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.
“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.