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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I’m asked for a quote…

…by the organisation “Music Mark”, so, on the spur of the moment, I say this:


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Another blog, elsewhere!

I’ve been thinking about the purposes of KS3 music education, and the results of this are to be found on the teachtalk music website, over at this address.

Thanks to David Ashworth for this!


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Poster at ISME

I’ve been a bit on the busy side recently, which is, in many ways, an understatement! Anyway, last week I was up in Glasgow for the International Society of Music Education (ISME) conference. Whilst there I gave four spoken presentations, and a poster. Now, if you haven’t been to an international conference, a poster might seem a bit KS3, but let me assure you it’s hard work, as you get a thorough 1-to-1 grilling from the people attending!

I produced a poster on KS3 assessment in music education, and to make it comprehensible to an international audience, gave it a title which wasn’t quite true, but is close enough to get the gist. Here is an image of the poster as presented:

ISME 2016 poster

(I hope the visuals work?)

It is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and a bit over-the-top too, both of which were clear from my spoken dialogue! I thought I’d put it here on my blog site just so it doesn’t now simply vanish into the obscurity of my office wall never to be seen again, but also in case anyone wishes to hark back to some of the NC madness we used to have!

I do hope that with new assessment regimes some of the daftness of times past disappear, but I at the same time I have a fear that we are in danger of replacing them with new madnesses!


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GCSE Music – Statistics and Grade Boundaries

N.B. This is a post that may get deleted or have amendments later, if it proves that I am being daft, and haven’t read all the relevant small print! Which, as it’s about the new GCSE grading, means there is a lot of small print to read. It’s arisen from a conversation I had with Dr Alison Daubney on twitter, so thanks  for setting this troubling train of thought off! 


On the 15th July 2016, the DfE published revised Grade descriptors for GCSEs graded 9 to 1. (Find them at ‪  Well, they didn’t, actually, for music. They published them for Grades 8, 5, and 2. (Remember that these grades 9-1 work the same way as music practical exam grades, ie start at 1.) Here they are:

Grade 8

To achieve Grade 8 candidates will be able to:

  • perform challenging music with a high degree of fluency and sensitivity
  • compose using a wide range of musical elements with sophistication, creating effective musical ideas and sustaining interest through their development
  • demonstrate, through aural identification, accurate knowledge of a wide range of musical elements, contexts and language
  • evaluate music to make convincing judgements using musical terminology accurately and effectively

Grade 5

To achieve Grade 5 candidates will be able to:

  • perform music with some technical challenges broadly fluently with some sensitivity
  • compose using a range of musical elements with coherence, creating musical ideas and developing interest with some success
  • demonstrate, through aural identification, mostly accurate knowledge of a range of musical elements, contexts and language
  • evaluate music to make clear judgements using musical terminology appropriately

Grade 2

To achieve Grade 2 candidates will be able to:

  • perform simple pieces with limited fluency and sensitivity
  • compose using a range of musical elements, creating musical ideas with some appeal and limited development
  • demonstrate, through aural identification, some knowledge of musical elements, contexts and language
  • evaluate music to produce simple reflections with inconsistent use of musical terminology


Now, this is what many teachers have been asking me for in emails and in discussion forums for quite a while. But, hold on, I think there’s a problem. Well, lots of problems actually! The first issue is that there seems to be some confusion between criterion-referencing – which is what these grade statements are (well, sort of, but stay with me), and norm-referencing, which is where, in essence, a curve of normal frequency distribution (NFD) is used to allocate the grades within set percentages. If your assessment literacy is a bit ropey on this, detailed explanations are found elsewhere on the net. Here’s a graph of NFD from the NFER (available here)



This means, in this example, that only 2% of entrants can ever get the top grade. If there is an amazingly bright group one year, and an astonishingly dim one the next year, these % figures will remain constant (again, that’s a huge over-simplification, sorry). If, therefore, you have an exam system which is norm-referenced, like the new GCSE will be, then you cannot superimpose criterion-referencing statements on it at the same time; in a similar fashion my petrol car cannot run on diesel. The DfE themselves state here that:

“The descriptors are not designed to be used for awarding purposes, unlike the ‘grade descriptions’ that apply to current GCSEs graded A* to G.”

