Who had 21st Century Skills? A bingo review of chapter 2 of Steve Hilton’s new book.

Having made it all the way through this chapter of Hilton’s new book I felt that I could spare you the trouble of doing so by summarising the whole lot for you. It was quite easy as it is just a mish-mash of the same old stuff. You could make up bingo cards of all your favourites, add in a few examples and you’d get there just as easily. Now there’s an idea. Off you go and make progressive bingo cards and read along with me (see, catering for kinaesthetic learners and everything). Direct quotes are in “” and my editorial is in ().

Right everyone, have your bingo cards at the ready. Eyes down for a full house:

South Korea (boo!). Parents want children to achieve so they work hard… and lots commit suicide. We aspire to that (apparently both go together).

Teacher Who Agrees With Hilton (hereafter TWAWH) number 1 closed the gap by letting kids do their own stuff. Hassled by ‘the man’. Founded Khan Lab School which is ‘mastery based’ (whatever that means). Kids build things out of papier maché: ‘makers’ as well as learners. Freedom to choose what they work on when etc. Teacher doesn’t manage behaviour “it’s the teacher that holds that value [that] never passes on to the students”. Students schedule own lessons “if they think they need instruction”. Hilton’s own child goes there.

UK system like South Korea (boo!), treat students like statistics. Tests ignore deeper learning, take out creativity, individuality forcing children to be all the same rather than letting them evolve naturally. Regimented top-down approach…students mass produced…schools literally designed to resemble factories…19th century mindset. Relentless drilling and testing…neglect more important skills. PISA bad, very bad. Children need to be creative & collaborative to succeed in 21st Century (yay, there it is). Schools have bells, just like factories (been reading KR?). Our system rooted in industrial past, ignoring different learning styles (wtf?), multiple intelligences. Need to succeed on globalised, changing world – need empathy, grit, resilience (I thought last two were the same?) teamwork, problem-solving, innovation, critical thinking. These are 21st Century Skills (never needed them in 1999?). Teamwork leads to even more learning. Kids grow up learning tests but no character.

TWAWH2, describes two kids who turn up at age 4 with nasty parents, leave school with no quals & join gangs. It’s the school’s fault, cos no social & emotional learning or 21st C skills. Mindfulness (here we go) reduces mental-health problems, makes children better. “They will be entering the twenty-first century world with twentieth-century skills”.

Gradgrind (boo!). Finland (hurrah!) – Teachers are clever, not middle-class failures like UK. They learn not just to teach but how to learn. They’re good, so politicians trust them – it’s having tests that keeps good graduates away from teaching here. They teach less – less teaching=more learning – how much can you learn in passive lecture format. They are all educational researchers & have sense of collaboration and friendly rivalry. New York, Bloomberg, Small Schools of Choice – holistic, not century-old, one-size-fits-all. Academies can avoid systems, rules, curricula (so we have them already?) but not enough “fresh, innovative and more human schools on offer”. Media companies (boo!) hovering, arguing against teacher autonomy, mania to produce endless data. Teachers are amazing people (yay!) but are shackled.

TWAWH3 – tests show “what you know what you can do”. Kids ‘disengaged’ by curriculum. Heard about Sugata Mitra (kaching!). He told the kids they had potential and they succeeded (just like Michelle Pfeiffer). All teachers should be like this. We need creative thinkers as teachers (not like us lot!). We should pay teachers more (finally, we agree on something!). The NUT could be an arbiter of professional quality (took me five minutes to type that, I was laughing so hard). Education system should match world’s dynamism and interconnectivity. End local monopoly, lots of small, local schools – 20, 30 to choose from (really? Even in Norfolk countryside?). Expensive? No, that’s just lazy, old fashioned thinking. One day in our schools, teachers and students treated like people (never!).

TWAWH4 found schools dehumanising, created Little Man School House (yes, that) – a safe space …. where children can challenge themselves on their own terms. Steiner schools good. Neuroscience proves it. UK learn to read too early. Right brain. Back to TWAWH4, who “rejected the idea the students should be taught anything. Activities that build skills and give them real world experiences. E.g. dressing up simulated run up to War of Independence (it’s Texas but I’m willing to bet no-one shot at them). TWAWH4’s “ultimate vision is for a school with no teachers at all”. At his school, “students meet weekly to make collective decisions about disciplinary matters, and punishments meted out by collective student group to any individual child are publicly displayed” (anyone else thinking of Lord of the Flies here?).

Diversity, innovation. Close down the factories. Free schools should make profit like in Nigeria. No tests – parents shouldn’t use test scores to decide. All the schools he’s described are fee paying (oh right, full of rich hipster kids – that’s why they aren’t burned down by September 3). Let’s make schools more human.

How many did you have? Did you have “jobs that haven’t been created yet”? “Digital natives”? “Flipped classrooms” miserably uncrossed at the end? Maybe he’ll get there in the next book.


Roger Scruton on why the progressive model of education is wrong

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to write more blogs in 2015. So I start with this short essay, drawn from a chapter of one of my Christmas presents: Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism (And the Danger of False Hope). I should say that Scruton acknowledges that he will not convince anyone and so do I. I write this in the hope that readers will either gain greater understanding of what they have known instinctively for some time, or will at least understand where those of us on the traditional side are coming from and view us as a little less evil than they did previously.

