Why We Need A ‘Thinking First’, Not A ‘Content First’ Curriculum Design Model

Cast your mind back to your first term as a music teacher. Some of us were lucky enough to have the guiding hand of a more experienced practitioner or head of department. Others were more isolated in one person departments. Either way, when starting out we are likely to have sought the safety net of using someone else’s lesson plans, teaching slides or curriculum content that had been previously thought about or tried. With so much already to worry about when you’re standing in front of a class of young people for the first time, getting a leg up on the lesson content is really helpful. Now cast your mind back to the time you taught the first lesson that YOU fully created, resourced and delivered (influenced by previous learning of course). Whether it was a success, a disaster or somewhere in between, you will have learnt so much more about yourself and your craft than if you’d stayed in that safe space of delivering someone else’s content and thinking. And if you were given or had the tools to reflect on what happened, that development of craft would have been further accelerated. This is why I think the model music curriculum and any prescriptive ‘content first’ curriculum is wrong- headed, disempowering and rooted in a deficit view of teacher development. We need mechanisms for growth, collaborative spaces for reflection and clear processes for re-drafting. We need a ‘thinking first’ approach to curriculum design. 

There have been a few definitive turning points in my career so far, and the first came as an NQT when my head of department said to me at the start of my second term of teaching, “don’t feel pressured to follow or teach directly from my slides. Don’t be afraid to come up with your own interpretation or try a new idea”. A simple but liberating statement that filled me with both fear and a sense of possibility. 

The pre-set content I’d had shared with me to deliver previously was fantastic, thoughtful and helpful, but when you are delivering someone else’s work, ideas and thinking, you have not done the thinking for yourself, and this detracts from your sense of achievement, empowerment and most importantly, your development as both a teacher and curriculum maker. My head of department recognised this and saw an opportunity for me to develop here, knowing that there was no magic bullet to speed my development along, but believing in my ability to learn, grow and think for myself, as well as build on what was already in place. 

That term I had triumphs and disasters, made break throughs and hit brick walls. This still continues in different ways today. I began a journey developing my craft, both as a teacher and curriculum maker, that has led me to where I am now, and will never stop. I was empowered, trusted and supported to explore, to think, to take risks, and there were processes and mechanisms for reflection and learning to make sure that my journey of growth was continuous. This is what every teacher deserves, and this is the kind of culture I think we should be striving to create for everyone in our profession. Models, frameworks and networks for developing our thinking, our craft and our curricula are the models we need to be creating in any national approach to improving music education. Because if there’s one thing that unites every successful music department in this country, it’s not the similarities in their content but the similarities in their mechanisms for thinking about and developing their curricula and the team around it.  

The Model Music Curriculum supports a content first approach. A content first curriculum provides a sticking plaster. It is a temporary safety net. It is a quick fix. It is a reference point. It is a passive document. It does not develop teachers and teaching. A thinking first curriculum asks teachers to be active curriculum makers and redrafters. A thinking first curriculum puts music teachers in the driving seat, holds them to account for their choices, forces them to get underneath the detail and own what they deliver. A thinking first curriculum is slow, testing, even painful at times. It is thrilling, exciting and empowering. And it acknowledges that a curriculum is never EVER complete. That it is more than a list of content, knowledge or skills, no matter how beautifully sequenced. That it must bend and respond when something stops working or a better way is revealed. A thinking first curriculum enables a rich, authentic and purposeful curriculum to thrive, driven by values, practices and context. Not one single curriculum for the whole nation, but tailored curricula, crafted by teachers, that work flexibly within and with their community. Not by dumbing down or bending to students’ whims, but by acknowledging, utilising and recognising the different ways a curriculum can be designed, developed and deepened. 

We are privileged as school music educators to be able to not only teach, but make curriculum. It’s scary and it’s hard, but every single one of us can develop in this with the right processes to inspire a thinking first curriculum.

Key investments for a rich music curriculum: Time, Culture Building & People Development

(Speaking to music educators, hub leaders, external organisations, lecturers & music Ed researchers at a Westminster Education Forum on Music Education- Oct 2019)


Everyone in this room knows that a rich, well designed and effectively implemented music curriculum makes a school, its surrounding community and our society better. But, there are things getting in the way that we are all too acutely aware of: Funding cuts, a narrowing curriculum and the increased outsourcing of school curriculum delivery and curriculum design to non—school based organisations and controversial panels.  These and other contributing factors, no matter how well-intentioned or seemingly necessary, can be divisive when poorly managed, isolating a music teaching community who feel undervalued, disempowered and unsupported. The subject, and its teachers deserve better. 


