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.


16 thoughts on “Ofsted Music report blames everyone…except Ofsted

  1. Great post. I think that the whole hub idea was poorly thought out with little regard for how they would be expected to work with schools who are frankly not interested in music teaching. Funding is an issue. I hadn’t realised that the funding actually equated to £7 per pupil per year. This is ridiculously low & will limit the impact hubs have on school music. Are you on twitter?

    • Thanks. The £7 figure does imply that all 8m children from 5-18 are receiving something which of course is not true. But even if it were just for primary schools it would be only double that figure. My twitter name is @musotim

  2. Many findings in the Ofsted report mirror what I see locally whilst teaching music in 3 authorities. In the schools where music is effectively taught there is a wide diversity of genres and staff are highly qualified (in every sense). This is rare however! Music has become sidelined and instrumental teaching is often non-existent in many rural areas. Our Hub formerly employed 65 teachers within the Music Service. Over 40 were made redundant and are not invited to be partners. They were the most experienced staff and of course the most expensive! What remains is a huge push for ‘inclusion’although strangely this seems to only include First Access and anything involving arguably less demanding music activities. Continuation is poorly served and county groups are shadows of their former selves. The Hub arrangements have caused a huge rift and a disconnect between the teachers working across the area. Just when we should all be pulling together. This has meanwhile allowed schools to be far less accountable for their own musical activities. There is much more but I think that is covered by much of the Ofsted report. I rarely agree with anything from this source but this time I think they hit the nail on the head.

    • Oh I by no means attempt to discredit many of the claims of the Ofsted report – many of them chime with what I have heard, stories similar to yours. But I wonder why. Why do schools respond to music, First Access and similar activities in this way? Are they instinctively hostile to the arts? Are they hopelessly incompetent Philistines? Are they so driven by Ofsted targets that they lose sight of the actual point of education? Or is it a little of boxes 1,2 and 3? One thing’s for sure, Hubs and First Access are not the answer.

      • These are to a degree simplistic generalisations but i can expand if anyone’s interested! As a former Deputy Head of Service I do understand the complexities and demands from all quarters.

        1) Some Hubs basically offer a ‘menu’ to schools and do not offer any form of leadership to ensure diversity as well as full coverage. In one area where I presently work the schools have all chosen uke groups, djembe sessions and Samba. The stores are full of traditional instruments which are lying unused.
        2) As we all know, schools now have their sights set more than ever on Literacy and Numeracy. Music is often just an option amongst Arts subjects when formerly it would have had a weekly place in the curriculum until perhaps Year 10 or 11.
        3) Many Hub leaders are NOT musicians but administrators and follow the political agenda to just get as many involved as possible with less regard for continuation and quality. The never-ending taster I call it! The Ofsted report details a recorder First Access lesson where only B, A and G had been learnt after 22 lessons!
        4) Some Hubs’ agendas consist of Inclusion, Inclusion, Inclusion which basically envisages a music service as some kind of social work. We all know inclusion is important but this view is dare I say reactionary against anything else, seeing Western Classical as basically elitist. These Hubs and Music Services often have breadth but little depth. They often have problems with fully implementing continuation after initial ‘First Access’ schemes. These Hubs will also react strongly against the report.
        5) The workforce in many places has been seriously eroded and many no longer see the work as vocational. Newham recently advertised for ‘teachers’ (!) with just Grade 6 ABRSM to lead its instrumental tuition and First Access. Trinity and ABRSM offering the new CME as some sort of rite of passage does not help!

        I could go on .. and on. Many older, experienced leaders have moved on or retired from the old Music Services. Like schools they had learnt to be quick on their feet to meet with change and address whatever the latest diktat required. Many present leaders have had shallow music experience and don’t see music as an end in itself but merely as a subject to support other areas of more serious study. They will frequently see the mild OCD flavour of practising an instrument seriously as somewhat geeky and a bit undesirable. Their agenda is to carry out whatever the money is available for. At this time that means Wider Opps and Inclusion. A bit of lip service to ensembles and they’re done!

        Let’s be clear, there are still some areas of excellence where these issues would hardly be recognised, except maybe No 2.

        Places I take heart from include Gwent (but they I believe are subject to a large cut), Hampshire and Sutton. I understand that there is some excellent work still going on in places like Tower Hamlets and Barking and Dagenham who certainly used to have one of the best First Access schemes I have ever seen. Lots of real, high quality professional musicians who were also fantastically gifted teachers and had the wider and longer view of what they were doing. I won’t name those that are doing less well but suffice to say they will usually be where there has been much churn and change, often the rural counties.

