6 ways Ofsted wants schools to teach music

'Overly grand claims of what can be learned' in limited time for music will be 'unfair to teachers', says watchdog

Claudia Civinini

Ofsed: What good music teaching in schools looks like

It is more important than ever for schools to find ways to put high-quality music at the core of the curriculum, Ofsted has said.

The watchdog has published a review of music education – the latest in the series of reviews focusing on how various subjects are taught.

It highlights the importance of good curriculum construction and planning, given that time constraints result in primary pupils learning music for between just 15 and 20 hours a year and secondary students for between 20 and 40 hours.

The report says: "These yearly allocations of time are mostly less than a typical adult working week and these limits increase the importance of good curriculum construction to plan for the best possible use of time.

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"Overly grand claims of what can be learned in this time will be unfair to teachers and pupils and it will not be possible to include every valuable aspect of music without the curriculum becoming a mile wide and an inch deep."

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: "Music touches the heart of our humanity and its sense of wonder has influenced human societies throughout history. For many pupils, the music they love will be part of the narrative of their lives.

"Music is part of the curriculum but simply ‘doing’ music is not enough. We shouldn’t be satisfied with just having music on the timetable. We need to be ambitious about what we expect for music in the classroom and make sure that time is well used. So I hope the review provides helpful guidance for schools on designing and developing a high-quality music curriculum."

Ofsted: What good music teaching in schools looks like

The report sets out what Ofsted thinks good music curriculum planning and teaching look like; here are some of its key points:

1. Learning music doesn’t need to make pupils better at maths

The review starts with an unapologetic observation in support of music education. It states: “The assumption is that a central purpose of good music education is for pupils to make more music, think more musically and consequently become more musical.

It observes that the case of music education has sometimes been made by calling into consideration its alleged benefits to children’s literacy, concentration and memory.

But, the report observes, the existence of these transferable benefits has been called into question, and this view puts music education merely at the service of other subjects or skills.

It reads: “Therefore, what can be said with a degree of certainty is that learning music is good for becoming more musical. Playing the piano is helpful for improving piano performance, singing in a choir supports becoming a good choral singer and writing lots of songs is a foundation for expertise in songwriting.

"These are wonderful things in and of themselves and need no further justification.

2. Consolidation and practice are essential – and less is more

Pupils may forget a lot of what they learn after their first encounter, the review notes. Curriculum plans should then schedule plenty of opportunities for students to consolidate their learning, giving pupils regular and spaced-out encounters with content, it adds.

The guidance reads: “The active recall that is involved in retrieval practice can also help pupils reinforce their learning of declarative knowledge. This can be done through informal testing (including of musical response) or through asking pupils to restructure information or teach the information to another pupil (without notes).”

The report also says it is important to keep in mind “what can realistically be learned” and mastered within the time constraints of the music curriculum.

This applies also to the teaching of musical culture and repertoire.

While the report defines these as "part of a broad education and a joy in and of itself", it also reminds schools that if such knowledge is to be meaningful and remembered, "it is unlikely to be vast".

The report also insists that it is sensible to decide on the specifics of the content and the goals, “rather than articulating principles and assuming that any content will work to realise these principles”.

The watchdog also observes that it is crucial for pupils to consolidate their knowledge in long-term memory to support their progress in the subject – and says that this is best achieved with a pre-planned and well-sequenced curriculum, rather than with a curriculum that relies on minimal guidance.

It says: “This has been found to be particularly true for students from low-income backgrounds and those with low prior attainment.”

3. Narrow the instrument choice

Expressive musical outcomes depend on how advanced the pupils’ technique is – but the fine motor skills involved in its development are instrument-specific and take a lot of time, the report observes.

To improve the expressive quality of the pupils’ production, schools either need to give them more time or offer a narrower choice of instruments, it adds.

4. Fluency is the goal

A feature of high-quality music education, according to the report, is the aim to get pupils fluent in using the components set out in the curriculum; for example, reading the treble clef or chord symbols.

The report reads: “Being able to decode the notation automatically, however, is central to pupils being able to use the system musically. The goal of teaching a notation system is for pupils to be able to use it fluently and independently. Once decoding takes place subconsciously, the mind is free to focus on musical goals.”

A large amount of practice to develop reading fluency is another feature of high-quality music education, as observed in the report.

5. Cultivate creativity

Once pupils have the tools to compose, they will benefit from a degree of autonomy in how they use them, the report observes.

It highlights the importance of enabling pupils to improvise their way without inhibition, and for the curriculum to provide space for "exploration, inconsistency and independence".

However, it warns: "The degree [of autonomy] will be moderated by context, bearing in mind that too much autonomy can also be unhelpful and that creative exploration cannot be endless, otherwise the outcomes may never see the light of day."

6. A whole-school approach

Schools need sufficient time to teach the music curriculum, and staff need time to cultivate the wider musical life of the school outside their curriculum hours, the report says.

"This will be hard for single-person departments or when staff are expected to manage this while also teaching a full curriculum load," it reads.

Also, musical activities are often organised vertically – across year groups – which can be hard to manage for schools that work mostly "horizontally", it adds.

"Schools with a strong musical culture will find creative solutions to enable music to flourish alongside other subjects," the report concludes.

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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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