Navigating this complex terrain requires in-school investment that goes beyond money. More important is the investment in people and process.  At School21, a 4-18 state funded, free school in East London, being a deliberately developmental organisation is a core aim and this has created the enabling conditions for our rich and ever-improving music curriculum, spanning from the age of 4 all the way up to A Level music. This type of culture relies on three specific investments linked to people and process; the investment in time, the investment in culture building and the investment in people development. 


Number 1: Investment in time 

Investment in time starts with school leaders, who must address the deficit in Arts education created by timetabling decisions. Time carved out for music curriculums is inconsistent nationally and in some schools, woefully depleting. Carousel structures for the Arts and two year KS3 curriculums are unacceptable, for a rich curriculum cannot meaningfully grow or fulfil its potential for all young people in these conditions. But there is more to time investment in schools than simply this. School music curriculums, at their best, live beyond the classroom and permeate the wider school and local community, through concerts, informal practicing, extra-curricular clubs, community music groups, etc. This is one of many reasons why in-house music teachers must be in control of their curriculums, since to facilitate this, further time and space needs to be negotiated within schools. Head teachers need to be open to this negotiation and music teachers assertive and thoughtful about the balance between me and my music department and us and our school when in dialogue. When we get this balance right, the possibilities for the curriculum and the school grow. This is not easy in our current climate; the battle headed one person music department and the overloaded, incessantly scrutinised headteacher dynamic can be challenging to navigate, but investing time in this relationship makes all the difference. 

An example: My first term ambition for School21 back in 2014 was to set up a culture for concerts that demanded and celebrated the involvement and achievements of every child, and reflected the process and products of the curriculum, rather than just extra curricular groups. That means concert programmes involving 700 or more students. But excellence and accountability can be the expectation for all when a rigorous curriculum inspires it, and can serve a wider role in strengthening and uniting the community. It also holds music teachers to account, for our curriculum outcomes are laid bare at the end of each term- empowering when the culture of feedback and development is right. To do what could easily be perceived as too disruptive, too risky and too much hassle, I needed backing. This meant getting in a room with the headteacher and other leaders to explain what was needed and how it would work; negotiating time off timetable sensitively to other agendas so we could bring whole year groups together and be as effectively prepared and as ambitious and authentic as possible for our projects and their outcomes. This first concert was about setting the tone for how music could and would sustainably grow from the curriculum and weave into the culture and fabric of the school. It was also the hardest to bring to its feet and the navigation and negotiation to make it work every year is ongoing. But, this year marks the 6th annual programme of concerts featuring all students, with over 50 curriculum projects shared so far. It is a cultural norm that will exist well beyond me because time was and continues to be invested and carefully used. 

But it’s not just delivery time that a music curriculum needs. It also needs time to develop, grow and evolve. This means creating time for thinking hard; for crafting and re-drafting. It means being long-termist in strategy (head of music and head of school), because you cannot put an effective, sustainable (music) curriculum model together in a matter of months, no matter how much knowledge you have.  We are ten years ahead of Gibb’s music curriculum panel in our process to a rich curriculum, and it is still ongoing, as it should be. Create frameworks and networks for teachers to think and share, not one size fits all models that take this ownership away. 


Time to think hard also reveals the values on which your curriculum is based, enabling one to have clarity and integrity around intent and subsequently the actual mechanisms for success and sustainability within the given context. Rich curriculums demand long term investment of time, so we must find it for our workforce. 


Number 2:  Investment in culture building

In order for curriculums to exist beyond the contact and context of lessons we (music teachers) should be delivering our curriculums for and with our students, our parents and our teachers and living out the big ideas of our curriculums through these communities. One of our five big ideas is ensemble, a way of doing, being in and learning about music that you will see in almost any music lesson at School21. We take this practice beyond the classroom, and into our community choir, open to all parents, staff and children; our staff choir; our parent and peri led extra-curricular ensembles; our staff bands, meaning there are advocates for music everywhere. Music, therefore, becomes one of the ways we build a community culture at School21. Investing in the culture building potential of music and the Arts more widely makes schools happier and more dynamic places to be, and from a point of self interest, makes for better musicians. 


