Analysing the Ofsted research review on music Jump to main content

Analysing the Ofsted research review on music

Ofsted began publishing its series of subject research reviews in April 2021 with the aim of supporting school and subject leaders with their curriculum planning. These reviews set out the literature which informs the way Ofsted think about high-quality subject-specific education within the context of the new education inspection framework (EIF). Although Ofsted have previously published reports on music, based on evidence gathered during inspections, this is the first time that they have released these type of research reviews.

Mark Phillips, senior Her Majesty’s Inspector (HMI) and national lead for music explains this in more detail in an interview with Music Teacher. ‘It’s important that it’s seen in the context of the EIF, because that’s what we do – we inspect schools. The purpose of [the research review] is to explain how the thinking and the rationale behind the EIF applies to music.’

There have been criticisms from academics regarding the term ‘research review’ as the purpose has been to select research Ofsted considers most relevant, rather than exploring the totality of the research which exists. Responding to this criticism, the HMI leading Ofsted’s Curriculum Unit has stated that, ‘We did not want people to think they were literature reviews in the true sense hence not calling them that’ and has also acknowledged that the research reviews are actually closer to position papers.

The Education Inspection Framework (EIF)

The move to a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum came via reforms to education policy implemented between 2010 and 2016 by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb who were influenced by the work of E D Hirsch. Ofsted launched its new EIF in 2019 where the focus shifted from exam results and test data onto curriculum, behaviour and development.

In Key Stage 1, state-funded schools are encouraged to focus on reading, writing and mathematics, so that pupils are equipped to access “a broad, balanced curriculum” from Key Stage 2 onwards.

When making judgements about the quality of education in schools, inspectors consider the extent to which schools are providing pupils with ‘the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life’. The EIF defines cultural capital as

‘…the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’ (National Curriculum, 2014).

At a subject level, inspectors look at how the curriculum is ‘designed and delivered in a way that allows pupils to transfer key knowledge to long-term memory’ and that it is ‘sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and pupils can work towards clearly defined end points.’

Cognitive Science

Ofsted state that ‘learning can be defined as an alteration in long-term memory’ and have presented cognitive science research as part of the evidence underpinning the framework, including theories such as dual coding and cognitive load theory (CLT). They state that, ‘while more evaluations in English schools would be valuable, this field is increasingly generating moderate to strong evidence of practices that can be used to enhance learning across phases and remits.’ However, a recently released evidence review by the Education Endowment Foundation warns that ‘the evidence around how they [cognitive science approaches] can be applied successfully in classrooms remains limited. In particular, research into how they ought to be used in different year groups and subject areas is lacking.’ Despite this finding, cognitive science features heavily in the music research review.

English Baccalaureate (EBacc)

The EIF also outlines the government’s ‘ambition’ for the uptake of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) accountability measure - 75% of Year 10 pupils by 2022 and 90% by 2025. Although schools are not judged on these ‘ambitions’ (Ofsted make clear that they are not targets), inspectors are expected to understand what schools are doing ‘to prepare for this to be achieved, and they should take those preparations into consideration when evaluating the intent of the school’s curriculum.

The EBacc does not include arts subjects this has been widely criticised across the creative arts sector, and has contributed to a fall in the number of pupils taking arts subjects at GCSE and A-Level. The ISM have been calling for the EBacc to be either reformed or dropped, as part of our Bacc for the Future campaign.

Music Research Review

It is important to note that the music research review does not specify curriculum content or a preferred curriculum model. Ofsted stress that there are ‘various ways that schools can construct and teach high-quality music curriculums’ and the report merely identifies some ‘common features’ that schools may wish to consider when developing their music offer.

Ofsted state that ‘this review starts from the assumption that a central purpose of good music education is for pupils to make more music, think more musically and consequently become more musical.’ As Mark Phillips explains, ‘knowledge of music can be misinterpreted as just being facts about music, as being theories about music – it’s not. Musical knowledge is knowledge of the music itself.’ This is an important point to note as it emphasises the practical, skills-based nature of the subject which often feels at odds with the Department for Education (DfE) who want children to ‘learn about the great composers of the world and develop their knowledge and skills in reading and writing music.’ Three ‘classes’ of knowledge are outlined in the review which help to clarify that a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum in music does not equate to simply memorising facts. Tacit (experiential), procedural (skills) and declarative (factual knowledge) knowledge all underpin the remaining sections on curriculum scope, progression, SEND, pedagogy and assessment.