      • Point 1) I find bitterly depressing. It goes to my first post about the Classical tradition becoming the exclusive preserve of independent and grammar educated people.
        2) And why is that? Because Ofsted will fail them if they don’t hit targets. I appreciate that Numeracy and Literacy are the most important things to learn at school but they can and should be developed through cultural and intellectual capital, not brittle ‘skills’ lessons.
        3) Is also just depressing. Recorders? Still? Is it the 1970s? 3 notes in 22 lessons? Sometimes I don’t see the point.
        4) Makes me angry. Why is the classical tradition becoming elitist? Because comps run away from it. Not elitist in Venezuela.
        5) Just makes me despair. Hubs were supposed to be a way of getting more for less (I think I read that somewhere). Are we too late?

        I’m really interested in hearing more from you Walter – feel free to email me on tworrall (at) kegs.org.uk and we can discuss this more!

    • Your praise means a great deal to me Jon, thank you.

      Yours is a rather more robust criticism of the report I think. Ironically when I started reading I was on Ofsted’s side; when I finished I was appalled. I do want all children to have access to the Classical tradition and I do want them to learn notation. But it is not the only way and it’s not the only thing worth learning. The casual dismissal of the efforts of teachers and hub staff in the report was deeply unpleasant. Ofsted must lose its power to set both the agenda and the solution. They must return (or become, depending on perspective) to a monitoring agency.

    • I agree with so much of what Jonathan writes in his blog. I tweeted a few comments to him as the report emerged and could see that we maybe had some fundamental disagreements. You see, from where I sit, OFSTED’s report had many valid points. As I read Jonathan’s comments I am particularly drawn to Point 6 which for me is key. In the area in which I operate almost all of these points ring true!

      Taking a typical Junior school. I used to visit this school to direct 3 Wider Opps bands and 1 band made up of students who had decided to pursue their interest further. Many students followed through to joining local Music Centre groups and I was aware of many past pupils who had joined County Groups. Basically, the usual pattern and this was a strong example of what could be done. At this stage I was Deputy Head of the Music Service providing both these classes and others offered approximately 5 days of instrumental tuition across a wide range of instruments

      In 2011 the Music Service was culled from 65 with all staff on Teachers’ Pay and Conditions to just 4 and a half posts full time + a Head of Service who was mainly an administrator with Grade 6 on flute. A body of instructors were hired on swimming instructor contracts and paid £18 an hour.

      Can you see where this is going yet?

      The Hub structure comes along and 2 unitary authorities formerly working with the Music Service split off to form their own Hub.

      So what about this school I hear you ask. They now have one Hub providing First Access classes through my wife and myself with a different Hub (the old Music Service) providing just one after school session of Samba and mixed instrumental lessons. The bands have all gone and the last concert we attended displayed a huge reduction in quality and quantity of performers. This school was graded Outstanding at the last OFSTED visit.

      The Head of the school has stated clearly that they do not wish for instrumental lessons to interrupt the school day and they do not want bands! Continuation from First Access classes is poor and admittedly affected by the poor relationship between the providers and the old Music Service which made so many of its best staff redundant!

      Across all 3 authorities this is replicated with many schools having no visiting peripatetic staff and a much cut down curriculum within the classroom. Quality of class teachers varies more than ever. There is a high degree of ignorance within schools and the Hubs about what constitutes the difference between having some fun with music and a full, balanced musical education

      I haven’t got the time to write at length as Jonathan has done and much of this has sapped my energy over the past few years. All I know is that poor as much of the evidence and construction of the Ofsted report may be and however much we all hate Gove and his minions many of these Ofsted observations made me weep but sadly have to nod my head in agreement.

      Look at this one for example: ‘When asked about the purpose of music education in their schools, headteachers spoken to during the survey usually said that they wanted pupils to enjoy music with the opportunity at some point, if the pupils wished, to perform to an audience. When further challenged, the headteachers were surprised that more might be expected. Few spoke of music as a rigorous, academic subject for all.’

