Bringing the teacher back in: Reconceptualising the school curriculum as jazz

In this piece Chris Carpenter subjects the nature of ‘curriculum’ to scrutiny. He argues that teachers have to find a compromise between two contradictory messages. On one hand they are told power is being devolved to schools and at the same time that fundamental aspects of education, such as the curriculum, will continue to be subjected to close control by central government. In order to do this he draws on the idea of classical music and Jazz as metaphors for contrasting ways to conceptualise the curriculum.


trumpet lying against a wallIn March last year head teachers in England called for an independent body to make decisions about the school curriculum. In response, Nicky Morgan said that what is to be taught has to be controlled by politicians. If this is the case then it follows that teachers are constructed in policy as being ‘doers’ or ‘deliverers’ of the curriculum rather than curriculum ‘makers’. One could be forgiven for wondering if politicians deserve another chance to get this right as since the 1988 Educational Reform Act central government has issued a number of versions of the national curriculum as well as instigating numerous revisions to testing arrangements. This is somewhat ironic in a time when Governments have consistently claimed that the key to effective education is the devolution of the power from the centre.

In the introduction to the Coalition Education White Paper in 2010 David Cameron and Nick Clegg stated that: “The second lesson of world class education systems is that they devolve as much power as possible to the front line, while retaining high levels of accountability.” Five years on the Coalition government has given way to a Conservative government but the idea of power moving away from central government is still prominent in educational policy messages. In May 2015 Nicky Morgan claimed that “I think the best people to run schools are the heads, the teachers and the governors.” So we can see that on the one hand Morgan is taking the position that politicians have to control the curriculum and at the same time she is advocating that schools should be autonomous.

The school curriculum and teachers

The curriculum is not a concept; it is a cultural construction or a way of organising educational ends that are deemed to be of value to people who have the capital to make such decisions.

In recent times the emergence of Academy chains, and Free schools, many of whom are sponsored by private sector organisations act as free-standing competitors completely detached from local authority oversight and planning (Ball 2013). In education much of the power resides with politicians and those who operate in the private sector which has had profound effects on the nature of teaching as a profession. According to Michael Apple  this is because in a marketplace three things have to happen: first, the process of ‘labour’ has to be intensified and made speedier and so ‘efficiency’ becomes very important. Second, in order to do this, control over much of the process is removed from the teachers themselves and they become positioned as curriculum deliverers rather than curriculum makers. Third, in order to create ever more efficient modes of production, complex skills and crafts need to be broken into less complex components and then standardised.

What is not necessarily required is a craft ideology forged through years of practice or the central element of critical pedagogy, namely criticality with a view to improvement. In effect much of what the teacher is required to do is given to them from a central source.

Of course, as external control is required it makes sense to take tight control of the curriculum and recently we have the government deciding which subjects can be studied for A level and which are to be dropped. In all this it is noticeable that pedagogy has all but disappeared from the policy discourse. In modern times when education has become increasingly subject to political intervention it can be argued that a good way to maintain control is to focus on the curriculum (Alexander 2004), or the ‘big script’, rather than on pedagogy which is more concerned with the values and methods of teaching.

So as things stand the curriculum is in effect ‘given’ to teachers and it is their job to find creative ways to ‘deliver’ a design imposed from the outside. This means that by implication teachers craft knowledge and a sense of commitment to a community are seen as less important. This vision of the curriculum being prescribed has other ramifications not least as it acts as a script which may not be the best in that context and also assumes a lack of ownership for the teachers.

Curriculum as classical music or jazz?

Classical music is a repertoire that is written down in musical notation which is presented in the form of a musical part or score. The score determines all the details of rhythm, pitch, and, where two or more musicians (whether singers or instrumentalists) are involved, how the various parts are to be coordinated.

If we use the idea of classical music as a metaphor for a particular curriculum form then the teachers are positioned as ‘performers’ of that curriculum and the effective performance is one where the teacher ‘reads’ and ‘enacts’ the curriculum script accurately. In this model the prevailing process is characterised by prediction and control and of course it follows that in such a curriculum model the ideal ‘product’ can be predicted. Such an approach to education can be described as analogous to a technical or ‘engineering’ one. Of course that in no way denigrates the skill or artistry of the musicians in bringing about a great classical music performance.

By way of contrast jazz is a style of music, native to America, characterised by a strong but flexible rhythmic under structure which often forms the backdrop for musicians to solo and to carry out ensemble improvisations on the basic tunes and chord patterns. That is to say there are rules but the musicians are encouraged to improvise around a theme.

