Music in schools: where words finish, music begins

16th June 2014 at 01:00

Music is a creative art.

There’s a statement of the obvious. And here’s another: people go on different musical journeys in their lives, as their tastes and experiences evolve. You only have to listen to Desert Island Discs to realise this! Children don’t come to school as musical tabula rasa, but with a great deal of musical experience.

These points may be obvious but they have profound meaning for music education in schools.


Assessing without levels or sublevels


Firstly, pupils’ progress in creating and understanding music is not straightforward or linear. There are many facets to the subject. Some pupils will excel in some aspects and not others. One person’s creativity is, thankfully, different from another’s.

Musical learning, at its best, is syncopated, with tempo changes, repeat marks and occasional pauses. It is not a steady march.

For sure, when learning an instrument or to sing, there may be some defined progression of technical skills and knowledge. Hence there is an important niche for graded examinations. All pupils, indeed, should certainly learn some basic technique and simple theory. (As an aside, I realise that some people in the music education world don’t much like the word ‘theory’ being used. They are worried - and not without reason - that it conveys a wrong, perhaps out-of-date, meaning. I say let’s reclaim this word and use it correctly.) Technique and theory are, nevertheless, only means to practical, musical ends. And when pupils are creating music, building a performance, interpretation or composition, set linear assessments are rarely helpful.

Therefore, using levels and sub levels to try to prove pupils’ ongoing progress in music doesn’t work, as Ofsted has pointed out many times. It is usually superficial, time wasting and neither reliable nor valid. It is most certainly not any kind of ‘Ofsted requirement’. To be absolutely clear, our inspectors do not expect to see it. There are no, and never were, sub levels in music anyway, for good reason.

A powerful creative act cannot be contained by a neat spreadsheet of numbers and letters. As national curriculum levels disappear, I’d ask you respectfully not to replace them with another set of numbers.

But pupils’ musical work does need assessing. This should be simply constructed and ideally in sound - the music itself - not mainly about what pupils produce on paper. Our report, Music in schools: wider, still and wider of 2011 suggested this:


The most effective assessment practice observed helped students to listen more accurately to their own work, helped them identify for themselves where improvements were needed, and showed them how to improve through expert musical modelling by the teacher… A well-ordered catalogue of recordings over time, supported by commentaries and scores, provides a very effective and compelling way to demonstrate students’ musical progress.


Such an approach, based on formative assessment, is likely to be much more useful and rigorous. It values, challenges and develops pupils’ musical efforts. Modern digital recording makes this manageable.


Great music teaching


This leads us on to what great music teaching might look like. Importantly, there is not just one way of teaching music well, but several. Ofsted has no preferred style. However, our inspection evidence shows, beyond any doubt, that the best music lessons are musical. That means that pupils, and teachers, spend most of their time making, practising and internalising music. The language in the lesson is music. Singing, by the way, is a great way for pupils and teachers to share and internalise musical ideas.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that a great music teacher won’t use words. Of course they will – a suggestion for improvement, an explanation of some relevant musical theory, or clarifying some musical history or background. Great music teachers are unlikely, though, to spend time laboriously going through learning objectives and explaining tasks at length. Time is short; they let the music do the talking.

A good teacher may help pupils on their lifelong musical journey by introducing them to musics they don’t yet know. They may help pupils hear, and work creatively with, the similarities and differences between the music they do and don’t know. At the moment, the BBC’s ‘Ten Pieces’ initiative, which introduces primary children to classical music creatively is worth checking.

The best school leaders and teachers know too that high profile school concerts, shows, and so on, are wonderful, but no substitute for great day-to-day musical teaching in class lessons for all pupils.


Help is available

Getting this right isn’t easy. For this reason, music education hubs in every English local authority area are gearing up very adeptly to help schools develop their music teaching and curriculum. They are backed, in turn, by Arts Council England, DfE, Ofsted and the whole music education sector. There’s plenty of support and hubs can help you find it. Hubs receive some public funding and every school has a stake. So, school and academy leaders, please let your hub in. Ofsted does expect this. Our most recent music survey report, Music in schools: what hubs must do, says that schools should:


  • make better use of the provision and funding provided through hubs as part of the National Plan for Music Education
  • expect music hubs to provide them with expert advice and challenge – the challenging conversation – and take action on this.


You could also have a look at Ofsted’s music resources. and

I have personally recently found two books particularly useful. These are Debates in Music Teaching edited by Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce and Assessment in Music Education by Martin Fautley.

The Music Mark website among many others in the sector has on it or will have soon, a short and simply written document, created together by many music organisations, to help senior leaders develop their school’s music curriculum and teaching. This is called 'Making the Most of Music in Your School'.

So, to conclude, in your school, please make music lessons and assessments musical and creative. Partner with your local music hub and let it help you.


Robin Hammerton HMI
Ofsted National Lead for Music 


'Where words finish, music begins' quote by Heinrich Heine (December 13, 1797 – February 17, 1856)