Ofsted Research review series: Music

Aug 31, 2021

Hello Ofsted, my old friend! Yes, it’s back, this time with a review of current research on the topic of music education, one of the purposes of which is to identify “factors that can affect the quality of music education”. It will serve as a precursor to a music subject report that’ll be published once Ofsted can get back into schools and examine first-hand how music is currently being taught.

Sounds interesting. Tell me more… The review looks at four key areas – curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and school systems – exploring factors identified by the research as having an affect on the quality of music education. Each section ends with a distilled list of these factors, entitled “high-quality music education may have the following features”.

So what does Ofsted have to say for each section? Starting with the curriculum, Ofsted highlights three pillars that need to be developed to allow pupils to progress well:

  1. The technical pillar – the translation of intentions into sound through, for example, instrumental playing, singing or music technology
  2. The constructive pillar – knowledge (tacit knowledge – gained through experience; procedural knowledge – gained through performance; and declarative knowledge – facts or information) of how musical components come together
  3. The expressive pillar – quality, meaning and creativity

It goes on to explore curriculum scope, and with the caveat that there are “various ways that schools can construct and teach high-quality music curriculums”, includes a list of questions to consider when reflecting on your music curriculum:

  • Does curricular scope take into account what can realistically be learned, rather than briefly encountered, in the time available?
  • Does the curriculum build pupils’ procedural knowledge in controlling sound?
  • Is this built up in a way that is gradual, iterative and coherent with regard to instrument choice?
  • Is curriculum scope regarding appropriate representational systems realistic in the time available? Will pupils gain the fluency to use them musically?
  • How will pupils encounter the examples that give meaning to the concepts of musical elements?
  • Are compositional components identified for development and given sufficient practice time?
  • How does the curriculum take into account the importance of quality and creative diversity in students’ musical offerings?
  • Where are the opportunities to consider musical culture and meaning?

So what factors are listed in the “high-quality music education may have the following features” section for curriculum? See the list below – the following is all quoted directly from the review:

Curriculum Scope

  • Curriculum content that might reasonably be mastered in the time available, remembering that sometimes less is more
  • Plentiful opportunities for pupils to return to and consolidate their short-term learning
  • Repetition of key curricular content with the gradual introduction of new ideas, methods and concepts

Pillars of progression: sound production

  • Curricular scope that includes enabling pupils to gradually develop control over the sound they are producing
  • Practice episodes to support the consolidation of procedural knowledge
  • Consistency with regards to the medium for developing sound control, recognising the weak transfer of procedural knowledge

Pillars of progression: Communication Systems

  • The goal of automaticity in using the components set out in the curriculum, such as reading the treble clef or chord symbols
  • Large amounts of practice to enable pupils to develop reading fluency at the level set out in the curriculum

Pillars of progression: Constructive

  • Learning of the concepts and terminology of musical elements through examples embedded within wider units of work, taking prior learning into account

Pillars of progression: Components and composites in composing

  • Opportunities to develop knowledge of the components of composition that pertain to chosen school curriculums and support work towards stylistic composites

Pillars of progression: Expressive

  • Extensive listening opportunities to help develop pupils’ expressive intentions
  • Tasks at a technical level appropriate for pupils to be able to realise their expressive intentions

Pillars of progression: Creative output

  • Space for exploration, inconsistency and independence

Pillars of progression: Knowledge of music

  • Opportunities to gain knowledge of musical culture and repertoire, which is part of a broad education and a joy in and of itself
  • Realistic scope concerning this knowledge which, if it is to be meaningful and remembered, is unlikely to be vast

Lots to think about! How about Pedagogy? What does the report say about that? The review highlights the importance of ‘context’ in music education and notes that “pupil attention and motivation correlate strongly with positive outcomes… When pupils are motivated, they pay more attention, put in more effort, persist for longer, and are able to work more independently.”

The use of pupil feedback in music is also key to success. Schools need to promote opportunities “to attend to and learn the most appropriate curriculum content”. Such opportunities might include offering productive struggle, cognitive activity and practice opportunities with diagnostic feedback. The review notes that informal “Formative ‘developmental’ assessment in music is far more important than making summative judgements as it helps pupils and teachers understand the learning process better and work out the range of possible next steps.”

So what factors are listed in the “high-quality music education may have the following features” section for pedagogy? See the list below – the following is all quoted directly from the review:

Feedback and guidance

  • Clarity over the components which will form the basis for formative assessment
  • High levels of guidance for novices, remembering that pupils in every key stage are sometimes novices, with increasing freedom as pupils gain greater competence

Pupil attention and motivation

  • Occasional outlying moments of powerful emotional impact, created deliberately through careful planning or through seizing the moment and running with it
  • Recognition that attention filters out most of what pupils perceive and that it should not be wasted on ephemera

Interesting. Let’s move on to assessment… Of course. The third area that Ofsted explores is more formal forms of formative and summative assessment, concluding that the three pillars of progression outlined in the curriculum section “could be borne in mind when devising assessments and their interaction over time.” It suggests three points that merit further consideration:

  • Linearity – e.g. the development of instrumental technique or the steady increase of declarative knowledge
  • Consolidation – this will likely need to be given significant room in the curriculum to ensure long-term learning is effective
  • Quality – e.g. in performance

So what factors are listed in the “high-quality music education may have the following features” section for assessment? See the list below – the following is all quoted directly from the review:

  • Judicious use of summative assessment to check on curriculum effectiveness
  • Use of assessment to identify pupil misconceptions or missing areas of understanding
  • Use of assessment as part of the learning process itself

That all makes good sense. And finally, tell me about school systems. The report highlights some key systemic factors that affect the ability to deliver a high quality education: curriculum time, flexibility and CPD. Specifically, it suggests that primary schools think carefully about their music CPD and focus on developing teachers as musicians, focusing on their musicianship. Taking this approach will develop confidence and understanding. Your local music hub should be able to help with this.

Lots to think about! What should I be doing with all of this? Good question! You may wish to use the features-of-high-quality-education lists to inform an audit of music education in your setting. But try not to feel overwhelmed by it. It isn’t a prescriptive to-do list; it is simply an opportunity to reflect on and further develop your music provision.

In a nutshell… Ofsted sets out the elements for a successful musical performance – be inspired by it, but don’t be afraid to improvise (tunefully, of course!).

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