So, again, what are they for? The DfE again:

“We have developed grade descriptors for the reformed GCSEs graded 9 to 1. These aim to assist teachers by providing an indication of the likely level of performance at grades 2, 5 and 8.

The purpose of these grade descriptors is to give an idea of average performance at the mid-points of grades 2, 5 and 8.”

However, I suspect they will be used in KS3, for assessment, monitoring, and tracking purposes. But I’ll return to that theme later.

What will this look like in practice? We don’t have the breakdown for music, but we do for some subjects, so here are drama and PE:

drama and PE 0716


Now, I’m a tad busy at the moment, but if I get an odd five minutes I’ll try and do one for music. But, TBH, it won’t be much help for anyone in an individual school! Why? Because however big your GCSE cohort is, music is such a small subject it still won’t approximate to the national figures. And if you want to feel really depressed, just remember that the kids at Eton, Chets, and Menuhin are also in there, so they will be (I guess, but I’ll probably get into trouble for saying so) up in the top x%, knocking the kids from bogstandard comp out of the way in the process. (You can’t do footnotes, I don’t think, in this blog app, so – if I’m wrong on this, please shout, and I’m not having a go at specialist music schools, just trying to show how the stats might pan out.)

I’ve written about different assessment types before here. I’m wondering how it would go down with SLT if new grading requirements involve a modified form of comparative assessment, modelled onto a graph of NFD for the pupils in each school. If we can work out the statistical modifiers, after a few years we ought to be able to map the general progress 8 stats onto this for each school, and come up with a reasonable attempt at a progress map. But what this might tell us is a tale for another blog!

Which takes me back to the point that I’m not sure what the point of the published grade descriptors is! But, if I were a hard pressed head of music whose SLT have told them to produce grade descriptors for KS3, I’d be on these like a shot!

But here’s where my next worry lies. Let’s take the Grade 2 words, and do something you never, ever should. Let’s compare it to the National Curriculum. For GCSE (ie by age 16) Grade 2 pupils have to:

  • perform simple pieces with limited fluency and sensitivity

At Key Stage 2 (ie by the age of 11) children are required to be taught to:

  • play and perform in solo and ensemble contexts, using their voices and playing musical instruments with increasing accuracy, fluency, control and expression

Some overlap there, methinks? And what about GCSE Grade 2:

  • compose using a range of musical elements, creating musical ideas with some appeal and limited development

KS2 again:

  • improvise and compose music for a range of purposes using the inter-related dimensions of music

And so on!

Which means that with some cunning wording, it could mean that we see schools producing NC levels redux, but dressed up as new GCSE-related criteria statements. Another worry now emerges: will we see invented sub-divisions of the GCSE grades being used in KS3 to “chart” (in deliberate inverted commas) progress? If so, what do these mean?


All of this blog is very, very speculative, and, as I said, I may be totally wrong, and if so, quite happy to have this pointed out. But this entry has been me thinking out loud, as it were, about the effects of what I have been reading and thinking about recently. As things crystallise I’ll revisit, and issue corrections and clarifications as needed.

Thanks due too to @MissDCox for her excellent blog at which also got me thinking!




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Uses and purposes of assessment in music education

In academic discussions of assessment in the literature, we distinguish between uses and purposes of assessment (indeed, in my assessment book (Fautley, 2010) I devote a section to this). To put it probably over-simply, for the sake of this blog, purposes of assessment date back the TGAT report of 1988 (TGAT, 1988), where they defined four purposes for assessment:

Summative: For the recording of the overall achievement of the student in a systematic way.
Formative: So that the positive achievements of a pupil may be recognised and discussed and the appropriate next steps may be planned.
Evaluative: By means of which some aspects of the work of a school, an LEA or other discrete part of the education service can be assessed and/or reported upon.
Diagnostic: Through which learning difficulties may be scrutinised and classified so that appropriate remedial help and guidance can be provided. (From TGAT 1988, para 23)