The progressive model of education is perhaps best defined by its rejection of obedience to authority. If we free children from the regimen and constraints of the traditional classroom, if they learn autonomously through discovery rather than being told what is important to know they will unleash their creativity. Children arrive at school as free, creative thinkers and should not be drilled into obedient drones, reciting the knowledge fed to them by their teachers.

Scruton rejects this idea of natural freedom, which he refers to as the ‘born-free fallacy’. He draws his thesis from Hegel: Imagine a state without laws, institutions or even behavioural norms. It is tempting to think of it as a state of perfect freedom but Hegel asks us to look closer. Human nature dictates that others in this state have similar desires to us and since only one of us can possess the finite resources we are left with two potential solutions to a conflict with another. One could kill the other, getting what he wants and waiting for the next confrontation: effectively nothing has changed (beyond there being one person less in the state). The other possibility is that one concedes the resource to the other: he chooses the standing of the slave, preferring life to freedom, and the other becomes the master. We see this acted out when two young children want to play with the same toy: they will both scream for it but without the intervention of an adult one will force the other to submit.

Hegel’s position is that both master and slave have lost their freedom, which without the security of its human attributes – mutual recognition – is an illusion. The ‘master’ has desires but has no concept of their value: “True freedom involves not just doing what you want but valuing what you get”. Human activity such as planning, developing and achieving intentions and reasons for action are social features of the will: they depend upon others and the rules, customs and therefore the constraints of the community. Hegel’s illustration is as follows: how does a master (one who can fulfil his every desire without expending energy) gain concept and value of his desires? Only if he has a sense of his own value through the recognition and respect from his slave. Obedience can be commanded but true respect cannot be given because the slave is not free to give it. The slave, however, has a route to respect and recognition through his labour, acquiring a sense of self-worth through activity. Through this enhanced consciousness of the worth of his work he shows an inner freedom of creativity behind a mask of slavery. In the course of their relationship the slave asserts this self-knowledge and the master is reduced to a pampered servitude – their status is now reversed and both are denied freedom. Scruton illustrates this through reference to Strindberg, Maugham and Pinter. Personally, I like to think of characters from The Simpsons, Mr Burns and Smithers.

Rather than the struggle for resources in our state of ‘perfect freedom’, what if our conflict is resolved in mutual recognition? Benefits are requested not demanded, on condition of mutual advantage. Each respects the will and autonomy of the other – people are ends in themselves and are not just means to an end: “The price of freedom is the price of reciprocity”. I must acknowledge others’ rights and freedoms if I am to have them and I am accountable to others as they are to me. Laws, customs and conventional constraints are therefore an essential part of freedom. Our mutual relationships are governed not by a shared purpose or imposed agenda but by our mutual restraints. This ‘invisible hand’ gives us true equality, not of property or of influence but of recognition. This freedom is genuine only when bound by those laws and institutions that make us accountable to one another, based on a core of universal morality or natural law, which is informed by our history and evolves over time.

We are, therefore, not born free; freedom is acquired. A child must learn to respect, to defer, to internalise rules, customs and laws. Those children who do not learn these things exist in the public world but have no real sense of it. They are not ‘free’ but live in a world of obstacles to their immediate desires, obstacles which are a source of anger and isolation.

The teacher, rather than an adult whose role is to instruct the child, to inculcate a sense of discipline and deference, is a guide by the side of the child who is an autonomous learner. If (as it so often seems to) something goes wrong with the child’s learning, the child is not to blame (how could they be?). Since the teacher is no longer the instigator of learning they are not to blame either. So the blame is shifted to ‘society’, to hegemony, hierarchy and deprivation. The only cure is massive state intervention.

I leave the last word to Scruton:

“Even if we are to ignore the arguments of Aristotle concerning the role of imitation, discipline and habit in the acquisition of character; even if we disregard the mediaeval philosophers (whose recommendations provided the indispensable foundations for the modern educational system); even if we ignore all that was said by Grotius, Calvin and Kant concerning the internal relation between freedom and law; even if we dismiss as antiquated every theory that does not place the idea of freedom at the centre of its vision – even if we do all that, a dose of pessimism would still persuade us that freedom, however valuable in itself, is not a gift of nature but the outcome of an educational process, something that we must work to acquire through discipline and sacrifice.”

Teach them music! Howard Goodall at the Festival of Education

“Teach them music!” I came away from the Sunday Times Festival of Education on Friday with those words ringing in my ears. I now consider myself a bit of a veteran of edu-nerd gatherings (or at least blooded) and have got quite used to hearing speakers I agree with, but I didn’t expect to be inspired.

The sessions I went to were all interesting: Mori polling data on what people really think about education, Rob Coe on how to get teachers to improve, Glenys Stacey on the role of Ofqual as regulator. David Didau and Dylan William were both on top form (please keep this double-act going) when discussing whether AfL is the right response if learning is invisible. They were so animated I saw them still going at it an hour later in the cafe.