Number 3: Investment in people development

It is clear there are no simple fixes to get to a rich music curriculum. Just as we cannot solve the recruitment or retention crisis with a flashy advert or passive political gestures, we cannot make music better across the UK unless we face up to what’s really going on on the ground. This means moving away from models (products), and towards people (process). 

Regular, thoughtful and tailored CPD (continuing professional development), I believe, is key to this. This is what keeps teachers learning and hungry to go deeper into pedagogy. Teachers who are talking about teaching and learning from each other will be better teachers and leaders. This sounds obvious, but how deliberate are we really being to ensure CPD is not only continuing but continual

The feedback culture in a school is central to this. Teachers need support and challenge in careful balance. They need to know how to give and receive feedback for growth. This has to be modelled and practised from the top and go right through the organisation. Typical CPD is a ring-fenced hour or two of most schools’ weeks, but it’s actually everywhere when there’s a mechanism to give and receive feedback for it. Assemblies, concerts, meetings, learning walks, team- teaching, the staff room, etc are all CPD opportunities for both deliverer and observer/participants. A cultural norm of this builds a culture of feedback for growth, which builds empowered teams, which builds a culture of informed risk taking, which builds more ambitious, rigorous curriculums, which builds a better education for children. 

Investing in people also extends, particularly in the case of music, to the collaborative relationships with peripatetic music teachers, hubs, feeder primaries and other organisations. But how much time are we putting into the process of working together? To establishing our roles? Our challenges? Our needs and offers? We all want music education to be better, but are we talking about process as well as vision? Are we contracting and re-contracting as the partnership develops? When this happens, partnerships within and between schools, hubs and other organisations thrive, and rich curriculums emerge. 

A micro example: We recently took our peripatetic teachers (who work with us in curriculum lessons as well as privately) on a music team retreat over a weekend. It was, amongst other things, ring-fenced CPD for us all. We shared and reviewed the language of our school culture and curriculum and went through a very deliberate feedback process on one of the large scale projects of our middle school phase- the band project. This was also a form of re-contracting with our team, establishing how we want to work together to move the project on in the ever changing context of school. The act of taking our team away, being open about our challenges, using structures for talk and feedback were all deliberate investments in people development through process. When you invest in people, they invest in the school. 


To conclude…

When we look at these key investments for the design and delivery of rich music curriculums, it’s clear that music teachers must be at the centre of this process and the focus of our investment.  It is on the ground where the political landscape, agendas and context of a school are acutely understood and can therefore be negotiated and navigated to allow music curriculums to develop, thrive and live sustainably.  If we invest in solutions that are deliberate on process and people rather than simply content and one-size-fits-all models, we will see emerge an empowered community of music teachers, working collaboratively to make music the beating heart of every school.    

Leading from Values

Our values are what we, at our most human level, deem to be important; to be worth something and to be meaningful to the way we exist. Our decisions, priorities, ways of doing and of being are dictated, consciously or not, by these values. They are what we always return to as we navigate life and without them, or even actively acknowledging them, it would be hard to make sense of any decision we make or an action we might commit to. Our values hold us to account and ensure we act with integrity.

Knowing our values is not only important for us as individuals, but is absolutely integral to the cohesion, legacy and empowerment of any team or organisation, particularly one as complex as a school. Schools have an enormous challenge (and opportunity); working with diverse communities of teachers, students and parents and working through (or trying to ignore) the incessant white noise of government officials, league table shaming, Ofsted flavours of the month, prog/trad twitter wars and the expert opinions of almost every person who went to school. But, at every level of the school organisation, if the vision and values are clear, then whatever challenges and opportunities arise, there is a shared framework in which to respond, a shared understanding around decisions made and empowerment of a whole community to act in service of these values. This can only lead to a stronger culture, and a school that can truly live by these values with integrity. Without this, the perceived rationale for school decisions by anyone we actually work with (students, staff or parents) comes down to second guesses, paving the way for way for confusion, frustration and discontent.

