The place of Notation in Music Education

This topic has been bothering me for a while, and will doubtless continue so to do. My latest thoughts are in the British Journal of Music Education, which CUP have kindly made available here.

Maybe you are one of our PGCE graduates, and remember the notation argument from your year? Or maybe you didn’t have it in your pre-service preparation?

I know there has been some activity in the press on this topic recently, much of which I feel is wrong-headed, and in the limited space afforded by an editorial, I try and explain why! anyway, see what you think.

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In which I fall over in Lisbon, and reflect again on the knowledge/skills debate

Sometimes there are things which happen which make you really think about things. One of those happened to me at the weekend. I was in Lisbon to address the Associação portuguesa de educação musical conference there. What happened was that I fell over in the street. It was morning, I was stone cold sober, and I tripped over an uneven pavement. I think that this is in part because, as a varifocal wearer, the ground is constantly out of focus for me, so I have to sort of guess what’s going on down there! Now, apart from the fact that this hurt a lot, and damaged my lip as I hit the ground, reflection occurred afterwards, as Schön would have said, ‘reflection-on-action’. If the ground is constantly out of focus, why not do something about it? Maybe not wear varifocals when walking? So I’m trying that!

But apart from playing for sympathy, this also got me thinking, suppose for a lot of people the ‘ground’ is always out of focus? In music education the notion of a ground – as in, (tenuously, admittedly) the psychology notion of figure-ground – is hard to define. But there has been a lot of talk again of late about the place of knowledge and skills. I have recently listened to a radio programme in which one commentator observes that some teachers don’t think “knowledge” is important, and so said misguided teachers only teach skills. Now, we’ve been here before! This argument is hard to apply in music education. As in so many other things we are out in the lead of other subject areas. The ‘ground’ here, which is so out of focus to the commentator I listened to, is that for music education knowledge and skills go hand in hand. And philosophers will tell you that knowledge includes knowing “how to” anyway, so skills themselves are a form of knowledge after all.

As I said, I was in Lisbon, and so, thick lip, but cleaned up somewhat, I addressed the Portuguese music educators concerning curriculum and assessment. Interestingly, at the point of me talking about knowledge and skills, they smiled and nodded sagely. One of them then said “yes, we had politicians here who thought that, but us educators told them they were being silly, and that of course kids needed both!” “Good”, I said. But this made me think. Why is the ground so unclear in England that we allow people to say things about knowledge and skills that we music educators know to be “silly”? After all, how can you develop skills in, say, guitar playing, and not know the names of chords and their relations? What is it that has created the situation that has allowed “silly” ideas like this to flourish?

One of the reasons, I think, is that for some of the people saying these things, music is so far from their own ground that they never give it a thought. A related reason is the stratified and rarefied view that these people have such that their own subjects don’t have anything like musical skills, and for them, in their subject areas, skills are somewhat nebulous. After all, the skill to read a map is nothing like the skill required to achieve a crescendo on a xylophone. Skills in music require mental and physical interaction, this is not the case in some areas of the curriculum, and it is those areas which have provided the people who have come to prominence peddling this nonsense. But why didn’t we, en masse, like the Portuguese educators did, dismiss this daftness?

Well, I think the answer is political. It suits the zeitgeist for some to say “this is broken”, and a small group of naysayers become empowered beyond that which their limited vision (like mine!) should really allow. And it is not just in knowledge/skills that we see this lack of vision. In England at the moment we are hearing of music disappearing from school curricula. This is so schools can concentrate on subjects which neoliberalism values. And that ain’t the arts! But again, there is a whole host of otherwise sensible people whose varifocals won’t let them see the ground they have been churning up. But that sad saga is for another day!

Which brings me back to falling over! This requires mental and physical interaction in order to not fall over, and so just as I will be more careful with the ground in future, we can but hope that some of those misguided commentators can also look for a ground which includes music education, rather than tacitly assume all subjects are like theirs. And if they don’t “get” music, I’m sure our PE colleagues can oblige with a few examples!



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Instead of a blog…

Instead of a blog, here’s me talking about the way I feel that music education is under threat at the moment. I’m talking with Ciaran O’Donnell of Birmingham Music Hub, and S4E music in B’ham.

I really am worried about what’s going on.

Video at:


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Bullseye! Target setting and target missing.

