Reviewing the Model Music Curriculum in detail Jump to main content

Reviewing the Model Music Curriculum in detail

The Model Music Curriculum (MMC) and its potential for meaningful impact on music education has to be seen within the framework of the government’s wider policies and initiatives. It does not sit alone amongst government expectations and cannot, on its own, effect significant change when there are so many other issues at work.

There has been a significant range of policy decisions and government initiatives which have impacted music education over the past 10 or even 20 years. Initiatives have often attempted to solve the problems that have arisen as a direct result of policy decisions. As a nationally-recognised subject association for music, we have been at the forefront of lobbying to reverse years of worrying trends in provision and the marginalisation of music in the classroom. Before considering the detail of the MMC, it is therefore important to remind ourselves of these wider policy impacts on music education.


The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) Annual report on education funding in England (2020) showed that school spending per pupil fell by 9% in real terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20, representing the largest cut in over 40 years despite significant increased spending per pupil in the 2000s.[i] Despite an additional £7.1 billion allocated to schools in England for 2022/23, the real term spending per pupil will likely be no higher than it was in 2009/10.[ii]

Although the government has invested significant amounts of spending on Music Education Hubs, the most recent key data from 2018 shows that these grants only account for around 40 per cent of their income. School and parental contributions make up a further 29% and 18% respectively.[iii]

In addition to the squeeze on staffing and resources in schools as a result of lower per-pupil spending, pupils’ access to music outside of the curriculum is still dependent on the ability to pay for these opportunities and therefore not the level playing field the government envisaged.

[i] Britton, J., Farquharson, C., Sibieta, L., Tahir, I. and Waltmann, B. (2020) 2020 annual report on education spending in England
[ii] ibid
[iii] Fautley, M. and Whittaker, A. (2018) Key Data on Music Education Hubs 2018

Accountability measures

The 2019 Music Education: State of the Nation report highlighted the impact of both primary and secondary accountability measures. In primary schools, the accountability measures for school performance tables in English and maths (mostly in year 6) were found to have negatively impacted curriculum music provision. In schools where music was part of the curriculum, more than 50% of the responding schools were not meeting their curriculum obligations in year 6, specifically citing statutory tests as a significant reason for this.[i] These findings were also supported by Ofsted observations.[ii]

In secondary schools, the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) has had a devastating impact on Arts subjects as schools place more emphasis on the subjects which are included in the measure: English, Maths, Science, Languages and Humanities.

Data from the Joint Council of Qualifications (JCQ) shows a significant decline in the number pupils taking GCSE music, with a fall of 25% since 2010.[iii] The impacts are also felt at Key Stage 5 where music A Level entries have fallen by 47% since 2008.[iv]

[i] Daubney, A., Spruce, G., Annetts, D (2019) Music Education: State of the Nation. London, UK: All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, University of Sussex, Incorporated Society of Musicians.
[ii] Ofsted (2018) An investigation into how to assess the quality of education through curriculum intent, implementation and impact
[iv] ibid

Academisation/National Curriculum/GCSE

The academisation of state schools has also led to a decline in music education. While academies and free schools are expected to follow a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum, there is no requirement to follow the National Curriculum (NC) which is non-statutory in these schools. School census data from January 2019 showed that academies and free schools made up 32% of primary schools and 75% of secondary schools. The total number of pupils attending these schools was 4.1 million – over 1.6 million in primary schools and nearly 2.5 million in secondary schools.[i]

Research by the University of Sussex found that statutory provision in Key Stage 3 was being curtailed, with some schools offering no music provision or just one day per year.[ii] DfE data also shows a decline in the number of hours of music taught (years 7-13) from 83,543 in 2016 to 79,633 in 2019.[iii]

Additional content and demand for other subjects in the 2013 NC[iv] and 2015 reformed GCSEs led to an increasing move to a rotation or ‘carousel’ system with other arts subjects and a reduction in allocated time to classroom music. Research by Ofsted found that around half of schools had moved to a two-year Key Stage 3 model which had resulted in the marginalisation of practical and creative subjects.[v]


A survey by the BPI in 2019 found that 29 per cent of state schools saw a reduction in the number of qualified music teachers compared to 5 per cent for independent schools.[i] Prior to 2020, the number of music teachers recruited into teaching since 2010 had declined 53 per cent.[ii] In 2019/20 only 82 per cent of the recruitment target for music teachers was met (the seventh year in succession where Initial Teacher Training recruitment targets were missed). However, for the 2020/21 academic year target was met by 125 per cent.[iii]

On 13 October 2020, the DfE announced that training bursaries for arts, English and humanities subjects had been removed for 2021/22. Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Universities later said that ‘they might be put back in place at later dates…’.[iv] Many specialist undergraduate primary courses and post-graduate secondary programmes have also closed, limiting the opportunities to pursue a career in music teaching. The BPI teacher survey found that only 44% of music lessons in primary school are delivered by specialists.[v]

Diminishing budgets, a focus on core subjects and less teaching time as a result of carousel systems all lead to a reduction in the number of classroom music teachers. Often, retiring teachers are not replaced.

