Music education: In conversation with Jimmy Rotheram

Jimmy Rotheram is a music teacher and education advocate shortlisted for the Global Teacher Prize. Here he speaks with Dr Craig Robertson, Nordoff Robbins Head of Research, about the current state of music education.

Jimmy Rotheram is the Senior Music Leader at Feversham Primary Academy in Bradford, and an education advocate shortlisted for the Global Teacher Prize. His commitment to a holistic approach to music education has made him one of the UK’s top thought leaders in the musical education of young children. Here, he speaks with Dr Craig Robertson, Nordoff Robbins Head of Research, about the current state of music education.


Craig: At Nordoff Robbins we believe it’s the right of all children, regardless of background, ability or disability, to be able to participate in accessible and high-quality music education. We’re very concerned about the crisis in music education, and the less people who take music in schools means the less people able to become skilled music therapists, who can then support those least able to access music’s help in the first place.

Clearly this is something you feel passionately about and have spoken on many times – can you tell us about tell us a bit about why you’re doing what you do?

Jimmy: At Feversham Primary Academy, our SATs results went from some of the worst in the country to in the top one or two percent, when we put music into the heart of the school – and we’ve been able to get away with putting so much into music because our academic results were really good as a consequence. I think quite a lot of schools that have a big music department, a big performing arts department, will have good results, as an outcome of all the great things you’re doing in those lessons.

Craig: Can you tell us what drives you to keep going and to advocate for music education?

Jimmy: It’s the theory of what is possible that inspired me earlier on. When you see that put into practice and you see a really musical school where all the children are musical and children love doing music, and you see the wider benefits of all of that and you just think it’s absolutely barmy that not only is it not happening in schools, but also teachers aren’t given the knowledge and skills that they need to deliver it in primary schools.

I’ve seen that quite early on children are divided into musicians and non-musicians, for the few and not for the many. I think a lot of children are led to believe that if you’re not a concert musician it’s not worth bothering with, so I think a lot of children are missing out on the therapeutic, the social value of music. Music making is a really powerful thing for wellbeing isn’t it: it’s for their wellbeing, their academic development, confidence and self-esteem, their ability to socialise, all these things.

Craig: What are some of the key issues you think we’re currently facing in music education?

Jimmy: One of the big problems in music education is that you’re either a secondary trained music teacher or you’re a general primary teacher, so you either don’t have the musical confidence or you don’t have the knowledge of child development, things like that. So, I think you’ve got to be very sensitive about how you deal with mistakes and how you assess children and all these sorts of things.

And also, I think we have to consider the kind of music education that we’re teaching in schools. I think that a lot of people may have been put off music by the way it’s been taught, because they’ve been told they weren’t singing in tune, that they were making mistakes, or that it was only a hobby for them, or because of how music exams are graded.

So, you’ve got the issues in schools with the narrowing of the curriculum and all the stuff that’s going on there, but you’ve also got the issue we’ve always had with, you know, “oh you’re improvising, no that’s wrong, you’ve changed it,” you know, people getting told off for using a different chord progression in a Chopin tune, whereas a lot of music teachers would be like “wow, you did a different chord progression that’s amazing”.

So, I think music generally has become about, almost creative haves and have nots. And music is so much more than that.

Craig: So, in your experience have you had any challenges or people who are saying that no this is a terrible idea, you need to cut this, or you should be doing this instead?

Jimmy: I’ve read all the research, I’ve gotten very excited about it, and my headteacher said yes to everything that I wanted to do, and it’s great to be given free rein in school to do that. He’s very keen to develop the whole child as well – that’s the purpose of education, not just developing maths and English machines, but developing well-rounded, happy, mentally healthy, confident, articulate children.

I’d say the majority of headteachers who don’t have a good music programme in their schools would like to have one on any basis, but they feel they can’t because the system’s really stacked against them. Because it’s all about those maths and English results, and if they’re not up to scratch then you could lose your job. And also, quite a lot of headteachers possibly don’t make the connection between how having a good arts programme will improve your academic outcomes.

Craig: What approach do you think is needed to music making, to ensure music education doesn’t continue to decline in schools?

Jimmy: I think that whole-school approach is needed, otherwise there’s just this attitude of, well music’s just something extra that the kids do, it’s nothing that’s particularly important. It saddens me that music education has moved away from community, because at some point, music education became removed from people making and enjoying music together.

You need to empower children to know that music’s an easy and natural thing to do, and it’s just sad, it makes you really sad, when children aren’t getting that.

Jimmy Rotheram is speaking at the Nordoff Robbins Music Education and Prevention: Seminar Event on 13 January at Derby University. Find out more and book your free place here.