be a narrow, specialist and marginal subject in the wider educational picture.

So this marginalisation - both in terms of music and the age/stage of the children - is what I call the ‘double whammy’ that ECME suffers from. As a result of low status and low value, the ECME sector has to do its best in the face of serious under-resourcing, and hence it has become a patchwork of provision and practices. Stating it plainly - there is no government funding, no requirements for formal qualification to practise and no systems of regulation.

Because of the ‘double whammy’, EC music attempts to gain value, vicariously, by attaching itself to what is accorded more value, more status. The focus becomes music in early childhood merely as preparation, as a foundation for what comes later, for the ‘serious’, ‘proper’ music education that follows, or it attaches itself to other areas of learning that currently have greater value in an education system which sees education merely in terms of employability. So, much effort is given to either demonstrating how ECME can provide a firm foundation for formal music learning that follows (which is why learning musically through play is poorly appreciated) or how it can benefit other areas of the curriculum that are prioritised such as reading, maths and so on.

Because it tries to seek vicarious value, there is an emphasis on how ECME can be a servant to other areas of the curriculum. Currently, for example, there is work that is focussing on the potential benefits of music instruction to children’s reading scores. I was interested to go back and remind myself of a big review of music and reading studies, a meta-analysis carried out in 2008 – 12/13 years ago now - by Jayne Standley. She gathered up 30 studies, going back to the 1960s. Most studies showed a modest, but not insignificant positive effect of music on reading ability. Interestingly, the published studies showed a greater effect than the unpublished studies – which shows us that positive bias is already present in what gets published & disseminated. So the evidence is there –more than 50 years of evidence and by now, well over 30 studies. What this shows us is that this kind of evidence doesn’t convince, it doesn’t change policy and doesn’t change practice. So we have to ask why it doesn’t motivate change? And for that, we have to go deeper into the beliefs and values that prevent change. Why is music not valued in the curriculum? Why are young children not higher on the music education agenda?

This emphasis on the ‘benefits of music’ connects with what many refer to as ‘the impact agenda’ or ‘impact culture’. Many of you will recognise impact from the focus by Ofsted (intent, implementation and impact), or the focus on providing evidence of impact in funded projects. A focus on impact narrows the discussion. It sidesteps the more important but also much more difficult debate about value and purposes. It doesn’t ask us to dig down into our assumptions and beliefs – it doesn’t raise the difficult and critical questions.

And my response, is not to call up the 'music for music’s sake' rationale which is often positioned as the opposite of music for benefits – that is also a narrow argument which takes us up another cul-de-sac. Rather it is the narrow and technocratic scope, the focus on instrumentality that ‘impact’ has acquired in policy thinking and the practice that it gives rise to – that is problematic. To say nothing of how the impact culture encourages the giving of inflated estimates of gains.

So I ask that we push beyond the narrow culture of impact, outcomes and benefits and ask the knotty questions about value and purpose.

Where to next for early childhood music education?

As is obvious, we face a present of many challenges – a pandemic, climate emergency, increasingly divided society, with high levels of poverty. The pandemic could be a point at which we break with the past and do not go back to 'normal’ - whatever normal is. A point at which we demand radical change and demand a music education that is about caring for others, for community cohesion, for caring for the planet and all its living things. A music education that is about joy in making music in the here and now, the meaningfulness of musical participation, the playfulness of music made with others - not empty joy from buying more extracted, high carbon footprint stuff on Black Friday and fuelling capitalism that has got us into this mess in the first place. Gert Biesta, an education philosopher, talks of a world-centred education – I think we need a world-centred, community-centred music education – not subject-centred, nor child-centred, but world-centred.

We also need ‘educated educators’ –– educated within standardised qualifications to be creative and critical thinkers - and hopefully also be able to spot pseudo-science a mile away. Can I also add - let’s please refer to educators because that is what we are, and refer to teacher education and not training? Training implies that teaching is merely a technical process. There are European countries where an MA is required to work at the level of early childhood in recognition of how skilled the work is and the high level of knowledge required.

Thirdly, I suggest we need awareness of the political context and how neoliberalism and neoconservatism shape music education. We are led to believe that music education, particularly music education for early childhood, is far removed from politics – but this is how it is powerfully re-politicised in a form which wants us to believe we are powerless to effect change, and that there is no alternative to what we have now. The pandemic has shown us that there are alternatives. The government can act to effect change very quickly when it wants to – money can be found, lots of it, very quickly, when there is a priority need.

Finally, I think we must aim for real structural change, transformation which starts at the level of deep-set values, attitudes, and assumptions – and not just tweaks and moving deck chairs - aiming towards a truly democratic education working for the social good, for the common good – not for profit or economic advantage. We need bold and brave discussions about what an ideal EY music education could and should be.

Susan Young is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Research in Early Childhood, Birmingham. Before retirement she held positions at Exeter University and Roehampton University, lecturing in childhood studies, education studies and music education. She has taught in a range of different types of school: a specialist music school, secondary and primary schools and in early childhood settings. She holds degrees in piano performance and musicology from the RCM, a PGCE, qualifications in Dalcroze Eurhythmics and Kodaly, and post-graduate research degrees in music education, early childhood music and biological anthropology. She has published numerous articles and several books, primarily on the topic of early childhood music and is frequently invited to present at national and international conferences.