Ofsted backs music in schools.

On 12th July 2021, Ofsted published a Music Research Review, designed to help subject leaders with their curriculum planning. This is one of a series of reviews into all the national curriculum subjects which will be released over time, and will be followed up in 2022 with a subject report based on Ofsted’s own findings from Music Deep Dive inspections.

We were delighted to see this report providing strong support for a high-quality music education right from the first page, which is something we here at Learning Music are unsurprisingly passionate about! The report begins with a reiteration of the expectation that ‘In England, all pupils should study music until the end of key stage 3.’ It also notes the legislation that requires both maintained schools and academies to ‘offer a broad and balanced curriculum’ which serves as a push back against the argument that academies can teach what they like because they’re not bound by the national curriculum.

The report goes on to outline the importance of music to both England’s community and its economy, celebrating the plethora of community groups on offer around the country as a ‘diversity of opportunity’, and highlighting the often quoted statistic that ‘In 2019, the value of the music industry to the UK economy was £5.8 billion.’  It also states that ‘across the country, there are schools whose quality of musical education is world-leading.’

Tempering all this positivity though, the report goes on to acknowledge that there has been a steady decline in the number of pupils taking music at KS4 and KS5, a fact which will not come as a surprise to anyone working in the music education sector. What is great to see in this report, however, is Ofsted pointing out that when averaged out the number of entrants for A level music are equivalent to 1-2 pupils per school. They suggest that senior leaders should bear this in mind when considering the ‘viability’ of KS5, since what to SLT might be a ‘small’ cohort of 5 pupils would in fact represent over double the average cohort size! It is fantastic to see Ofsted taking such a proactive stance towards supporting music in schools, and we hope that many music teachers will be able to use this report to make their case for the continued running of GCSE and A Level courses.

It’s not just cohort numbers that concerns Ofsted, but also time allocation for teaching. They note that provision has reduced at KS3, and that lower levels of staffing result in a knock-on effect on how many curricular and extra-curricular opportunities can be provided. Whilst this is true, we know that no school deliberately chooses to impoverish their pupils’ experiences, and the difficult staffing decisions schools have to make are based on a number of factors. This is one of the reasons that Learning Music offers ensemble provision as a service, since schools may find that they still have the time and budget to run these in collaboration with a delivery partner.

At primary level Ofsted note that children access on average between 15-20 hours per year of music teaching and at KS3 between 20-40 hours, and state that consequently difficult decisions need to be made about what to include in a curriculum since ‘overly grand claims of what can be learned in this time will be unfair to teachers and pupils.’ This is a very interesting development after the publication of the Model Music Curriculum, which many commentators have suggested is incredibly ambitious in particular for primary schools to deliver. It perhaps reflects the consistent message from Ofsted since the MMC’s publication that they do not expect schools to use it?

Another aspect of this report which makes interesting reading is Ofsted’s stance on music advocacy. Many figures in the music education sector have long argued that music should be valued in its own right rather than justified because it may help improve maths or English, or transferrable skills. In this research report, Ofsted also take this line, and in fact go further by stating that ‘the whole basis of music’s contribution to other areas of competence has been challenged in a recent meta-analysis.’ This is an interesting stance from an inspectorate whose framework looks for how ‘transferrable skills’ are embedded across the curriculum, so it will be fascinating to see how this plays out during ‘real world’ inspections!

The ethos of this Ofsted music research review can perhaps be best summed up in this one statement, with which Learning Music whole-heartedly agrees:

‘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 song-writing. These are wonderful things in and of themselves and need no further justification.’

You can read the full Ofsted publication here.


This is the first in a series of three Learning Music blogs about the Ofsted Music Research Review. See also: Ofsted, music & the knowledge rich curriculum and Ofsted’s features of high quality music education.


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