      In many places Hub staff are no longer thinking vocationally about their work. They are merely instructors paid precisely for the hours they do and at a lower rate than before in many areas. Meanwhile Trinity and ABRSM are throwing in their CME ‘qualification’ to boost the quality of teaching as if you can make a music teacher through a few hours of training. I had understood from the National Music Plan that there would be a far greater focus on equipping music graduates from our conservatoires to form the next generation of instrumental TEACHERS.
      Sadly, it is therefore no surprise to me to read what Ofsted are reporting here although I am sure as I stated in an earlier post here there are places where good practice still continues. Jonathan is quite correct to suggest that Ofsted should look to themselves and government to find guilty partners in all this. However, I believe that many Music Service and Hub leaders basically embrace wherever the money is coming from and will blow with the wind to keep things rolling along. It really need people to stick fast on educational and musical principles and, alas, that didn’t happen.

      • Thank you (I think!) for yet more examples of the depressing way in which music is being destroyed. I know this may seem cowardly but I sit somewhere between you and Jonathan. I hold fast by what I wrote – the report is blithely critical of much going on in schools (particularly) which is not to their taste. Heaven knows what they would make of my department – a lot of the report’s criticisms would apply – but we still seem to be able to put on concerts with really challenging music in. Next week the orch will perform MacCunn Land of Mtn & Flood, Tchaik 5 2nd movement and the Brahms Academic Festival Overture. Not all the performers are GCSE or A level students and not all of them would be able to compare the Tchaik to John Denver or even Moon Love.

        On the other hand, the criticism of some departments where they seem to have given up, school leaders delighted for an excuse to excise music from the curriculum and hubs which shrug their shoulders and send in the samba bands, this all seems fair to me.

        And I don’t hate Michael Gove. I’m secretly a big fan. Perhaps he assumed that school leaders consider music an essential part of school life and would use their new freedoms to usher in a new era of school music. Perhaps he forgot these schools were in Britain. That’s rather flip but as I travel I do find much of the country remarkably….I’ll use the phrase ‘low brow’.

  3. Great post Tim. A rising star in an under-represented curriculum area in the blogosphere. For the record, McBusted plays a very small part in my musical life, even though Air Hostess and Year 3000 sneak into my guilty pleasure playlist!

    • All sounds a bit generic, unthreatening rock to me. Each to his own and all that. We ALL have guilty pleasures: mine is Strictly Come Dancing. It doesn’t fit the rest of my life but I do rather obsess about it.

      Thanks too for the RT – the views column has rather jumped!

  4. My post yesterday was critical of the report and the broader political and educational context from which it has emerged. I also have many criticisms about the content of the report too (no surprise eh?) which I will turn to in future posts on my blog. I was pleaed to read your thoughts on these here Tim. Great work and a good debate with others too.

  5. Pingback: Summary of discussion about notation, theory and supporting classroom teachers! | musicalfuturesblog

  6. Hi Tim, I agree with lots that you say here, but one sentence jumped out at me:

    “Well, no. I’m not at home discussing pop and house music. My best musicians aren’t either”

    Does this mean that to be the ‘best’ you have to be ‘classical’, wether classically trained or familiar with classical music?

    I ask because if you asked me to name 3 of my ‘best’ musicians I would choose

    1. Year 11 cellist (grade?) plays so musically that he practically carries the orchestra, but his teacher says his technique isn’t good enough to take grade 8 as he won’t practice. Also loves Persian music, weird folk music and playing the recorder by ear. Anything that takes his fancy, he will copy and play. Has also taught himself to play the bass guitar, trombone and just taught his bass guitar-playing mate to play double bass by ear in the school orchestra.
    2. Year 10 violinist (grade 6) beautiful tone plays expressively. Can also pound out a stonking solo on alto sax in the school jazz band and composes beautiful, expressive melodies
    3. Year 9 pianist: Now about grade 4 but is one of the best ear-players I have ever met, also composes some great stuff using garage band on his mobile phone. He is on the SEN register.

    and I can’t forget my Y9 beatboxer who is so immersed in the genre he has a crowd of followers that he gives tips to at lunchtimes, my year 7 who has never had a formal lesson but has picked up and taught others to play the song we are learning on piano, uke, vocals and drums.

    I wasn’t at home discussing pop and house music, but these students showed me that is is as relevant and musically useful as the music I love and so rather than teach just what I know, I have become a learner as well.

    There are many students I wouldn’t choose. A violinist as keen as mustard but plays notes not music. A grade 7 flautist you can’t hear in even their solo passages, a grade 7 singer with a beautiful voice who just cannot convey the meaning of the words.

    We are discussing this at #mufuchat this week, it would be great if you could join us!

    As I said, it was just this one sentence that niggled with me in your blog, I hope you don’t mind me posting.

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