But the term uses and purposes has fallen into disrepair somewhat recently, for reasons Newton observes:

1) the term ‘assessment purpose’ can be interpreted in a variety of different ways
2) the uses to which assessment results are put are often categorized misleadingly. (Newton, 2007, p. 149)

My concern in this blog is to discuss what I am hearing increasingly when talking with teachers, and this is a jump straight from discussing assessment to talking about two other things in the same breath:

  1. Tracking
  2. Target setting

And, often, a third creeps in not long after:

3. Reporting

The reason that I am concerned about this is that I feel that what is often (but, to be fair, not always) missing from these discussions is thinking about marking and grading. Let me try and unpick this.

What I think is happening is that school assessment systems are based on marking, the school assessment policy tells teachers how to mark (or grade). What the music teachers (and other subjects too, I guess, but I have no evidence for this) then have to do is to work out how to mark pupil work in music according to this system. What I think (and happy to be corrected) is that the ‘missing link’ is getting from pupil work to marked grade. This seems obvious, but is, I think very hard. It involved scaled marking schemes, grades, and the implementation of professional judgements. There are a number of ways of doing this, and I’ll doubtless write about these in the future, but just to whet your appetite, here are a few that are commonly used:

  • Criterion based: where assessment criteria are produced, and pupils work graded accordingly
  • Impression based: basically where a more informed version of ‘think of a number’ is used
  • Holistic assessment: A more organised version of the above, where a single overall grade is given (but may also result from aggregating atomised marks)
  • Assessment by accretion: where the more ‘stuff’ a child can do, the higher the grade (NB often ignore quality!)
  • Consensual Assessment: (see Amabile, 1983, 1996 for details) where a number of experts make conjoint decisions
  • Comparative assessment: where pupils are assessed “…how did this student do compared to the class norm” (Harper & O’Brien, 2012, p. 109)
  • NC level based: (actually a form of criterion based, but still…) where the wording of an NC level is bent to fit the task, and sublevelled when appropriate

There’s more, but this will do for the moment. Now, the bit I am concerned with, as I said above, is how do we get from the music to the grade/mark? And in order to address this question, we need to return to where we began, what use will this information be put to? To put it very simply, if our salaries depend on grades, we will assess somewhat differently to if we want to know how to help the kids play the B7 chord better on the guitar.

As I said, more on this to follow anon!

Post-publication Addendum:
John Kelleher rightly draws my attention to the differences between marking and grading as separate activities, and he is quite correct so to do. He discusses this issue here.


Amabile, T. (1983). The Social Psychology of Creativity. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in Context. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Fautley, M. (2010) Assessment in Music Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Harper, J., & O’Brien, K. (2012). Student-Driven Learning: Small. Medium, and Big Steps to Engage and Empower Students, Markham, Ontario: Pembroke Publishers.
Newton, P. E. (2007). Clarifying the purposes of educational assessment. Assessment in Education, 14(2), 149-170.
TGAT. (1988). Task group on Assessment and Testing: A report: London: DES.

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Assessment and Coffee

Those nice people over at MusicMark have made available a piece I wrote for secondary school music teachers wherein I reflect on one of the common issues with assessment I am asked about, that of progression. In it I respond by inviting teachers to think on these three questions:

1. What are the pupils learning?
2. What does progression look and sound like in this?
3. Are you asking about progression, or proving progression?

The full piece is available here.


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Rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic


I’m guessing that someone had the job of being in charge of deckchairs on the Titanic. I presume that they spent their days and nights dreaming up ever more complex ways of arranging the deckchairs in patterns, and then occupied themselves for hours doing that. And maybe, even as the ship was sinking, they were concerned that their deckchair arrangements were being spoiled. Maybe they were just too busy rearranging them to notice the bloody great iceberg bearing down on them.

