Should Piano Teaching Be Regulated?

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

Please note: this intended audience for this article is UK educators. The regulation of music teaching in other countries may vary considerably, and is not discussed in this post.

The thorny question of whether piano teachers should be legally required to have particular qualifications before “being allowed” to teach cropped up online this week. Sadly, I once again found myself consoling able teachers who felt invalidated by the comments and hubris of others.

It is surely obvious that gaining qualifications should be a basic goal for all professionals. However, it seems equally evident that here in the UK, music teachers enter the profession via many different but complementary routes. A background in performing, the knowledge and skills developed in other professions and through our lived experience all contribute to who we are as teachers, and that’s a virtue which many rightly celebrate.

I believe that it is a mistake to conflate good teaching with qualifications. Consider the point that most of us can remember qualified teachers from our school days who weren’t very good. Similarly, most of us have met truly inspiring music educators with little or no formal training.

Minimum qualifications could only be mandated in a context where the music teaching profession becomes a regulated one, in which private teaching is monitored and many excellent professionals are shut out. I would hate to see this happen, and in any case very much doubt that politicians have an appetite for imposing regulatory monitoring of private tuition or musical activity in the community.

That said, for the benefit of those colleagues who are more interested in the idea, let’s consider what a regulated music teaching profession might look like, and how that might impact educational opportunity and community music making…

A Regulated Profession

As a general principle, the UK government closely oversees state-sponsored activities while allowing private enterprises to self-regulate within a democratically agreed legislative framework. National bodies exist to oversee various professions such as the medical, legal and certain trades. In some cases, the government maintains a more active interest through the agency of an independent inspection regime.

Were a similar model adopted for regulating the piano teaching profession, the process would first necessitate establishing a single national regulatory body with responsibility to:

• Maintain a register of those qualified to teach instruments and/or lead music activities.

• Ensure members complete and can evidence approved CPD annually, checking certification as appropriate.

• Ensure teaching and rehearsal accommodation meets agreed standards.

• Raise public confidence in the quality of music teachers’ work, e.g. commissioning regular lesson observations by Ofsted.

• Investigate teachers when professional concerns are raised (e.g. where parents aren’t happy with exam results).

• Undertake disciplinary proceedings, suspending and/or disqualifying teachers from the profession where appropriate.

Membership would have to be mandatory for anyone who wanted to teach the piano, as well as for all who are involved in delivering private music education and/or related community music activities.

There would inevitably be an annual registration fee that teachers would have to pay (for reference, nurses currently pay £120 for theirs each year).

Bearing in mind the regulatory function of the national body, and the teacher’s potential need for legal representation, all would still be advised (as in other professions) to join independent professional associations or otherwise obtain public indemnity insurance and legal cover.

Teachers would also need to budget for the requirement to undertake regular professional training (which would likely be for a few days a year in line with classroom teachers, possibly including a requirement for regular ongoing certification as in other regulated professions).

It is also possible (though less likely) that records of pupil “outcomes” would be required, adding pressure on students to regularly take Graded Exams, or even making them compulsory.

Careful What You Wish For…

When I hear teachers advocate regulation, it fills me with more than a little apprehension, along with a strong suspicion that they may not have thought it through. We would all do well to ponder the full implications and recognise that such a change would cause very significant disruption to music education and community activities.

First (and sadly) there are many outstanding professionals who, to the dismay of their students, would not meet the threshold for registration. This might disproportionately impact breath of opportunity, diversity and inclusion in music education, so could quickly prove to be socially divisive.

Secondly, across the profession there are many inspiring musicians for whom teaching is part of a larger portfolio career. Many may simply decide not to sign up to the new system, discarding their teaching commitments to concentrate on other, more inviting professional activities.

Thirdly, we must remember the indispensable army of part-time teachers for whom the annual registration fee and ongoing CPD costs could prove prohibitive. Research published by ABRSM in their Making Music 2021 report suggests that some 70% of instrumental teachers teach for less than 20 hours per week.

Those immediately affected by the imposition of a regulatory framework could include:

• local music hubs, peripatetic services and cooperatives (who often significantly depend on “unqualified” and part-time teachers)

• rock, pop and performing arts schools

• brass/silver bands who tutor young players in their community

• choir trainers and community music groups

• church worship leaders, and the many who give musical instruction within temples and other religious contexts

• folk musicians transmitting their heritage

• performers giving occasional masterclasses

• musicians and teachers visiting from other countries to deliver workshops

• those who teach online, both from within the UK and from other countries

Alongside the possibility of so many disrupted musician’s lives, the sad reality is that many aspiring players would also find themselves abandoned, unable to find suitable provision, and the impact would undoubtedly be felt by communities throughout the UK.

Future Society?

Beyond music education, any shift towards regulating out-of-school activities, leisure pursuits and private tuition should be a cause of concern.

If piano teaching becomes a regulated profession, why not language classes, basket weaving, martial arts or pottery? What about religious education in temples, churches, synagogues and mosques? At some point a line must be drawn between those activities which the government regulates, and those which it doesn’t.

Here in the UK we are blessed with the freedom to choose what we learn, how, where and with whom. Throughout our lives, from cradle to grave, we have liberty to pursue our interests and passions. The loss of autonomy and imposition of government regulation on any of our volitional activities would represent a huge societal shift.

In our field, regulating the music teaching profession would not only restrict who can teach, but also fundamentally limit who can learn, and potentially what they can be taught.

Government control of any private teaching activities might thus be totemic of a withdrawal of educational opportunity from ordinary people, a restriction of knowledge and skills that could easily be viewed as a limitation on people’s basic freedoms.

The Real Question…

If this is starting to sound somewhat dystopian, it is no doubt time to revisit the starting point of the discussion.

I hope that you have remembered my earlier point that it would be a mistake to conflate good teaching with qualifications. If we want to find a more positive way to support the music education profession, we must begin by asking what the distinguishing characteristics of a good teacher are.

I have no doubt that most would agree that being able to play to a high standard is a basic pre-requisite, whether the teacher has a certificate to prove it or not. But there are many other skills, competencies and personal characteristics which should quickly be added to the list.

I am reminded of an article that I previously wrote about the qualities of a good teacher, which you may be interested in:

The world of music should surely always be an inclusive one. Let’s get our priorities straight. Let’s never become gatekeepers erecting yet more barriers to the musical progress of others.

Perhaps more than ever, those of us who have both the qualifications and the experience to make a positive difference need to focus on supporting, encouraging and equipping new or struggling colleagues, rather than judging them. They are just a phone call or email away.

As my own positive contribution, the Pianodao website includes dozens of in-depth articles to support the continuing professional development of piano teachers everywhere, all completely free to read and download here.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.