Meeting and talking with others interested in education is one of the main reasons for going to these events and I was pleased to meet up with some former colleagues – John Blake, the ‘flame-haired enfant terrible of Labour Teachers’ (©Tom Bennett) and Doug Johnson – as well as Stephen Dilley, a former student who is now a teacher. Yes, I’m getting old.

It was however, the post-lunch session that really gripped me. In Wellington’s awesome chapel (I think all schools should have a chapel like that) Howard Goodall stood talking, occasionally with reference to notes, about music in schools. I have not generally liked his TV programmes about music and I was expecting to disagree. He began with music education in Nazi Germany, with its survey of German composers throughout history: it didn’t stop them committing atrocities. I braced for an argument in favour of 100% composing, or at least listening and performing solely as stimulus for composing. He is a composer, after all.

But no. He described some compositional processes that he had gone through as a young composer. We learn by imitating and our early attempts at composing are nothing more than pastiche. Why assess children’s ability to pastiche in exams? Now he had me, as this is something I have been arguing for some time. Don’t teach them to compose, “Teach them Music”. Improvisation, which is not ‘making things up on the spot’ as all musicians know but involves hours of painstaking practise and immense skill. Don’t teach them to improvise, “Teach them music”. Western musical notation is not just one of a range of different notation systems; it is the best means of notating the language of music. Yet teachers in maintained schools shy away from teaching it to their pupils. We try to teach all of music by getting pupils to remember five things about Indian music. By now I was cheering, albeit silently.

I disagreed with some of what he said: that the content of exams should be left up to individual teachers neither takes into account the difficulty in achieving parity of qualification nor the lack of passion for music of many music teachers, some of whom would simply go for whatever was easiest to get their pupils through exams in a rather depressing way. I also disagree with his assertion that pupils should not receive chronological view of the classical tradition – while biographical detail is unimportant you get some pretty funny misconceptions if you don’t give it some historical context. I’ve never been convinced that you can or should teach themes (e.g. bass line) in isolation.

I was still inspired and rushed up at the end to gush. There were quite a lot of music teachers there and we were all convinced. Now all we need is for those who write the exams to agree (and they don’t). Maybe Glenys Stacey can help? The DfE certainly wasn’t listening: “We agree that current music GCSEs are not sufficiently broad…” No, they’re too broad. So, fellow convinced musicians and teachers, what next?

Update: here is the full text of the speech and some bits there wasn’t time for:

Click to access Some_thoughts_on_the_future_of_classroom_music_TEXT_VERSION.pdf

“Knowing the Canon” or “A Personal Symphonic Cycle”

It’s been such a long time since I wrote a blog post that I thought I would get back into the swing with a fairly uncontroversial topic. For those who aren’t interested in the canon of great orchestral music but who want the educational message, you may want to skip to the end. Following Christopher Cook’s advice I have restricted myself to fewer than 600 words.

A couple of years ago I found a forum which asked the following: What is your personal symphonic cycle? You can choose nine symphonies (lots of composers wrote nine) but one composer’s first symphony, another’s second and so on. You are allowed numbered symphonies only. No repetition of composer and no substitutions.

For all but the most eccentric this rules out composers like Mozart and Haydn who only hit their stride when they were well beyond number nine but it includes all the major symphonists from Beethoven onwards. Now we can’t just do this on a whim you understand, it must be taken seriously. First, here are the candidates for my favourite symphonies:

1 – Candidates – Brahms, Elgar*, Mahler, Sibelius

2 – Candidates – Mahler*, Rachmaninov*, Sibelius*, Vaughan Williams

3 – Candidates – Beethoven*

4 – Candidates – Brahms*, Bruckner, Mendelssohn*, Tchaikovsky*

5 – Candidates – Beethoven, Mahler, Prokofiev*, Shostakovich*, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams*

6 – Candidates – Tchaikovsky

7 – Candidates – Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich

8 – Candidates – Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler

9 – Candidates – Bruckner*, Dvorak*

An asterisk means it is my favourite by that composer. You see that I’m having particular problems with 2, 4 and 5, where a lot of composers hit their stride. My list changes (slightly) quite frequently but for now, here is my personal symphonic cycle:

1: Elgar 2: Rachmaninov (listening to it while I type) 3: Beethoven 4: Brahms 5: Sibelius (makes it for Thor’s hammer alone) 6: Tchaikovsky 7: Bruckner 8: Mahler 9: Dvorak

This is now one of my favourite questions for musicians and enthusiasts; if I am stuck in conversation I will ask this and we can normally go for hours. I have been directed to pieces and composers I have never heard before simply through this question.

Education/non-musicians start reading here: last time I interviewed candidates for a music teacher post at KEGS I asked this question (I gave them a couple of hours’ notice that I was going to ask it too). I wanted to find out what they knew about the classical canon and to find out their interests as musicians. Alas, I was disappointed with many of the responses. Apart from the successful candidate, none could name a single symphony with confidence. All had good music degrees from good universities. All were musicians. I can still hardly believe it. Every music teacher I have spoken to who is my age or older loves answering the question. The best student teachers I have had (both in the last two years) have loved it. Many of my sixth formers (and some younger) can answer it. Non-musician (but enthusiast) friends have been able to answer it.