Or, a blog in which I get to say “Errr?” rather a lot!

Target setting is currently back at number one as the biggest cause of concern that I am hearing about from music teachers. Now, I am going to say upfront that I am not against target setting per se, but what I hear about from many music teachers is that what are being discussed are not targets, but something else entirely.

Let me explain. I’m not very good at darts, so imagine being told that I had one dart, and I had to hit to hit the bullseye, and that I would be in trouble if I didn’t, and, what’s more, the person telling me, let’s call that person “My-Teacher”, then if I don’t hit the bullseye My-Teacher will also be in trouble.


I throw the dart. I don’t hit the bullseye. I don’t even hit the dartboard! My-Teacher reassures me, and tells me that my target was based on my ability to drive a car, so not to worry. But secretly crying inside, My-Teacher now knows that they will be called to account with the spreadsheet-wrangler, who will “seek…desire…demand” (as G&S say in the Gondoliers!) an explanation. It’ll be My-Teacher’s fault I didn’t hit the bullseye, not mine. (Err…?)

End of metaphor, you’ll be pleased to hear!

So what’s going on in music lessons? Well, we know that the new GCSE for music is now up and running, and that it will be graded differently from before. I’ve blogged about some of these changes previously. But what I am hearing about now is that schools are somehow incorporating target grades for GCSE music as part of the reporting arrangements for KS3. Now, KS3 is not GCSE. KS3 is a different thing, OK, it comes before GCSE, but we know that 93% of kids nationally won’t go on to take it. Does this mean that those 93% should be awarded a U grade, as they will be, actually, ungraded through non-entry? No, that’d be daft! But not much dafter that what music teachers are being asked to do at present, which is, in essence:

  • Invent new GCSE criteria (sub-divided, in some cases) with only grades 2, 5 and 8 to go on.
  • Use these invented criteria to then invent a GCSE grade for KS3 kids
  • Invent ways in which kids can progress from one invented grade to the next, preferably in an invented straight line
  • Ignore that the invented grade for a unit on Songwriting, which has very little to do with the unit on the Viennese Waltz which follows it, must nonetheless show invented progression
  • Invent ways of ‘tracking’ the invented grades
  • Prove to the school data-wrangler that all these inventions are statistically valid
  • Be prepared to have the music inventions compared with Maths, English, etc
  • Put the invented grade system into practice, even though KS3 music is on a rota, with long periods where the kids don’t do music, but must still show progress (ie more invention required!)

Put like that it sounds silly doesn’t it? Well, yes, but, reductio ad absurdum, is what many music teachers seem to be being asked to do. When Robin Hammerton was Head Honcho for Ofsted music he wrote in a blog here:

As National Curriculum levels disappear, I’d ask you respectfully not to replace with another set of numbers

Err…? So, what is actually happening is what he warned against!

And then we have these observations from the OCR exam board here:

There’s a really simple reason why there are no grade boundaries for the new assessments: nobody will know until students have sat the first exams in each subject. This is because of the way that grade boundaries will be set on the new qualifications, which will ensure that approximately the same percentage of students will get a grade 7 and above as currently get a grade A and above, and similarly for grade 4 and grade C, and grade 1 and grade G. 

And this:

Ofqual has produced some grade descriptors for the new GCSEs, to be used as a guide for teachers. However, it is worth remembering that the first awards will be driven by statistics, so nobody knows for sure exactly what performance at each grade will look like until the first assessments have been sat! 


What the OCR seem to be saying is that predictions can’t be made. Well, fair enough, statistically speaking. Try that argument with your school data-wrangler, though, and see what they say? (!)

In the meantime, invention is taking place all over the place as schools require more and more accountability of their teachers!

All of this reminds me of Campbell’s law, which I have written about many times before:

 The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor

But back to the targets. I said the dartboard target was derived from my ability to drive a car, which clearly has nothing to do with throwing a dart. Yet in music education we are provided with statistical targets based on Maths and English results from the Primary School. Again, I say, Errr….?

So, do these conversations make sense:

“You can do long division, clearly you should be able to play the guitar!”


 “You know what a fronted adverbial is, clearly you can sing in tune”


So, we have a system of accountability based on so many levels of invention that the whole thing is in danger of collapse.

