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.
At the end of each section of the Ofsted Music Research Review, the findings are distilled down into bullet points which summarise Ofsted’s position on the features of high-quality music education. There has been some querying on social media of the interpretation of the research used to justify these points, however the points themselves are a useful benchmark for those preparing for a deep dive in music at some point over the coming year.
The report spends some time discussing how little time is available for music compared to other subjects, and consequently one of the first features of high quality is ‘curriculum content that might reasonably be mastered in the time available.’ This is reinforced by the point that the curriculum should have ‘plentiful opportunities for pupils to return to and consolidate their short-term learning,’ and ‘repetition of key curricular content with the gradual introduction of new ideas, methods and concepts.’ It’s great to see Ofsted prioritising the depth of the curriculum in this way, since often schools – especially primary schools – feel pressurised into offering as many different ‘experiences’ as possible in the music curriculum, which can lead to breadth being offered at the expense of depth. However, we do hope that this advice will not swing the curriculum the other way, into depth at the expense of breadth! A healthy balance of a range of musical styles and traditions linked with common musical concepts and features allows for breadth and depth to co-exist and feed each other; as Ofsted describes it ‘learning of the concepts and terminology of musical elements through examples embedded within wider units of work, taking prior learning into account.’
Another welcome focus in this review is that of ‘sound control,’ the physical manipulation of voices and instruments. In an increasingly ‘knowledge rich’ system, Ofsted have cleverly repackaged instrumental skills which need regular practice as ‘the medium for developing sound control, recognising the weak transfer of procedural knowledge!’ This will be of use for schools who want to spend time developing pupils’ practical music-making skills, the progress of which cannot easily be captured through the use of a knowledge organiser! The review also identifies as a feature of high quality music education ‘the goal of automaticity in using the components set out in the curriculum, such as reading the treble clef or chord symbols’ and ‘large amounts of practice to enable pupils to develop reading fluency at the level set out in the curriculum.’ In the context of lots of practical activity this is fine, but we do worry that of interpreted incorrectly, this will provide an opportunity for schools to set lots of theory worksheets, which would not be ideal!
There is some reference in the review to individual aspects of the music curriculum, describing one feature of high-quality provision as ‘extensive listening opportunities to help develop pupils’ expressive intentions’ and another as ‘opportunities to develop knowledge of the components of composition.’ There are also broader statements about the philosophy of music education such as the features ‘opportunities to gain knowledge of musical culture and repertoire, which is part of a broad education and a joy in and of itself,’ and ‘occasional outlying moments of powerful emotional impact, created deliberately through careful planning or through seizing the moment and running with it.’ This is wonderful to see included! Often these aspects of arts subjects are played down, and instead we use more ‘academic’ features to justify their existence. To have Ofsted come out and support the very features of music that others might feel makes it ‘unacademic’ is a powerful addition to music subject leaders’ advocacy tools.
There are many other features pertaining to general teaching pedagogy and assessment within the report that are worth reading if you haven’t already, but which would make this an extremely long blog if we summarised them all! Overall, while there may be some debate over the veracity of the research cited in this report, there is not much in the features of high-quality music education to argue with. And this fact makes the report a major positive step towards recognising the importance of music in our schools.