So what I ask you, my readers, is: was my expectation unreasonable? Should music teachers know the classical canon, or have I got it horribly wrong? Will anyone know as many as nine symphonies in 20 years’ time if the budget for music hubs keeps being cut with barely a murmur in the press? But most importantly, what is your personal symphonic cycle and what do you think of mine?

Let’s get rid of Composing from public exams

Faith and hope and love we see,

Joining hand in hand agree,

But the greatest of the three,

And the best, is love.


Lots of things are arranged in threes.  Why, do you think, is it so comforting to have three things in a group.  Why do things always come in threes?  Education, education, education. Of the people, by the people, for the people.  Blood, sweat and tears. There are three bears, three stooges, three pigs.  Quite apart from the Trinity.  Do you think that when people come up with two things, they sit around until they’ve thought of a third?  Music has its own Holy Trinity: Performing, Composing, Listening.  May they never be divided.

Most people respond to music solely through listening.  Most practising musicians (professional and amateur) are performers.  Very few people compose.  Many musicians don’t see composing as an integral part of their music making.  And yet it is afforded special importance in music education.  Why is this?  My hypothesis is that it is music’s own ‘weasel word’ again, creativity.  There is a perception that composing is the only ‘creative’ aspect of music, that if all you are doing is playing notes from a page you are not being creative.  I have always derided this point of view.  I feel at my most creative when performing and even when conducting.  As I write this I am listening to a new (to me) recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  I already have two CDs of this so why listen to a third.  They are playing exactly the same notes so why bother?  They are profoundly different (Gergiev, Maazel & Rattle) in tone, tempo, accent, feel of the dance – in so many ways that could be a (rather boring) blog of its own.  This is the creativity of the performers, to teach you something about a piece you thought you already knew.

I enjoy teaching composing and many of my pupils, especially at KS3, enjoy having a go at making their own music.  I think it is an important part of a music education.  I do not, however, think it should be part of a public examination for the following reasons:

  1. Some of my best musicians and many others who are capable performers simply do not find composing easy, natural or enjoyable.  We do our best but several are put off further musical study because they would rather do almost anything else other than more composing.  I appreciate that ‘easy, natural and enjoyable’ should not be the main criteria for a process but having struggled to get across understanding of even the most basic textures for so many years.  I am unconvinced that an inability to compose satisfying music is a sign of lacking musicianship.  Most will not go on to further study of music but will enjoy music through a lifetime of listening and performing.
  2. This is not how the great composers of the past learned to compose.  I find composing in a GCSE or A level style very easy these days because I have a lifetime of understanding how the elements of harmony and melody fit together.  Rather than teach students this detail first, we get them to compose and gather this knowledge intuitively, which of course they cannot.
  3. Pupils must compose to criteria: so many marks for melody, so many for harmony and so on.  In an ideal world maximum marks would describe every really good piece of music.  Of course it does not and I can think of many examples of wonderful music which would score less than full marks (Chopin Raindrop Prelude?).
  4. Most importantly, if an activity cannot be assessed reliably, it has no role to play in an exam.  English has some experience of this, with Speaking and Listening.  Composing is just not objective, no matter how well worded the assessment criteria.  Think of all the contemporary criticism of works now considered among the very best works of art humanity has to offer.  Every year at results time, music teachers’ forums are clogged with complaints about poorly assessed compositions.  I will offer only two stories to illustrate: the first is of a pupil who, in the same year that his music was performed on Radio 3 (BBC Young Composer), received a low B grade for his AS composition.  The second is a composing course with the principal examiner of the same A level, who was unable to account for the marks awarded for the example he himself brought.

The last point is the reason that composing played no part in public examinations before GCSE.  It wasn’t that they didn’t think it was a valuable activity (they did) but rather that they did not consider that it could be objectively and reliably assessed.

What can go in its place? Compositional techniques, where pupils complete exercises in various styles of music, are more reliable and arguably more educational (we’re teaching them something rather than expecting something to come out of them).  It is also how the great composers of the past learned the craft. I cannot explain this better than a regular poster on the TES Music Forum, ‘florian gassmann’ (a pseudonym):

“I was much in agreement with Rob Steadman (late of this forum and himself a composer) that the best way to assess compositional ability is through the use of closely specified techniques that can be assessed reliably, e.g.

  • Extend this phrase with a modulating sequence to the supertonic
  • Add three percussion parts in Calypso style to this tune from Trinidad
  • Rewrite these four piano chords for a brass quartet of two Bb trumpets, Horn in F and Trombone
  • Add a violin counter-melody to this tune sung by Madonna, taking account of the printed chord symbols, … and so on.

The great mistake with free composition is the fact that the boundaries are so wide that pupils don’t really know what they are supposed to do. For most pupils, it is better that they can be led towards an understanding of the many elements that go into a composition, rather than being faced with producing a fully-formed piece, which is something that very few can do well.

Are A-level students in English expected to write a Novella?”

And that’s in a language with which they are fully conversant.  Imagine A-level pupils in Modern Foreign Languages trying to write novellas.  Some might manage it but I don’t know what it would prove.  Perhaps I’m just not creative enough.

Is music an academic subject?

On twitter last week a school leader (@StuartLock) posted the following:

“In another anecdote today, when promoting an academic curriculum I got informed that Music is an academic subject. Can of worms…”

“I’m a big fan of music, and want to expand it, but it’s not like History or languages.”

