First Thing Music (FTM) is a programme inspired by the Kodály method of music instruction, which provides a structured, sequential music curriculum of increasing progression. The intervention was designed to be delivered by teachers, with support from specialist music practitioners (external to the school), to classes of Year 1 pupils (aged 5 – 6) for 15 minutes at the start of each school day for one academic year. The programme was developed by the Tees Valley Music Service.
This evaluation tested the efficacy of FTM through a two-arm clustered randomised controlled trial, including 3004 pupils from 64 schools. The trial measured the impact of the project on pupils’ reading attainment, creative self-efficacy (confidence in one’s own creative abilities) and social skills. In addition, survey data was collected from all schools, and case studies involving interviews and classroom observations were collected from six schools. This evaluation was jointly funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). The trial started in June 2018 and ended in July 2019.
This evaluation is part of a round of funding between the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Royal Society of Arts to test the impact of different cultural learning strategies in English schools entitled ‘Learning about Culture’. These projects have been independently evaluated by a collaboration between the UCL Institute of Education and the Behavioural Insights Team who have also produced an overarching report to draw together learning from all five trials within the round. Wider research on the impact of music education on attainment has shown some promise, but few previous studies in this area have used rigorous experimental methods.
Pupils in the First Thing Music intervention group made the equivalent of one month’s additional progress in reading, on average, compared to pupils in the control group. This is our best estimate of impact which has a low to moderate security rating. However, as with any study, there is uncertainty around the result: the possible impact of this programme ranges from no additional progress to positive effects of three additional months of progress. Pupils in the First Thing Music intervention group achieved lower scores in an assessment of social skills than pupils in the control group at the end of the trial, though the difference in scores was small and there is some uncertainty around this result. There was no evidence that the First Thing Music intervention had an impact on creative self-efficacy (pupils’ confidence in their own creative abilities).
These findings provide tentative evidence to support the hypothesis that some forms of music education can contribute to improvements in children’s reading attainment. Further research is needed to strengthen the evidence-base for this and to improve understanding of how music education relates to reading skills development. Interestingly, the average effect of the programme on pupils’ reading attainment in classes where teachers had attended at least 4 of the 6 training sessions and delivered at least 80% of the possible music sessions was twice as large as for the intervention group as a whole. This finding should be interpreted with caution, as it is based on a small sub-sample of the most engaged classrooms that may have been different in other ways from the classes that had lower engagement. It could, however, indicate that higher engagement with the First Thing Music programme could lead to greater gains in reading attainment.
At this time, EEF does not have plans to conduct further trials of the First Thing Music intervention.