No wonder so many teachers are off down the pub to play darts!

Posted in Assessment, GCSE, Grading, KS3, Music Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Is curriculum music safe?

At the recent Music Mark conference, I had a slot to talk about current issues in music education. This blog entry is based on that presentation.

For me, one of the big issues that’s facing us is the reduction of curriculum time in secondary schools. This is across the board, from KS3, via KS4, to A level. I am also hearing of schools where music teaching is being removed from the curriculum, for example this.

At MM I presented some facts I had extracted by trawling through DfE statistical data. At the same time Alison Daubney and Duncan Mackrill at Sussex University are conducting a detailed piece of research into respondent views of music teaching in their school. I must emphasise mine is solely secondary data analysis using DfE extant datasets. All the statistics I cite in this piece come from these, and so there is no nuance from the DfE, therefore I am only able to provide my interpretation of the numbers I have here

These make for quite salutary reading. Let us take first the numbers of music teachers employed in secondary schools over the past three years. These have been reducing steadily at the rate of about 200/year:

 Music Teachers loss
2013 7,300
2014 7,100 200
2015 6,900 200

In chart format this reduction can clearly be seen:


With a reducing workforce there is clearly going to be a reduction in the teaching time available too. This is clearly shown in the next chart, which shows the total number of classroom music hours taught in secondary schools:


This again shows a reduction over time, with the dataset for this being:

Total music curriculum hours taught

Music hours taught loss
2013 90,900
2014 88,600 2,300
2015 85,500 3,100

The speed of reduction is interesting here. From 2013 to 2014 we lost 2,300 hours of teaching, from 2014 to 2015 we lost 3,100. It is too early to tell if this accelerando is a trend, so I’ll be watching the details this time next year, when the 2016 stats are published.

A similar exponential loss can be seen in the time loss at KS 4 and 5:


The linear reduction shown in that chart is a simple excel function, so please don’t place too much statistical weight on it, but it does show that time is reducing. Again, there is an increasing rate of loss of hours here. First of all KS4:

KS4 loss
2013 19700
2014 19200 500
2015 18300 900

Now KS5:

KS5 loss
2013 14000
2014 13500 500
2015 12400 1100

Even at KS3, which may be thought of as being ‘safe’ because of its status as a National Curriculum subject, music is losing the number of hours being taught:


Again, the dataset:

KS3 loss
2013 57,200
2014 56,000 1,200
2015 54,900 1,100

The KS3 loss is somewhat galling in the light of Nick Gibb’s statement here that:

Through our curriculum review, music remained a statutory subject in the national curriculum, so every child in maintained schools must study it from age 5 to 14.

It seems the case that every child is not studying it up to the age of 14!

So, these are the bald stats, why is this happening? Well, as I say, all I can do is put my personal interpretation on these bald numbers. The data itself cannot tell us why this reduction is taking place, so what follows is solely my view. I think that it is a combination of factors.

  1. the EBacc. Despite what we are told, I think the EBacc is biting into take up at KS4, with a knock-on effect at A-level
  2. School accountability measures. Music is increasingly seen “not to matter” in accountability terms. (I get a lot of unsolicited mail to this effect, it’s not just me being awkward!) and, when push comes to shove, SLTs are putting their efforts into subjects that “matter”.
  3. The telescoping of KS3 into 2 years instead of three. I am hearing of these time and time again.
  4. Staffing issues. Teachers who leave cannot be replaced, there are just not enough “warm bodies” to put in front of the classes, so SLT has no choice but to do something else for contingency purposes.

Final comment

I think that there is a “perfect storm” brewing, and music hubs will feel the chill winds soon. With fewer music teachers in schools the hub-school liaison will suffer, numbers playing instruments will drop, schools will be more and more reluctant to let kids miss lessons for peri teachers, and the base level of the house of cards will start to totter. We need to be very vigilant indeed.

Sorry not to have better news for this season of Cheer!



Posted in A level music exam, GCSE, KS3, Music Education | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Twitter conversation: KS3 Assessment

This may be of interest to UK KS3 music teachers, it’s a storified twitter conversation about assessment practices in KS3 music.

It’s available here //[View the story “Assessment requirement at KS3” on Storify]


This is the first time I’ve done this, and the link seems really clunky, so HTML experts please tell me how to do it properly!


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