I’m often wound up by this sort of thing (although I’ve met Stuart and know him to be a good and wise man), so this blog asks the question: is music an academic subject?

My definition of an academic subject is a scholarly pursuit, rather than one that is technical or vocational.  In broader terms, it is one which is knowledge rich rather than a practical skill.  And many subjects fit into the latter – Art lessons and exams involve pupils making works of art, rather than writing essays comparing other artists; Drama lessons involve pupils acting and PE lessons have pupils running about and chucking things.  I think this is where the idea of Music as a practical subject comes from – most people only think about Performing and Composing when they think of Music.

But the study of Music has been around for many hundreds of years.  Treatises on music theory (in its original sense, rather than Italian terms) can be found from as far back as the 4th century.  I remember well studying Anonymous 4 (c.1270s) at university.  There is a long tradition of music theorists analysing and writing on music.  It is interesting that they all write about music of previous generations, rather than current practice.  I am prepared to be corrected on this but I cannot think of a similar tradition for other practical pursuits.

So let us go back a generation or so, when there were Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern Schools.  At Grammar Schools, or Independent Schools, in Lower School (now KS3) lessons were filled by listening to music and studying structures, textures etc.  For example, when I was 13 I could write out the structure of a fugue.  The problem with this was that it could be crushingly boring and behaviour (why could music teachers not control classes?) was often poor.  In Middle School, (very few) pupils studied O Level, which was based on music history, analysis with a little bit of performing thrown in for good measure.  I think I’m right in saying that you could hand in your ABRSM Grade 5 certificate and you wouldn’t even have to play.  A question from AEB 1959 Music O Level is, “Why is Henry Purcell regarded as one of the most important of English composers?” A level was much the same.  Practical music was catered for with extra-curricular music: choirs, bands and orchestras, and instrumental music lessons.

At Secondary Modern schools, Lower School lessons were practical: performing (often singing) and composing.  Lessons were often a riot (again) but could be terrific fun.  They led to CSE Music in Middle School, which was a largely practical exam.  There were few opportunities for extra-curricular music but some pupils studied instruments, some to a high level.

Tertiary options were, for the grammar school students, an academic music degree studying music history, analysis etc, and for all there was the opportunity to go to music college to play an instrument and do some music history.  It was possible to go to university and get a degree in music without ever picking up an instrument.  With my degree, although performance was a part of the first year course and I performed every day (as a Choral Scholar), I took no assessed performance as part of my degree.

In the modern era, it fell to the music teacher to do it all.  From exciting, practical KS3 lessons to in depth A level analysis to a full extra-curricular programme.  I suppose it was inevitable that something would drop. And I suppose it was also inevitable, given the prevailing wind, that it was academic content that was reduced – in the change to GCSE, then less again with each successive specification; in A level with the changes at Curriculum 2000, then to a greater extent with the new specifications in 2008.  Up until then my students would usually complain that the gap between GCSE and A level of all their subjects was most pronounced in music.  Not anymore.

So now we have a situation where KS3 lessons are largely composing with some performing and a little bit of listening.  GCSE is similar (this prompted my change to IGCSE, which is much more suitable for my pupils) and you can avoid unfamiliar music altogether until A2 with the most popular board.  Music degrees must be a real shock.  Possibly it’s not just music.  It is most gratifying that on the list of acceptable A level combinations Trinity College Cambridge includes music in its list of generally suitable arts A levels, ahead of “limited suitability” Art, Drama and even Politics.

It is interesting that in the second tweet Stuart said that music is “not like…languages”.  In fact, I think music is very like languages.  It has its own written language, notation, its grammar (cadences, common progressions), its study of former great works written in its language.  I often use the analogy in lessons.  And history? I spent the majority of my time at university reading books and writing essays about music history.  My third year was largely spent poring over (facsimiles of) 16th Century music.

So music used to be very academic and may be less so now but is more than other creative/performing arts.  If you want an academic curriculum, how about the core knowledge curriculum?  Have a look at p.188-9, the 7th grade music curriculum.  Seems pretty academic to me.  Why not give a British version a go?  If you could do it in a way that wouldn’t prove such a snooze for children it could be quite something.  If anyone would like to have a go I’d be interested.


Here are the links:


Click to access CKFSequence_Rev.pdf

Ofsted Music report blames everyone…except Ofsted

Yesterday Ofsted released its latest report, Music in schools: what hubs must do (http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/music-schools-what-hubs-must-do).  Although the Executive summary takes pains to stress some of the positives the main thrust of the report is critical of music education.  Every stakeholder receives stinging criticism, from school music departments, through school leaders to the new Hubs; in short everyone, except Ofsted themselves.  Such a powerful inspectorate can’t possibly see itself as the disinterested, impartial observer, can it?

School Music Departments

“Too often the schools visited expected little of pupils…”

The main problem identified is one of expectations and of providing a musical experience for all pupils, not just a minority.  The report laments schools’ unwillingness to tackle Western notation and Classical music:

“…musical learning was disjointed and superficial. Classical music was rarely introduced to pupils.”