[i] Who Gets a Music Education? (2019)
[ii] National College for Teaching and Learning and Department for Education (2020) Statistics: initial teacher training
[iii]Westminster Hall (2020) December 8 Debate (Vol 685 Col 331WH)[iv] ibid
[v] BPI (2019) BPI calls on Government to tackle growing inequality in access to music in state schools


The new Ofsted education inspection framework (2019) has a firm focus on knowledge and skills within the curriculum. Although the framework acknowledges the issues surrounding the narrowing of the curriculum, in Key Stage 1 the emphasis is placed on pupils’ ability to ‘read, write and use mathematical knowledge, ideas and operations so they are able to access a broad and balanced curriculum at key stage 2.’[i] Despite the EBacc not being statutory, the government set targets for a ‘national ambition’ that 75 per cent of Year 10 pupils should be starting to follow EBacc GCSE courses by 2022 which increases to 90% by 2025. Ofsted inspectors, whilst not judging schools on whether or not they are meeting this target, are expected to ‘understand what schools are doing to prepare for this to be achieved’.[ii]

[i] Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework (EIF)
[ii] ibid


The Henley Review

The National Singing Programme, Sing Up, and the Wider Opportunities whole-class ensemble teaching programme grew out of the 2004 Music Manifesto. Sing Up was a successful initiative, reaching 98% of all primary schools in England by 2012 when the £40 million funding from the government ended. It continues to run as an independent organisation funded through school memberships, with 60% of schools continuing to be part of the programme.[i] The continuation of the Wider Opportunities programme was one of the recommendations of the Music Education in England report.

In 2011, Darren Henley (then Managing Director of Classic FM, now Chief Executive of the Arts Council) undertook a review of music education and published the Music Education in England report, otherwise known as the Henley Review.[ii] The Secretary of State for Education at the time, Michael Gove, set out the parameters of the review, highlighting the Government’s recognition of music as ‘an enriching and valuable subject’ and reaffirming their commitment that ‘public funding should be used primarily to meet the Government priorities of every child having the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and to sing.’[iii] Despite these statements, the Henley Review highlighted threats and challenges to music education such as insecurity of funding, inequality of access and inappropriate accountability measures.

The National Plan for Music Education

The National Plan for Music Education (NPME) was born out of the Henley Review and was based on its recommendations. The main aim of the NPME, launched in 2012 and in place until 2020, was to address the ‘postcode lottery’ of music provision and ensure equal and available opportunities. The NPME introduced the concept of Music Education Hubs, which built on the existing local authority music services, and set out their core and extended roles to enable equality of opportunity and ensure consistency across the country. Music Education Hubs were designed to ‘augment and support music teaching in schools so that more children experience a combination of classroom teaching, instrumental and vocal tuition and input from professional musicians.’[iv]

The NPME set out core and extension roles for accountability and funding which led many Hubs to focus primarily on the core roles (CPD for school staff and support in delivering the curriculum were originally both extension roles, to be delivered ‘where possible’). The core role of providing opportunities for learning an instrument through whole-class ensemble teaching also created the potential for confusion about, and a deflection from, curriculum music.

Annual grant funding for Hubs from the DfE via Arts Council England is a provision within the NPME. The ‘refreshed’ NPME was due to be published in Autumn 2020 but has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No publication date has been announced although Hub funding for 2021/22 has been secured.

The Model Music Curriculum (MMC) was first announced by the Department for Education (DfE) and Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for Education, on 11 January 2019. The purpose of the new curriculum model was to ensure that all pupils were ‘able to enjoy high quality lessons…as well as ensuring all pupils can benefit from knowledge rich and diverse lessons.’ It was also hoped that the MMC would make it ‘easier for teachers to plan lessons and help reduce workload’.[v] The original publication date of summer 2019 was delayed in October 2019 as the ‘required quality’ had not been met.[vi] The MMC was finally published on 26 March 2021.