We welcome Ofsted reinforcing the DfE’s suggestion in the Model Music Curriculum of at least an hour a week of classroom music and they have previously highlighted the negative impact of limited curriculum time on the quality of music education. There is also recognition of the pressures on single-teacher departments in relation to the wider musical life of the school. Ofsted also warn against the effects of ‘inappropriate’ whole-school systems such as assessment schedules and generic teaching strategies and outline the unique challenges of music departments which require flexible support from the school. They also recognise the financial implications of musical activities and the need to ensure equal opportunities for all pupils. The importance of Continued Professional Development (CPD) for primary teachers, especially those who may not feel confident in teaching music, is also highlighted.

Availability of music education

The review begins by reinforcing the expectation that all pupils in England should study music until the end of Key Stage 3 as part of a broad and balanced curriculum as set out in the Education Act 2002 and the Academies Act 2010. It goes on to acknowledge the value of the music industry to the UK economy and the various pathways into music that children and young people may experience.

The decline in numbers at Key Stages 4 and 5, the reduction in Key Stage 3 provision, the shrinking music training of trainee primary teachers, reduced lesson time and the subsequent lower levels of staffing are all recognised as part of a downward trajectory in recent years. However, there is no mention of the impact that the EBacc has had on the falling numbers of GCSE and A Level music entries over the past 10 years despite evidence showing the link and calls from select committees to address the issue.

Ofsted acknowledge the reality that time for music in both primary and secondary schools is short, estimating that primary school pupils receive between 15 and 20 hours of classroom music a year and between 20 and 40 hours a year for secondary pupils. They warn that ‘it will not be possible to include every valuable aspect of music without the curriculum becoming a mile wide and an inch deep.’

However, we know that in reality some schools offer even fewer hours than this, especially where secondary schools have moved to a carousel system (where subjects are taught on a rota basis) or a two-year Key Stage 3. This narrowing of the curriculum has previously been recognised by Ofsted, with disadvantaged pupils being disproportionally affected. Despite this, and despite the recognition that in the ‘worst-case scenario’ a three-year Key Stage 4 means some pupils will never get the chance to study music in school beyond the end of year 8, schools are not marked down if their Key Stage 3 is only two years long.

Target grades

It is interesting to note that schools are advised to be careful when setting target grades based on standardised tests, with Ofsted quoting Elliott et al: ‘It makes no sense to tie music students’ musical achievement to their scores on standardised maths and reading scores.’ However, GCSE target grades based on Key Stage 2 English and maths results are often used by schools across all subjects as a result of accountability measures. Progress 8 scores look at the levels of progress made between Key Stage 2 standardised attainment test (SATs) results and Key Stage 4 exams. Schools are then measured and compared on these scores.

A 2019 report by FFT showed that 62% of secondary schools used KS2 SATs results to set all GCSE target grades, with 55% of subject-specific target grades being set by the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) based on Key Stage 2 data. Ofsted also question this use of target grades, given the different external instrumental opportunities available to KS4 and KS5 pupils: ‘…many pupils who take GCSE and A-level music have one-to-one tuition outside the school curriculum. What target grades mean in this context, given the uneven playing field, is unclear.’ They don’t however, provide any alternative suggestions or address the wider issues of accountability measures imposed by the DfE.

The common features

The music research review identifies the common features that schools may want to consider when developing their music provision:

  • Curriculum content that might reasonably be mastered in the time available, remembering that sometimes less is more.
  • Plentiful opportunities for pupils to return to and consolidate their short-term learning, with repetition of key curricular content and gradual introduction of new ideas, methods and concepts.
  • Curricular scope that includes enabling pupils to develop technical control over the sound they are producing through the voice or instrument.
  • Extensive listening opportunities to help develop pupils’ musical understanding.
  • Space and time for pupils to explore the constructive components that build musical compositions and use these effectively to compose their own music.
  • Opportunities to gain knowledge of how music over time and across cultures has been a conduit for human expression.
  • High levels of guidance for beginners, remembering that pupils in every Key Stage are sometimes novices, with increasing freedom as pupils gain greater competence.
  • Judicious use of summative assessment to identify pupil misconceptions or inaccuracies.
  • Adequate curriculum time and regularity to allow musical learning to take place.

The ISM's sister charity, the ISM Trust has resources dedicated to help support teachers with curriculum development, assessment and CPD.