When a student, teacher or parent comes to any of us and asks, ‘Why are we doing this?” our answer should reflect our shared values, whatever level of the organisation we are. Our reasoning should never be blind compliance or something we do because our ‘hands are tied’. We should all be equally responsible for the actions of our school (and challenging them), and to do that, we need to know its values, if and how we share them, and act with them at the heart of what we do. If we hold everyone to account on these values, and they are well chosen, the opportunities for everyone to take more risks and be more autonomous in what actually matters should only increase. Without knowledge of this framework it is impossible to fully operate as one.

Once clear on values, it is essential to follow through in actions.

I don’t run a school, (though I’d like to one day…maybe…) so no one need listen to my opinion on this, but I am passionate about leading and collaborating from explicitly shared values and I’ve attempted, in my role leading music at an all-through school in East London, to frame the 4-18 music curriculum around some core values. I have had an opportunity this year to work with an entirely new music team, and set about working on the legacy, empowerment and cohesion of both the music culture and the music team through this means. For any of this to happen, I felt it was necessary to pull together all my experiences, ways of doing and being within the past four years of this particular role, in a coherent, dare I say it, codifiable way. For me it was about getting to my values, sharing them tangibly, encouraging and securing buy-in (this is important), and ultimately empowering others to up-hold and be accountable to those values, moving forward.

Here are a four of my takeaways from the journey this year:


  1. Values (school, team, self) are reflected in what you actually do, not what you say you want to do, or claim to care about.


I worked out some core values for the music curriculum by looking at what I have prioritised in action, within it and beyond, what I’ve said no to, what I’ve seen through even when I didn’t feel supported, and what I’ve been non-negotiable about fighting for over the past four years. The specifics of this are for another time, but I found reflecting on this very helpful.


  1. For teachers, core values linked to the way we do things must be broad enough to offer autonomy and creative development, whilst being tangible enough to create a shared understanding of the bigger picture. This should also be true for students and parents, though the way they empower these groups might be different.


Once we had established our core values as a department this year, and mapped the over-arching skills and knowledge content that fed into those values across a 4-18 journey (see image below); deeper, higher risk, and more individual/passion led curriculum planning has taken place, whilst at all times being unified and informed by the values we all share for a rich music education. Our core values offer safety, structure and understanding and they are something for which we are always held to account. One member of the music team was passionate about designing a primary curriculum this year (ages 4-9 at this school) through blending Kodaly and Orff techniques. What a totally brilliant idea for this part of the 4-18 journey, that has been planned entirely with our core values in mind, but crafted with total freedom by the individual. Another of the team is passionate about looking at how music could deepen the curriculum for SEN students across the 4-18 structure; fascinating and rich, and at the same time informed by our core values and absolutely nothing to do with all that white noise. Where values are shared and aligned, driving education forward and taking risks with individual ideas does not need to be at odds with consistency and structure in any part of a school. Surely this is what we all want for education?


  1. Values must be understood, shared and lived by the whole community they affect. Transparency is key.


My first ‘community’ priority for achieving this, given that these particular values would link to the curriculum, was the teaching team around me, which currently consists of two other music teachers and twelve instrumental teachers. I presented my journey to values at a number of stages this year, and together we sifted through a number that could have been true, and asked challenging questions about what we were actually living by in our actions. What were we doing right now as a new team that reflected all that had happened before? At this point, there was collective buy-in to the values that remained, and now we could operate with more cohesion and clarity moving forward. We are now living by our values. If you want a great school example of values lived out by its whole community, check out Surrey Square Primary School, in Southwark.


  1. The values of an individual, team or department can only really be part of legacy if they chime with the overarching values at the top of an organisation.


It’s exhausting and demoralising when you feel on your own in an endeavour, or that you don’t really know if what you are doing is what the school wants or needs. This is why it is so important to know explicitly what your leader’s values are, and how the actions of the school align with this. Then you know what you can expect in terms of actions, and when to challenge actions at odds with those values. I expect anyone in the music team to challenge me on decisions based on our shared understanding of our values, and they expect the same of me. At the top of an organisation, if you went through this process and ultimately, you were entirely conflicted by these values, then there are three further questions you could reflect on as a member of the team or organisation.

  1. Can I try to move that leader’s stance on their values or influence actions that are more in line with my own values?
  2. Can I adapt my actions and the stance of my own values to align myself with the leadserhip?
  3. Do I leave that team and seek an opportunity where I can act by a leaderships’ values and indeed my own, with integrity?

