Social Justice in Music Education


Until this week I’d never entered London University’s Senate House, an unmissable landmark in Bloomsbury. Its lofty halls, marble floors and sober wood panelling put me in mind of Sarastro's Palace in The Magic Flute. Probably a good venue in which to reflect on the subject of Justice, as I was appropriately headed towards a debate and launch for the Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education.

I should make it clear that I haven’t yet read or even acquired this 736-page publication, which costs £95. That being so, I gained only a foggy understanding of the academic area being covered by the opening speeches in the debate; however, more understandable ideas surfaced later. John Sloboda pointed out that the desirable-sounding combination of music and social justice in education seems to start out from one or other of these positions, but not both at once. Many teaching programmes invented to take music into schools are presented (sincerely in many cases) under the banner of social justice and wider access, but their core mission is on behalf of music, and then only certain kinds of music. Even El Sistema, it was suggested, was originally a music teaching programme which didn’t essentially change once it was taken up as social policy. Whereas, as Martin Fautley argued, social justice should be much more to the forefront when we decide how to grade the work students submit in schools for public exams, where an evaluation system borrowed from, and geared to, classical western music is the accepted norm. The students may well be used to working in very different musical traditions, and that expertise should be given its due. Extrapolating from this discussion, the nub of the new handbook’s argument may be that when music in the curriculum is recommended on the grounds of inclusivity, some kinds of music and musical activity are nevertheless preferred over others, which limits what good effects music might have in wider society.

Floating around the outskirts of the meeting were teachers’ up-to-the-minute concerns, many of which centred on Quality Assessment (now there’s a neologism to dislike.) A teacher revealed his QA to-do-list, already remarkably lengthy in January. And we heard of a school where it’s proposed that every pupil will be followed up by a weekly A5 size report in every subject; somebody teaching KS3 Music classes full-time is facing the possibilty of being asked for 500 of these per week. As often with gatherings of teachers, the meeting ended in a darkly humorous mood, with so much to be rightly aghast about (!)

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

© Judith Weir, 2020