If we see the curriculum as jazz then we can see that there are guidelines given but that the teachers are encouraged to ‘own’ the processes and adapt the content, the presentation and the organisation as they see fit. In this way they can become curriculum ‘makers’ as well as curriculum ‘deliverers’.

Message for the policy makers

Because education is subject to such high levels of visible accountability through Ofsted inspections, the inspection criteria can become ‘the’ prime source of criteria which schools seek to meet. A consequence of this is that teachers quite naturally look ‘outward’ for affirmation. It has been proposed that as education is a public service then teachers predominant concern will be an inward looking one as the welfare of the learners will be their predominant concern (Carr and kemmis 1986).

In order to do this I am proposing that we need teachers who are able to improvise ‘within the rules’ in order to be in a genuine position to do the best for the children in their classes. My call to Nicky Morgan would be that we need a genuine decentralisation of power where teachers can make decisions free from ‘punishment’ and where the curriculum is presented and enacted in the manner of playing jazz. In this way teachers can become curriculum ‘makers’ as well as ‘doers’ of the curriculum.


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5 Responses to Bringing the teacher back in: Reconceptualising the school curriculum as jazz

  1. Vanessa Young Wednesday, 3 February 2016 at 17:36 #

    Good metaphor; great ambition.

    • Chris Carpenter
      Chris Carpenter Friday, 5 February 2016 at 09:02 #

      Thanks Vanessa.
      I was a bit nervous about how the music community might receive this! Funnily enough one of your colleagues spoke to me yesterday to say she liked the metaphor. She also pointed out that the orchestra has a conductor. I guess that we see the side-lining of the LEAs leading to schools now reporting straight to the Dfe as representing a statist kind of system. Of course this means we have to make comparisons between conductors like Adrian Boult and Leonard Bernstein and the contrast them with education secretaries such as Kenneth Baker, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan?

      Maybe that is the next blog piece?

  2. Karen Saturday, 6 February 2016 at 09:23 #

    Great article Chris!
    And if we see the curriculum as pop, we might be tempted to indulge in passing flights of fancy that indulge our present mood?

  3. Chris Carpenter
    Chris Carpenter Monday, 8 February 2016 at 10:38 #

    Thanks Karen.
    Oh goodness I did not even consider pop music!!

    The ‘pop’ here is of course short for ‘popular’. Can we see pop music as being eclectic as it draws on many different styles and genres? Also pop songs tend (pre Bohemian Rhapsody) to be quite short. I would not see the relative brevity as any reflection on quality as to get so much into 3 minutes or so takes some doing. Of course all this still begs the question of seeing the curriculum as pop music? What would that look like? Maybe we can extend your idea and say that it has to be explicitly related to the zeitgeist?
    Another blog piece!!

  4. Georgia Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 20:22 #

    Great article. I agree wholeheartedly with your metaphor that the curriculum should be interpreted in a risky, innovative jazz-style as you described, rather than following a much more prescriptive classical music route. But then again, I am a bit of a Marxist and believe the government should stop meddling in our education system, end of!

    However, in reality, it goes back to this idea of accountability; jazz is experimental and risky, it can sometimes be amazing and better than the norm, but sometimes the risk doesn’t pay off and you’re left with something sounding a bit off. I think it can be difficult to step outside of what you know (or what you’ve been told) ‘works’ as a teacher, and try something new that doesn’t have a guaranteed pay-off in regards to attainment. Especially, due to pressures from school management to pass Ofsted inspections and to protect the school’s reputation. Not to mention, jeopardising pupils grades if you trial a new approach and it didn’t prove effective. However, as you mention, as long as the teacher follows SOME guidelines, but adapts and makes the curriculum their own, they shouldn’t steer too far away from the curriculum that it becomes irrelevant and potentially detrimental to pupils achievement.

    Performance related pay is capable of being introduced in academies and free schools who have control over their own pay scale; this would be a huge factor in a teacher’s motivation to focus on attainment over engagement and innovation. Sticking to what they believe ‘works’ or replicating another teacher’s approach that has guaranteed pupils’ attainment in the past. And yet, there is no evidence anywhere in the world that performance related pay improves educational standards; but there is evidence that it narrows the curriculum as focus shifts to achievement in tests (Bousted for TES, 2015).

    Overall I think the question arises; which is more valuable – teaching the student to pass a test, OR inspiring and engaging the student, igniting a passion for the subject and teaching skills which are transferable? Offering a broad and balanced curriculum (as promised by the government) or offering guidance on how to pass a test?

    I believe that personal growth is the most important aspect of schooling, and the real-world isn’t as cut and dry as passing or failing a test, it’s about problem-solving, interacting with people, and having new and innovative ideas! I want to see more jazz!!!