If a leader tells you they share your values, but the actions of the school to do not match it, then challenge them on it and seek the change you want to see. Solutions can be found. I work in an environment where there are values linked to music education that are shared by leadership, and so I am empowered to take risks, and explore the music curriculum as far as I possibly can. That doesn’t mean that there is 100% alignment, but there is a mutual clarity of values that enables a productive, solution focussed conversation to happen in this area. If I believed I was hitting an iron wall because our values entirely conflicted, I would leave, because I want to be able to act from my values. In other schools, music is being subjected to carousel structures, budget cuts, removal from GCSE options and teacher redundancy. Leaders can say their ‘hands are tied’, but these decisions, like all others, are ultimately down to core values held by the leadership within that organisation, and it is important that we are all just clear on that. Not every school in the country has cut music in the way others have, so, like all difficult decisions, we need honesty and integrity about why, not simply a blaming of the system in which we work. Anyone feeling in a position like this (not just in music) needs to understand the values coming from above, seek to find solutions, and failing all efforts to make it work, consider looking elsewhere, because there are lots of schools who you will be aligned with, and who will lap up what you can offer.

Ultimately, the strength of our schools relies on having clear values, that are understood in whatever aspect of school life they are designed for, and whether we are headteachers, classroom practitioners, SLT or department leads, it is from clear values that we must lead.

This is what the core values of music at School21 currently look like. They are both practice and principle based values. They are at the centre of how we talk, think and make decisions about music across the entire community in which we work.


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Why do we persist with inauthentic structures in schools?

In what real-world setting does any community of people work strictly and/or most successfully in single-year age categories or abilities?

As a music teacher, I get to experience working with students across different year groups in a united setting every day, although rarely in curriculum time. One of the best things about music ensembles that run after the timetabled school day is the opportunity they provide to build diverse teams, observe commitment in a non-compulsory setting, and support progress for all, despite, or in fact more successfully, because of the age range of its participants. Look at any year group or class in isolation in a typical school. We know we are already presented with a diverse range of starting points/expertise for any given subject/skill when we teach (even if they are in ‘streamlined’ sets), and know that it doesn’t have to get in the way of great learning for all. In fact, many of us believe that it can make for a better learning experience overall. So, why do we constrict our students on a daily basis to experiences shared only, for example, by their fellow thirteen year olds? What could be gained from a different set-up?

In the school choir (enjoy a recent rehearsal recording here: Steal Away- choir), roughly thirty students gather every Tuesday between 3.30-5pm. Within this ensemble are the original stake holders, the Y7s, now Y9s, whose skills and passion, acquired over their three year commitment, inspire and model what expertise looks like in that context to its younger stake holders, who hear and see what progress and success looks like beyond their years because its standing right beside them. They all continue to attend and get better, the more experienced not at all stunted by their less experienced team members, since the choir director attends to all needs in the same way any good teacher would in a single age context. With each rehearsal and performance, their progress and the identities of all are affirmed by their own ears, their appreciative audiences, their own reflections, the collaborative opportunities that arise to learn with other choirs and in new settings, and the summoning of new members into their continuing journey. Anyone can opt in to (or out of) this experience. So what would it look like if the whole school day was set up like this? Imagine a diverse menu of projects, ensembles, opportunities on offer in a huge melting pot to all students, demanding total commitment from its participants, and offering the chance to work authentically and meaningfully, with true responsibility and accountability for one’s learning. Does anyone else think this could be amazing? Let me share another case:

The Wiz

On March 3rd 2017, I came to the end of a six-month project at School21, a 4-18 school in Stratford, East London. It was a musical, The Wiz; a production originally created to celebrate African-American musicians and actors during the seventies. This would be the seventh production of my teaching career. As the lights went down to signal the start of our closing night performance, I sat at the piano, about to cue the Overture for the final time, and took a moment to take in everyone around me. Directly ahead sat an ensemble of fifteen staff and older students who had dedicated weekly Friday rehearsals over many months to form an incredible band that would play the professional music and accompany the cast. Within it, the focused wind section, comprising an English teacher and a London based music teacher volunteer. Next, the bold brass section; the school trombone teacher and his apprentice from a London music College, a maths teacher and a Y11 GCSE student. Then the dexterous rhythm section; teachers from the Spanish, history and English team, and finally, the skilled strings consisting of another maths teacher, a music teacher and a staff member’s sibling.