[ii] Department for Education and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2011) Music Education in England: a review by Darren Henley for the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport
[iii] ibid
[iv] Department for Education (2011) The importance of music: a national plan for music education
[v] Department for Education/The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP (2019) Government backs young musicians
[vi] Gibbons, A. (2019) Exclusive: DfE music curriculum delayed over ‘quality’, TES


Despite the largely negative landscape for music education that has arisen as a consequence of government policy, the publication of the MMC is an important contribution to the debate about the role of music education in schools, and in particular the role and nature of curriculum music for all students.

The specific purpose of curriculum music is often misunderstood, and the ISM is pleased that the MMC endeavours to spell it out, as well as making clear the essential links to instrumental learning/ensemble participation and the breadth of music making and sharing opportunities beyond the classroom that make music so important to a school’s overall health and wellbeing. This conception of music education, and the place of curriculum music within it, has been described at length in the ISM’s Providing a ‘broad and balanced’ music education in school: a clarification for school and strategic leaders, so it is gratifying to see the idea reinforced within the MMC.[i]

The MMC offers helpful evidence of the government’s stated desire to support music education and its importance in schools. There is clear intent in the MMC that music should be taught consistently and regularly across year groups from Year 1 to Year 9. Specifically, the very clear statement that curriculum music should be a regular part of every student’s learning across all year groups in KS3, and that this should not be diminished by ‘carousel’ systems of timetabling is very welcome. Since 2018,[ii] the ISM has repeatedly called for the Government to address the narrowing of the curriculum, so we are pleased to see that the MMC includes recommendations for minimum weekly music lessons. The ISM also welcomes the very clear message that curriculum music for all is a distinct but hugely important strand within a school’s overall music education provision. The only way to ensure access for all pupils and levelling up of opportunities is through classroom music.

The MMC is a non-statutory, or optional, document. This is positive as it avoids prescription and will enable good teachers to continue their own development of high-quality musical provision. It provides the opportunity for teachers to reflect on their current music curriculum within the context of their own particular setting, taking into consideration culture, time and place. Ofsted have also clarified that schools will not be required to show that they have ‘adopted’ the MMC although they do expect to see a music curriculum which is ‘ambitious, well-sequenced, implemented well, and which leads to good musical outcomes for all pupils’.[iii] The MMC also states that it offers ‘guidance and ideas for teachers and provides a springboard from which to approach teaching’. It offers a model, but this is only one way of delivering the statutory requirements of the NC and the expectations of the NPME, so teachers can use it if they wish, but better still they can, with the help of expert Continuous Professional Development (CPD), critique it, share their thinking with colleagues and external partners, and use it to enhance their own, existing provision.

The ISM also welcomes the expectation within the MMC that ‘supporting resources and opportunities for CPD will be created by numerous partners, both at a local level amongst school cluster groups, Music Education Hubs and also by national partners across the music education sector’. The ISM has always provided high quality professional support for music teachers and will continue to do so.

The implications for non-specialist teachers and ISM members

Based in sound

The ISM welcomes the apparent intention for music lessons to be based in sound, with integrated practical activities driving the learning, and the breadth of listening examples across time: Western Classical, Popular and Traditional forms of music define a good set of categories from which specific examples can be drawn. We are also pleased to see singing as a strong feature throughout each Key Stage, though we would have welcomed a similar focus on and suggestions for music technology. The principle of ensuring progression in the planned learning across individual years and across complete Key Stages is also a positive aspect of the MMC. Curriculum music is about learning, not just activity, and it is absolutely right that students’ musical learning should be clearly articulated.

Nevertheless, the ISM is disappointed that the detailed content of the MMC fails to provide appropriate guidance for non-specialist teachers. We presume that a significant function of the MMC was to offer non-specialist teachers additional support, given the relatively limited content of the statutory NC.

Previous equivalent government-backed publications (such as the QCA documentation published in 2000) offered not only a complete curriculum framework but also full sets of teaching ideas and resources for each year group.[i] Many Music Education Hubs have in recent times provided the same level of guidance, and commercially available packages do likewise. The decision not to offer similar in-depth support for each year group means that the MMC will leave non-specialists without the resources needed to give them the confidence that they can deliver this curriculum in the classroom. Even with the expectation that external partners will provide additional support, the reality of the sector and the policy impacts previously outlined means that many non-specialists will struggle to turn the MMC into a living, vibrant reality in the classroom.

A lack of detailed focus and purpose

The areas of learning defining the structure of the curriculum lack detailed focus and purpose, which again is a pre-requisite if non-specialists are to be given the understanding they need to supplement the curriculum with their own ideas. For example, it is unclear whether the listening area is a simple activity (ie, ‘listen to these pieces’) or an aspect of learning through which, for instance, a rigorous understanding of musical elements/dimensions can be secured. Equally unclear, the composing area has a mix of ideas which primarily seem to support understanding of formal structures and traditional notation, with clarity on creative learning that supports an awareness of ‘how music works’ largely missing.

