Tracking thoughts inspired by railway tracks on a train journey

I’m always concerned by how much duplication of effort there has been in music education from teachers up and down the land over the years. What is worrying me at the moment is that there seems to be a move from schools to require their music teachers to produce GCSE criteria statements for use with their pupils in key stage 3. This worry is based on a number of conversations I have had with music teachers in the past few months. I know that a few anecdotes does not count as evidence, but I have enough of these, and done enough preliminary research into the issue, to be worried.

This blog entry is me thinking out loud, as it were. It may need revising with a bit more detailed research, but here’s what I think, on this train journey, (!) right now, as I pass through the glorious Yorkshire countryside on my way back to the Midlands.

Now, I have worried about tracking in the past (see many previous blogs), what makes things different this time is the sheer amount of unsolicited mail I am getting about this issue. It seems that this is a burden that is being placed on many teachers, and I want to try and describe a number of issues with this:

  1. There is little source material to base GCSE-derived criterion statements on, we only have statements for grades 2, 5, and 8, here
  2. The final GCSE will be norm referenced, not criterion referenced
  3. Progress towards GCSE music is problematic, as only c.7% of pupils nationally will take it…
  4. …therefore GCSE is an end for 93% of kids, what’s their progress?
  5. The NC is not the GCSE syllabus
  6. Composing, performing and listening are assessed differently from one GCSE to another, and, again, are not the same as in the NC
  7. Assessment tracking at KS3 is poorly defined, poorly conceptualised, and poorly operationalised in many schools
  8. Assessment at KS3 sometimes mistakes progression for attainment

Now, as I said, many of these issues have been picked up in previous blogs, and also in the September 2016 editorial I wrote for teachtalkmusic (available here). So, in this present blog, I just want to pick up on the last two of these issues. (The others may help hard-pressed music teachers think about their school’s practice, though, and I intend to return them at some point in the future)

The notion of uses and purposes of assessment has been with us for some years now, what I am concerned with here is the ways in which schools are using tracking data. Again, this is not a new issue, but what is taking place now, is that I am seeing tracking as having taken over from attainment as the key thing upon which schools are becoming fixated. But tracking of what? We seem to be in a situation where there is an assumption that what is needed is close monitoring of KS3 pupils to ensure they stay “on track” for getting the results they should when they get to year 11. Now, this is all very fine and laudable, but it clearly gives us an issue in music, in the fact that 93% of kids won’t ever get there! So what are we doing this for? If we are to show that our tracking is so good that the 7% remain on target, then, I venture to suggest, we are doing a huge amount (93%) of work for little purpose.

So, why do I think that tracking in KS3 is poorly defined, poorly conceptualised, and poorly operationalised in many schools? Well, I wish to suggest that tracking ought to serve some useful purpose, and, at present, frequently for many music teachers, it doesn’t! One of the reasons for this is that tracking ought to be attainment based, and that assessment of attainment ought to be undertaken in music educational terms, and, again it isn’t. Regular readers will know I have long advocated the use of radar charts, and these do allow for musical progression to be tracked properly. I’ll return to that theme again in a later blog, for this blog I feel. It’s time I got to the point…

Tracking has become a modern substitute for the bad old days of unilinear attainment. We now have a different version of a straight line graph, in the form of a more complex suite of flight paths, and these now run all the way through from Y7 to GCSE. Schools are now primarily concerned, I wish to posit, with their own position in the league tables, and are using tracking as a stick with which to beat music teachers into conforming to whatever software package they’ve purchased that predicts attainment. Trouble is, this is often predicated on Maths and English, and has nothing whatsoever to do with music, musical ability (whatever that is!) or actual attainment.

So, My questions for schools are these:

  1. Does your school tracking system actually help teachers with planning for teaching and learning?
  2. Bearing in mind that in many cases your school maths teachers see their kids as often in a week as the music teachers do in a half term, does the tracking system require a proportionate response from all staff equally?
  3. Does your school tracking system serve any useful purpose for the pupils?
  4. Does your school tracking system take time away from music teaching and learning, in other words, paradoxically, would attainment be higher in music without it?

These, I feel are useful questions for dialogue with SLT. Music hubs are charged with having “challenging conversations” with school SLTs, maybe these may come in helpful?

It is important to say that I am not anti-tracking, what I am is concerned by is pointless unhelpful systemic requirements which only add to the busy music teachers workload.

OK, time to look out of the window again. Oh look, a sheep – don’t see many of those in Birmingham. I wonder if it’s on a track…



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