“Classical music…was treated as a step too far…to be too difficult or inaccessible”

“26 of the 31 schools…shied away from teaching pupils about fundamental aspects of music such as [notation and theory]”.

Amen to that.  But for me the most shocking tale is this one:

“A secondary school presented a detailed and effusive self-evaluation of its music provision.  However, music was not taught in the school in years 8 and 9.  There were no curriculum music courses at Key Stage 4 and no extra-curricular music groups. Year 7 students were given a 15-week block of music teaching…”

I don’t know the background to this.  Perhaps the school had tried and failed to recruit music teachers.  Perhaps those they had employed had proved unsatisfactory.  Can we really think that the school thought their music programme deserved such ‘effusive’ praise?  Perhaps the fault lies with Ofsted’s next villains, SLT.

School Leadership

“The root of the problem lay in a lack of understanding, and low expectations in music, among the schools’ senior leaders”

“headteachers…wanted pupils to enjoy music with the opportunity…to perform to an audience… [they] were surprised that more might be expected.”

I must admit, having a musical SLT is a real blessing.  At KEGS, the Headteacher Tom (@headguruteacher) is a keen amateur popular musician, capable songwriter and has performed in front of the school many times (seeing that he likes McBusted makes me rethink my whole argument, however).  The Deputy, also called Tom, is a very fine violinist (and singer) who joins the orchestra at every concert.  They can tell when it’s good and when it isn’t.  They can tell the difference between a group who have come together a few times for a run through and one which has been painstakingly rehearsed.  While both are ‘effusive’ in their praise directly after a concert, later comes the challenge to do better, go further, involve more.  And the feedback and constructive criticism has value and credibility because of their knowledge and their support.  Musicians and music teachers are, by and large, a prickly lot (artistic temperament and all that) and I know that many school leaders shy away from challenge in the fear that it will lead to confrontation.

“elaborate whole-school assessment systems, encouraged by senior leaders, disrupted the flow and musical purposes of the lessons.”

Now that’s rich.  Ofsted, why do you think schools have these ‘elaborate whole-school assessment systems’?


I’ve not yet come into contact with my local hub; then again, I had little to do with the county music service, beyond sending singers and orchestral players to their ensembles, and borrowing unusual and expensive instruments like the cor anglais.  My impression of hubs is that they are, by and large, being extremely creative with small amounts of money.  The headline figure of £171 million over three years is certainly eye catching but when you consider that there are about eight million children in schools, it gives each child the princely sum of £7 of music per year.  That’s about 15 minutes of a peripatetic teacher’s time.  Music for all, indeed.

The report suggests that many hubs have offered schools a set ‘package’ and allowed them to buy in.  But this, they say, is not sufficient – they should be going into schools and having a ‘challenging conversation’ about music provision.  I’m not sure this is realistic and could easily set hubs against school music departments.  I agree with the Musicians’ Union’s Dianne Widdison when she says,

“Too much has been asked of the Hubs in too little time and because of cuts in the central grant, as well as many having to contend with local cuts, they have been charged with trying to address far wider issues with vastly reduced resources.” 

But I disagree with her statement that “the government has continually undermined the importance of creative subjects in education.”  I think that it’s quite easy for schools to use the excuse of the EBacc and other strategies to reduce options and blame the government.  The lack of money is certainly down to government, rather more the one that spent money we didn’t have rather than the one that is picking up the pieces.

The problem with the report

It is the responsibility of the inspectorate to focus relentlessly on what is wrong and what needs to be improved.  But so often in reading this report I found the personal taste of the author(s) was too often presented as the only way to deliver the curriculum.  For example, this passage on singing:

“…the repertoire of the Year 7 students was very limited.  Singing was used for performance but not to promote learning or explore musical ideas”

Well, so what?  I don’t know how limited their repertoire was (one song, one artist, one style maybe?) and I’m not sure what ‘promote learning’ even means.  I certainly don’t ‘explore musical ideas’ (I presume they mean compose) through singing, although I do sometimes hum a tune.  Then there is this:

“Schools failed to grasp the fact that, for example a Mozart symphony…may be based on the same three chords…and be in the time signature as many pop songs…that understanding one of these styles could lead directly to understanding another.”

Again, so what?  When linked to this passage promoting ‘good’ practice:

“Students were equally at home discussing music from early baroque to pop and house music.”

…we see the point, to link together styles.  Because they’re all equal, aren’t they?  Well, no.  I’m not at home discussing pop and house music.  My best musicians aren’t either.  Similarly there are many outstanding popular musicians who do not see the links to Classical works (beyond stealing the odd chord progression, such as Pachelbel).  The point about a Mozart symphony is that it does not divide nicely into 4-bar chunks, as does a Michael Jackson song, or three chords, or even one key.  To reduce it to that level cheapens it.  And it simply is not the point of an inspectorate to direct the aims of music education.  I will fight that with my last breath.

Sir Michael Wilshaw said in 2012 that there is no Ofsted-approved teaching style.  Old Andrew has written persuasively and extensively (http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/tag/ofsted/) to show that this has not been communicated to the inspectors, or that where it has it is ignored.  For how long will this continue?  Please tell me it will all be over soon.  Please.