I looked to the back left of the room to see two Y9s, Oliver and Dodger, from last year’s Musical, in charge of the seventy-plus lighting cues that would unfold at specific points during the show, now having moved their expertise into a new realm, and following in the footsteps of student technicians trained up in previous years. To their left, one of my former students from my first school in Hackney, once a timid twelve year old, now nineteen and preparing for University, was manning the sound desk that would keep the band and cast in balance at all times, himself having played lead roles in shows we did as he grew up. He’d never worked a sound desk before this show, but seven years of immersion in the field of music and performance and observing professionals in this role as a youngster, gave him the adaptability and tools to master the skills quickly. Across the back row of the audience, three more of my former music students, returning from University for the weekend, watched with encouraging and supportive eyes, knowing what it was like to have been through such an experience at our old school and wanting to come to a new school to celebrate and support the next community of young performers coming through. I am sure that the words they said to our students after the show will have inspired and motivated them in a powerful way.

Teachers, students and parents formed the packed and electric audience, a few still trying to read, in darkness, the beautiful and insightful programme put together by all Y9 students as part of a Motown project inspired by the musical itself. Expertise from the digital media staff member showed the students that they could produce a programme that would not look out of place in any West End Theatre.(See programme here)

All audience members had a stake in this performance in some form, whether they were a friend of the cast, a doting parent who had sat going over their child’s lines with them at home, a teacher looking forward to seeing a challenging Y8 in a new light, or simply a curious member of our community. The second to last face I noticed was my head teacher. I wondered what he made of the community of learners his school vision had allowed us to create, and whether he was proud of it. The last, of course, was the director, my partner in crime on this incredible journey, who gave me the nod for the final time, uttering in silence the words, “let’s do this”.

Not yet visible to the eye, but behind the scenes, I could picture the backstage crew, a large team of dedicated students and staff making final touches to make up, securing costumes and mics, setting and checking props, applying all the knowledge and expertise that had been conjured from a six month journey for the final show. Y10 stage manager, Anna, would be giving assertive instructions to her apprentices to keep them focused on the job at hand. They want to be like her, as they get older. And finally, the forty-five strong cast came to the forefront of my mind. In September, these students, aged between 11-15, chose to make a commitment to this production. They rehearsed for hours each week, collaboratively and privately, mastering complex harmony parts, choreographing dance routines, exploring the intricacies of their characters through a rich text and challenging songs, receiving, forgetting, receiving again and finally executing relentless director’s notes. They, we, had worked through high points, low points, tensions, celebrations, tears, anger, frustration, exhilaration, sweat, boredom, joy, doubt, laughter. Today, on March 3rd, the journey was almost over, and the composite of all those experiences, and emotions was laid bare and celebrated through this final, authentic and professionally executed performance.

It was special for so many reasons, not least because it brought the house down! But really, what made it truly meaningful was the community effort, the collaboration and the sense that we were one large group, one family of learners (if that’s not too twee), striving towards a common goal. The learning, the journey, the outcome was all the more powerful because the sharing and gaining of expertise and experience was not confined to a single year group, subject, class or teacher. Students were able to see and work with teachers, not only as subject specialists, but as fellow musicians, performers, collaborators, cheer leaders, experts with multiple interests and crafts, and importantly, humans! Mutual respect was a given. Students in Y7 formed friendships and new aspirations directly as a result of their collaboration with older students. The older students, amongst other things, became leaders, idols, role models. And the learning? Well, isn’t it obvious? Of course, I can’t statistically show exactly what they have learnt and just how much progress they’ve made. I couldn’t begin to express everything that has just gone on as a grade, a number, or even a written comment. Nor could I/should I try and measure its success through a test. That just seems ludicrous and so obviously not needed. But, I know, and they know and everyone in that room knows, and eventually, everyone outside that room will know, as that ‘knowing’ filters out of these young people through the way they carry themselves, the way they communicate, interact and form relationships with their future friends, partners, employers and colleagues. The students themselves, their testimony, their very being, tells you all you need to know about their learning. I wonder how education could look and what we could achieve if we rid ourselves of the inauthentic structures and measures we confine ourselves to in most of school life, and did more things this way…