These books are in my opinion one of the main reasons why music education in primary schools is generally poor. I bet if you are a British primary music teacher you may have seen one and more likely have seen them in your school. I am not going to demonise them completely, there are some really good bits and some that I use in my own teaching. The “Hey Mr. Noah” in Book 3 is a good resource, really good fun and helps to teach different rhythms. Many of the songs are good, using time tested material in the A & C Black repertoire which Music Express is part of. But the reason the series was made was so that primary teachers with no knowledge of music could teach the National Curriculum for Music at Key Stages 1 and 2 with no need to learn anything about musical notation and very little requirement to play musical instruments. I can understand that for pragmatic reasons there was a need for this as the provision of instruments in British schools is pretty dire. But counter-productively it let headteachers off the hook. Why would they need to put any money into music when you can deliver the curriculum with these six books? The consequence is that children can get through the first 6 years of their musical education without need to learn a single melody on an instrument. And that is what happened and why we are in such a mess now.
I am normally an advocate for good quality textbooks in primary schools so I do feel a bit of a hypocrite to write off the one textbook series that is well used in a primary school. Textbook use in British schools is some of the lowest in the developed world. In my opinion, the success of “Music Express” is due to the low expectations of music on both the teachers and the children. They have been successful because they promote a dumbed-down curriculum. I have looked through a whole host of other textbooks and they are all pretty poor. LCP seems rushed and poorly crafted. I still see Silver Burdett resources in music classrooms and they have been updated and bought by Pearson but I don’t have experience of the new incarnation. The best primary music text-book series I have found is an American book called “Gameplan” which delivers an Orff curriculum from Grades K-6. The reason that it is better is because the standards expected are higher. However, you really need to be a qualified Orff teacher to deliver it and have your room set up a bit like my friend’s.
So what is the answer? The catch-all is to say “more training” for staff and I sort of agree but the problem is not how much, or even the quality of the training but the content in the training. Sadly, there is a widespread pedagogy amongst music teachers that results in a two-tier music education. There is the traditional route for the elite (read people who can afford instrumental lessons for their children) and a progressive route for the rest (read people who cannot afford instrumental lessons for their children). Because of this, most of the music training offered is progressive and does very little to actually teach young children music but to entertain them. I think the answer is to actually change the curriculum itself to something more rigorous. I will delve into this in a later post but for now will leave you with an alternative curriculum that does do this – the curriculum used in Alberta, Canada.