This long metaphor is how I view some parts of music education at the moment. Many music services (MSs) don’t seem to have realised that when Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) are normal for all secondary schools, they (MSs) may not be required. At the moment we have a situation where MSs don’t aggressively encroach into each other’s territory too often. Can you see MATs doing that? We have local continuation routes for music education predicated on the school>local schools>area band (or whatever)>regional band>County band (again, or whatever) model. Can you see aggressive MATs doing that? There will be a <<Insert Name of Trust>>model, where music making is kept within that MAT. Now, this may not a bad model per se, the MATs may genuinely put a lot of effort into their music offer, and, having done so, will want to reap the reward of so doing, but it strikes me as extremely unlikely that they will want to play nicely with other MATs. After all, Tesco don’t cooperate with Asda on how to make their baked beans better, I don’t think?

And this is the iceberg that is looming. (Well, one of them anyway, I actually think there is a whole flotilla of icebergs on the horizon, but that’s another blog!)

So, what’s in it for MATs, MSs, schools, and kids? Well, this is what we don’t know. This isn’t an anti-MAT blog entry, far from it. We do know that some current MATs take a lot of care with their music education offer, and genuinely want to do well by and for their kids, and for these MATs, good music education and high quality music making go hand in hand. We also know some MATs don’t care so much, and are more concerned with other aspects of schooling. Music services could well feel the pinch, with bad MATs forcing a race to the bottom in terms of fees and services, and working regardless of MS and hub boundaries. For schools this will mean being tied into the MAT music offer. Again, this may be no bad thing, but if, say, a MAT music offer is predicated on performing, then a teacher wedded to a composing pedagogy may wish to look elsewhere. And finally kids. Continuation routes contained within a MAT may well be no different to those of a music service or hub, but it is unlikely that both will flourish, with the MS offer likely to suffer most. This might not be an issue in urban contexts, but out in the remote wilds of the Shires, this could entail a lot of travelling.

So where is the deckchair re-arranger? Well, I talk to a number of hubs and MSs, and I hope that they are out there on the bows of the ship looking anxiously ahead with their binoculars. But some aren’t. They are soon going to be spending a lot of time on the poop-deck wondering what it’s like to be struck by an iceberg, leaving them well and truly up a well known creek!

As for music education? Well, I feel that we are entering uncharted waters for many reasons, and we will need all our wits about us. There are icebergs, sure, but bad weather, predators, and Pirates too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and arrange “Abide with me” for deckchairs and noseflute. And don’t bother me, I’m far too busy to ever find myself without a …..

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A blog – but somewhere else!

I’ve written about my personal reflections on the recent (March 2016) Mayor’s summit on music education in London. The blog can be found at the BCU CSPACE (where I work) site, over at:

It was an interesting day, but one which left me with some concerns, as I outline in the entry.


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In which I worry about Vogons

From Douglas Adams “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”:

“People of Earth, your attention please,” a voice said, and it was wonderful. Wonderful perfect quadrophonic sound with distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep.

“This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council,” the voice continued. “As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less that two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.”

The PA died away.

Uncomprehending terror settled on the watching people of Earth. The terror moved slowly through the gathered crowds as if they were iron fillings on a sheet of board and a magnet was moving beneath them. Panic sprouted again, desperate fleeing panic, but there was nowhere to flee to.

Observing this, the Vogons turned on their PA again. It said:

“There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”

I have been wondering recently whether we are seeing the beginning of the end of music education as we know it. Have we all been far too busy worrying about assessment, KS3, new GCSEs, new A levels, break duty, learning walks, book trawls, ‘verbal feedback given’ stamps, to notice that music education is being demolished for the hyperspatial express route which is the EBacc and STEM?

“But it can’t” we say, “we’re far too busy to be got rid of”. And there’s our problem. We are far too busy, and we all have the best interests of the kids at heart. This means that a government who seem to have lately arrived from Philistia (or Vogon!) will have no qualms about demolishing music education.

It’s in the way.

After all, we don’t want subjects that can’t be taught from a script, might involve children and young people thinking for themselves, and may have the potential for making the teensiest bit of noise that might disturb the silence.

I suggest we should be on the lookout for Vogons. They might be nearer than we think.

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