Poor old Grammars – a defence of selective schools

On Friday the Sutton Trust released their latest report, “Poor Grammar” (http://www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/poorgrammarreport.pdf), a critique of the lack of social mobility of selective schools: they are not taking enough pupils with Free School Meals (FSM).  I am not a disinterested party here as I am a grammar school teacher but I did feel that the report, subsequent reporting in the media and discussions on twitter from those involved have been a little unfair.

To begin with, look at the title.  Now I appreciate that they probably sat around trying to find a pun with the word grammar in and that was the best they could find but, and this pun is definitely intended, it’s rather a cheap shot.  It is really not grammar schools’ fault that ambitious, middle-class parents tutor their children for years to gain an edge.

The headline figure is that 13% of grammar school pupils, four times as many, come from preparatory (fee paying) schools while only 3% are on FSM.  I have two responses to this.  The first is that many prep schools are themselves academically selective, which does rather stack the deck.  The second is the percentages of pupils attaining level 5 at the end of KS2.  For example, in a selective LA such as Bucks less than 10% of FSM children get level 5 in English and Maths, which perhaps puts the 3% into a little more proportion.

There is also no mention of the Sutton Trust’s previous report (http://tinyurl.com/o2c3phh) showing that the top comprehensives are more socially selective than grammar schools.  “The researchers found that the country’s top 164 comprehensive schools took only 9.2% of children from income deprived homes although they drew pupils from areas where about 20% were income deprived. The 164 remaining grammar schools, also drawing their pupils from areas where 20% were income deprived, were found to be more inclusive, admitting 13.5% of children from poor homes.”

Lee Elliott Major, the Director of the Sutton Trust, took to Twitter yesterday to draw attention to comments from Bob McCarthy, Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA).  In particular, his comment that “Many, many parents from deprived areas, including what is generally called the dependency classes, are essentially not particularly interested in any form of academic education. Their interests are directed towards pop culture, sports.”  I would hope that quotation makes us all angry.  The NGSA does not ‘represent’ grammar schools and none that I know of will have anything to do with it.  But google “grammar school association” and there it is as the top hit.  It is a fringe, far right pressure group.  I would hope that hard working journos would look beyond the first hit on google, or even ask a few grammar school heads.  Who am I kidding?  If they had looked just one hit lower, at the Grammar School Heads Association, they would find an actual representative body.  Lee Elliot Major’s tweet comes with a heavy implication that the NGSA represents the views of grammar schools.  Now, everything I hear about him says he is a fine, principled man, and I know that in 140 characters it is difficult to get across your complete intention.  Perhaps I am too prickly.  Perhaps others will not infer the same.

Looking at figure 3 on p. 14 of the report, you can see that of those getting level 5 in English and Maths the proportions going to grammar school are less for FSM.  But we are talking about a tiny number of schools here and a small number of pupils.  And I think that is my main problem with this report – it seems to infer a large group of extremely bright but poor students whose life chances are diminished by being denied access to selective schools.  Is there any evidence that a large number of these students exist?  If they have a good, local school, will they not succeed?  If every grammar took one or two more students on FSM, that would change the graph quite a lot.  This seems quite a lot of drama for, say 300 children nationwide.

Changing the curriculum: Performing

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reaction to my first blog.  There has been contact from a number of people showing me what is going on in their LA or school.  Perhaps I was a little bleak in my widespread condemnation.  It’s clear that in some areas there is some good stuff going on…but these do seem rather isolated pockets.  It isn’t for want of trying – more for want of funding.  Other programmes have perhaps grown too large and are not getting best value for money.  Clearly we need to look at step two.

Step Two: Change Everything

Now, as a Tory (please don’t close the page yet) I’m not generally a fan of wholesale change but in this case I think drastic action is probably required.

Step two is going to take a few posts.  I remember a Deputy Head who used to begin his weekly briefing announcement by saying, “I have two items.  The second has four parts.”  He was a maths teacher.  I bet you didn’t guess that.  Inspired by that memory I will begin with step two, part 1.

Changing the Curriculum (KS1-3 or ages 5-14)

We’ve come a long way from the days when the music teacher whacked on a record of the Pastoral, while classes copied out of Enjoying Music.  Practical music is in every lesson these days, which is a good thing.  There is a holy triumvirate of Performing, Composing and Listening required in lessons.  I will look more at Composing and its intrinsic value, and the problems of Listening in future blogs but for now let’s examine Performing.  Music is a performance art and performing should be at the centre of what we do.


Performing in classrooms takes place either with singing, or on Orff instruments (xylophones and metallophones), unturned percussion, African djembes, keyboards, ukuleles (give me strength) or more likely a mixture of all.  The main problem is the lack of expression possible on all these instruments.  You can pick them up quickly and for the most part play in ensemble but the experience is rather synthetic.  If music is a means of self-expression then this encounter with it is only ever going to be satisfying in the short term.  I don’t know that music teachers ever give thought to this – it always seems to be a shock to those with whom I discuss it.  Perhaps compulsory music lessons are rather like taster sessions to see if you like it and want to take it further.  If that’s true it’s sad because so many do not.