The detailed descriptions of the key learning areas are inconsistent across time, which for non-specialists will generate confusion and mean that they will struggle to see how to build on prior learning. For instance, performing shifts from ‘musicianship’ to a mix of ‘instrumental performance’ and ‘reading notation’, with the ‘instrumental performance’ aspect itself containing at least two strands which do not appear across each of the year group statements.

There is no explicit explanation of overarching musical understanding. This has been at the heart of nearly all earlier national developments for curriculum music[ii]
and is actually the easiest aspect for non-specialists to grasp, giving as it does a simple, clear foundation of learning on which to build. This is partly why it was referenced so clearly by the last Ofsted triennial report[iii] and why the ISM recommends that music teachers should seriously consider this as part of their ‘curriculum intent’.

Progression in musical learning as described by the MMC lacks consistent rigour. This again makes it hard for non-specialists who will ask ‘What is the essential learning for my class? How does it build on prior learning? Where will it take them next year?’. For instance, the Year 4 table of notation suggests the introduction of symbols for crescendo and decrescendo, but the Year 2 text already suggests ‘responding to visual symbols (eg crescendo, decrescendo)’. High/low is included as an element of pitch for secondary work, yet this has already been introduced in Year 3. The statements for composing in response to a range of stimuli are essentially the same for both Year 2 and Year 3, while there is nothing about this at all in Year 4 or Year 6. The reference to using ‘percussion and percussive sounds’ in Year 8 for this strand do not seem to recognise that it has already appeared in Year 1 (under ‘musicianship’ it says ‘explore percussion sounds to enhance story-telling’).


Using the MMC

The ISM suggests its members (who will usually be music education specialists) might still use the MMC to help review and critique their own, existing music curriculum which will no doubt have been developed over time in order to reflect a school-wide consensus on the values, purpose and functions of classroom music within the total curriculum provision of the school.

An important professional attribute is the ability to constantly question, review and enhance existing practice. Given the current Ofsted focus on curriculum intent, implementation and impact, and the return to more normal teaching after a year of online provision during the pandemic, the MMC could become part of an important ‘stock-take’. Teachers might, therefore, ask a series of questions using the MMC as a prompt to gauge whether it offers new ideas that could enhance previous and future curriculum music provision.

Examples of such questions might be:

  • What key areas of learning do you currently use to frame your own curriculum around? Do the areas suggested by the MMC (defined as singing, composing, performing and listening) offer a different perspective on key learning that you might want to explore further?
  • Do you emphasise in your own music curriculum any additional areas of learning that are not included in the MMC (ie, overarching musical understanding)? Do you remain confident that these are justified within your own context?
  • What strands do you currently focus on within the key areas of learning (ie, improvising within composing)? Are there any consistent strands in the MMC that, on reflection, you think you might want to explore further in your own curriculum?
  • How do you define your expectations of progression in learning, and how do these compare with those described in the MMC - in particular with reference to continuity of learning across year groups and Key Stages? Does the MMC raise any questions about progression for learning within your existing curriculum, and how might you go about exploring potential developments?
  • What is your existing approach to creativity in the music curriculum (especially for any learning developed through composing activities), and does the MMC offer any new ideas over and above these?
  • Does your curriculum ensure that a good breadth of both new and existing music is used to stimulate learning; and is it clear how specific pieces can be used in different ways to develop different learning? Are there any aspects of the listening lists in the MMC that you might wish to explore?
  • How will you engage with your local Music Education Hub or other providers to promote again the case for curriculum music in school, to engage with CPD in specific areas that you feel are important, and to ensure that the links between curriculum music and other aspects of music education (especially in the areas of instrumental learning and other musical events/opportunities) become a reality for all students?

How the ISM will support you

The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) is the UK's professional body for musicians and a nationally recognised subject association for music.

Since 1882, we have been dedicated to promoting the importance of music and protecting the rights of those working in the music profession. We support almost 11,000 members with our unrivalled legal advice and representation, comprehensive insurance and specialist services.

We campaign tirelessly in support of musicians' rights, music education and the profession as a whole. We are a financially independent not-for-profit organisation with no political affiliation. This independence allows us the freedom to campaign on any issue affecting musicians.

The ISM Trust, our sister charity, offers a range of resources for educators to help you develop your curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. We shall continue to use and promote these through the full range of our support packages, incorporating reflections on the MMC where appropriate.