There has been a lot of social media chatter in England recently about Progress 8 data scores, which have been published. This is rather complex to explain for an international audience, but, essentially, Progress 8 is secondary school accountability measure:
“Progress 8 aims to capture the progress that pupils in a school make from the end of primary school to the end of KS4. It is a type of value-added measure, which means that pupils’ results are compared to other pupils nationally with similar prior attainment.” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1112046/Secondary_accountability_measures_2022_guide.pdf (p.13)
The essential feature of Progress 8 is that it is predicated on statistically average attainment, and, as the government document cited above states:
“For all mainstream pupils nationally, the average Progress 8 score will be zero” (ibid, p.23)
The point of this blog entry, though, is not to discuss Progress 8, but that these SocMe discussions set me off thinking about average attainment in classroom music lessons. This is much more problematic, at least in the context of English secondary schools, than it may seem at first glance. I am going to concentrate in this entry on secondary schools, although there may well be similar issues at primary, but that’s a different issue. What, I wonder, does average progress in classroom music in the lower secondary school (KS3, in the local parlance) both look like, and, more importantly, sound like? Now I know we have a model music curriculum, which is supposed to delineate such issues, but I am concerned with thinking about progression which is not deliverology, or of words-on-and-off-a-page syndrome, in other words it is not the writing down of a curriculum document, but the actual music that results from the children and young people who receive it in its enacted form.
We sometimes see published examples of ‘best practice’ in classroom music, but again, I am not concerned with a tiny minority of schools so well-funded and resourced, or with an abnormally high prior-attaining pupil cohort, but with normal, everyday schools. And here, I feel, that there are likely to be many examples.
I repeat: What does average progress in classroom music sound like? We know that in the National Curriculum music learning is built on composing, listening, and performing, but these are interrelated, not atomistic. We know too that Ofsted have written that
“In making decisions about curriculum content, it is important to consider how the sequence of content develops pupils’ musical knowledge and competencies over time. This review proposes 3 pillars as the basis for progression in the musical activities of performing, composing and listening/appraising. [These pillars are] Technical, Constructive, Expressive” (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-music)
But again I ask, what does this sound like when average progress is being made? Qualitatively, how does music made at the start of Y7 differ audibly from the middle of year 8, and the end of year 9? These things really matter, as we know that progress is a vital ingredient in music making, yet the prime issue, that of quality of music being made, remains, for many, an elusive concept. Maybe this is elusive systemically too, perhaps? I have written before about Pirsig, in his seminal 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance making this highly pertinent observation:
“Quality — you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on?” (Pirsig, 1974, p187)
And this, for me, is a big issue. What is audible quality in classroom music making? We know from the ABRSM and Trinity College graded music exams what a ladder of progression sounds like in instrumental music, but what about classroom music? How does a school that has been focusing on singing (say) sound progressively (actually I prefer ‘progressionally’, as ‘progressive’ has a problematic meaning in music education for some!) differ from one where the children and young people have been composing using ICT, one where there are rock bands, one where musical futures is the main modality, one where all the youngsters learn an orchestral instrument in class time, one where tuned percussion, or guitars, are the main modality, and so on. Again, I repeat, what does average progress in classroom music in each of these instances sound like?
One of the many issues for us in music education is that we start to get bound up in issues of ideology very quickly at this juncture, “well, if they will do rock music in class what can you expect?” sorts of things (insert any hobby-horse of your choosing for ‘rock music’!). We also get into the ‘could’ versus ‘should’ dilemma. For some, it could sound like this, for others it should sound like that. These issues are not easy to resolve.
There are many issues that face us in music education in England at the moment, maybe this is yet another that we could/should be worrying about?