Children get something like 350 hours of compulsory music education (say, 1 hour a week for 9 school years) and I wonder what really is accomplished.  Primary teacher trainees say that music is the subject they are least confident to teach (http://dro.dur.ac.uk/1974/1/1974.pdf, p. 29).  Having seen for nigh on 20 years what comes into secondary (at a variety of schools) I can say I don’t have much confidence in their ability to teach music either.  Secondary teachers then make the mistake of assuming children know nothing and go back to square one, wasting more of everyone’s time.

And all of this misses the point: that all children don’t get to practise and develop mastery of an instrument capable of expression and ensemble performance to make all the other activities worthwhile.  All they get is a series of disconnected activities, which are more or less enjoyable.

Perhaps the real problem is music’s f-word: fun.  Now I’m a big fan of fun but as Robert Coe writes (http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf, p. xii), it’s a poor proxy for learning.  Music should be fun but where that is viewed as the end rather than the beginning of the process children become culturally impoverished.

Revitalising orchestral music in our schools

Before I start, this is all @redorgreenpen’s fault.  Everybody else I meet accepts my reasons/excuses for not starting a blog: not enough time, would get bored quickly, only agree with others, can’t think of anything original.  But she called me out, so here we are.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Problem

The Western Classical tradition in Britain is in trouble.  And it’s hard to see.  Concerts regularly fill out the Barbican and RFH in London, Symphony Hall in Birmingham, Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and elsewhere.  The standard of orchestral playing by professionals is as good as it has ever been. So where’s the problem?

I went to see the National Youth Orchestra at the Proms this year.  They were fantastic, as ever but I wondered how many attended comprehensive schools. Very few, it turns out.  Top rate orchestral playing is now almost exclusively the preserve of independent and grammar schools.  And that is a tragedy. Laura van der Heijden, the current holder of BBC Young Musician of the Year, was a comprehensive school pupil but never took her ‘cello to school with her.  And how many pupils on free school meals attend the top music colleges? Well, the last time someone asked, it was none.  Do we think there has been a dramatic change recently? http://www.demos.co.uk/blog/abroadsideofwagnerianproportions

So what is to be done? How do we introduce everyone to the finest musical tradition in the world?

Step 1: Instrumental Lessons for All

Of itself this is not controversial and in many schools, with money from national schemes or pupil premium, all do have access to lessons.  However, it is far from well spent.  So this needs refining, perhaps to orchestral instrumental lessons, taught by competent teachers, learned at the right time, for all.  Given a choice, most children will pick piano, guitar or drums for their instrument.  There is nothing wrong with this of course but these are not ensemble instruments, except drums – and you only need one of those.  Ensemble playing really is the most enjoyable, fulfilling and worthwhile activity in music.  Almost all the educational reasons for learning an instrument can be achieved in ensemble playing and it does matter what instruments children pick.

If I were in charge, every child would learn a string instrument from the age of six.  Strings form the foundation of the orchestra – you usually only need two flutes but a full symphony orchestra has 30 violins.  String instruments come in all sizes to fit small hands and arms (apparently there’s a 1/64 size Stentor violin!) and are very good for teaching pitch – a distance along a string rather than different fingers pressed down.  Posture and high levels of concentration are vital.  They also take years and years to get good; it’s a rare outstanding string player who started their instrument after the age of 10.  Woodwind and Brass instruments could be left until later – 11 is probably fine for most, although instruments like French Horn and Oboe need a bit longer.  But, and here’s the trick, don’t have all the girls playing flutes and clarinets (if, when I die I hear a clarinet choir I’ll know I’ve led a bad life) and all the boys playing saxophones and trumpets.  Spread it out a bit.

My Clarinet and Saxophone teacher at KEGS has one wish: to teach beginners at 11 and not have them at grade 2 or 3, having picked up all kinds of bad habits.  Several pupils arrive, having played the clarinet for two or three years, but have never been taught how to tongue.  That’s like having driving lessons with the instructor working the pedals for you. It takes far longer to correct those errors than to start someone afresh.  Competent teachers are so vital.  In all this recent argument about QTS most have forgotten that there are a group of teachers in nearly every school who are almost all unqualified and who are rarely, if ever observed by someone competent to do it: the peripatetic music staff.  I’m extremely lucky to have a superb bunch of teachers but there are many who are dreadful.  And who knows?  What success criteria do they have?  Who really cares, as long as we can put a tick in the box and have a big concert at the end of term?  Everyone knows that young musicians sound awful, right?

We need to involve two groups – the professional orchestras and the music colleges.  Not to do occasional school days, where all the children shake cabasas or hit xylophones, accompanied by a professional trombonist, but in qualifying and training the instrumental teachers and working with school ensembles.  It would be more fulfilling for everyone concerned, I’m sure.

To illustrate, earlier this week I attended a concert at the Barbican, given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.  Before the concert, in the Barbican foyer, performers from the orchestra joined together with primary school musicians from schools in East London to perform music based on Brahms’ 4th Symphony, the major work of the concert.  I was inspired as they performed without music for nearly ten minutes.  It was all in tune, the tone was good, the parts were challenging but appropriate and all were concentrating properly.  At the end the conductor informed those listening that it had been put together in just two days and the children had all learned their parts in that time.  Two days?  What could be accomplished with 190 school days?