Taking back control of music education: Mark Phillips Jump to main content

Taking back control of music education: Mark Phillips

Ofsted’s National Lead for Music Mark Phillips delivered this keynote speech at the ISM Trust's Where to next for music education? conference in November 2021.

Thank you

I want to start by paying tribute to Deborah Annetts, ISM Chief Executive, and to the ISM. First, for the leadership that you’ve shown to music education and musicians over the past twenty months, as we’ve navigated our way through the pandemic. It’s not been easy for anyone who earns a living through music. I know that for many it’s been frustrating, but for others it’s been extremely worrying. The response of many has been so generous – with online collaboration, performance. It’s been important to colleagues in all parts of the music community to have the ISM, along with the MTA, Music Mark and others, supporting and encouraging. So on behalf of everyone, really, thank you.

I also want to thank the ISM for the campaigning work that you do to advocate for music education. Deborah and I have had many conversations over the years about these issues, in particular the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and music from the early years to key stage 3. I’m going to talk about both in a moment, but I want to say up front that there’s no denying your passion, commendable intentions and determination in these areas, and for that I also thank you, sincerely.

Unintended consequences

I’m not going to tell you today that there definitely hasn’t been any unintended or even perhaps, intended consequences in some schools as a result of music not being included in the EBacc. I say in schools because nowhere have I seen the EBacc cited by governments, ministers or Ofsted as a key stage 3 measure or requirement. EBacc is only about key stage 4. But you can’t help wondering why some schools choose to give increased weekly curriculum time to, say, geography, history and languages in key stage 3 but put music, design and technology, and art – three foundation subjects with equal status to the others in the national curriculum – on a carousel. You can’t tell me that gives a message about equality of subjects. You can’t tell me that having music every third term or every third half term helps pupils to know more and remember more. You can’t tell me that’s good preparation or promotion for music GCSE.

We need to ask questions where this is happening, and we do. I also think it’s reasonable for subject leaders to ask headteachers some direct questions if music is carouselled. Do use that term, by the way. Why has music been carouselled?

We have to take responsibility, though

However, I’m old enough and have been through too many campaigns to know the easiest wins are those that you have complete control over yourself. I’m also a great believer in looking at yourself in the mirror and recognising the changes you can make personally, rather than pressurising others to make change. So, while getting music, art and DT onto the EBacc or equivalent may make a difference to the numbers taking GCSE music, we have to be completely honest with ourselves and recognise that the EBacc is not the only reason why music is unpopular at key stage 4 or, indeed, why some headteachers have reduced music at key stage 3. To be brutally honest, the quality of music education at key stage 3 in too many of our secondary schools is not good enough, whether it’s taught for one hour every week or one term in three.

Let me give a real example from a Year 9 music class, earlier this year. This was in a school where music is given a 60-minute lesson every week for all of Years 7 to 9.

Teaching or supervising?

The topic for the term was called ‘Performing as a rock band’ and the premise was that the pupils could choose a song, they would be given a set of instruments, some written notes including chord sequences and a stave-notated melody line, and a recording of the song. Their task was to learn the component parts, then put them together to make a performance. In the class of around thirty, there were seven groups dispersed in practice rooms, the corridor, and in the main classroom. The group I’m going to talk about had chosen a song that had recently been high in the charts. It was a catchy number, based entirely around a four-chord sequence from the circle of fifths. The group had been given the chord sequence – Am, Dm7, G7, C – and were putting this together using drumkit, keyboard, a bass guitar, and a solo singer.

Because the groups were doing different songs, the whole class activity that preceded the practical work was talking in vague terms about what makes a good performance – listening to each other, making sure that the vocals can be heard, be confident, and so on. The teacher had told me earlier in the day that the pupils should know these chords, and they’d done some simple drumming work in Year 8, and they enjoyed singing, so this project was about bringing it all together in a performance. But it was clear that this knowledge was not secure because they struggled to play the chords, they struggled with the quite complex, agile vocal line and they simply couldn’t put it together. The girl with the bass guitar asked me if I knew how to play the chord of Am on the bass guitar. Now the teacher was working hard to manage the rooms, to keep everything going, to be encouraging, but the fact of the matter was that he was not actually teaching music. He was just facilitating an activity. He was a supervisor, not a teacher.

You’ll not be surprised to know that the quality of performance was really poor. There was no way it was ever going to sound like the original song, performed by a group of seven singers with vocal lines that wove in and out of each other, like an agile game of tag. What’s more, the original, to which they had been asked to listen by the teacher and replicate, is actually in E major – the chords on the recording are C#m, F#m7, B7, E. The knew it sounded different, but they couldn’t articulate why. And the saddest thing of all was what one boy said to me. He said, ‘Sir, I really used to like this song. But when this is over, I never want to hear it again’. Is that a strong advocacy for music education?

One of the aims of this project was, of course, to take music that the pupils knew and use that as a conduit for engaging them in music education. Now, actually, I’m not saying this is a bad thing – in fact, were I back in the classroom, there’s an odds-on chance that I would use that same song in my teaching. It’s a great piece of music. But it’s not about the image, the style, the coolness of pretending to be in a pop group.

Just imagine

That song had a really important musical core – the circle of fifths chord sequence. Imagine a Year 9 project called ‘Circles’ – building on work done on primary chords earlier in key stage 3 and incrementally introducing the pupils to the circle of fifths, chain of sevenths, building them up to improvise and create their own compositions around their own four-chord circle, introducing them to the music of Bach and showing how he used the circle of fifths in Brandenburg 2, and how the circle had also been used in that particular contemporary song. Imagine that teacher, actually teaching, imparting his expertise and leading the class through this new, magical knowledge. Helping the pupils understand music they were familiar with, introducing to new music and helping them relate it to what they already know, enabling them to apply this knowledge to give their own, creative responses, and to make their own musical meaning. How exciting is that?

But also imagine those pupils when it comes to choosing their GCSE options. Imagine them describing to their parents their experiences in this key stage 3 music classroom when they were set up to ‘make a band’ but were left all at sea. If you were that 14 year-old pupil, or their parent, how seriously would you consider music as a GCSE option?

Out of sync, lowering expectations

Let me take you now to a primary school, a Year 5 classroom. The lesson is billed as ‘all about Latin music’. The pupils are all playing glockenspiels and have learnt a simple melody using the notes B, A and G. The backing track they’re playing along with is certainly in a Latin style but the problem is that what they’re playing is not. Their melody uses only straight crotchets and the occasional semibreve. No swaying, syncopation typical of the style. And what’s more, once they’ve played through, they play it again, and again, and again. After a while, the teacher says that they’re now going to do their improvisations using the notes B, A and G, and that everyone in the class is going to have a go. On goes the backing track, and the improvisation starts. The teacher points to each pupil in turn to improvise. Each pupil is allowed to improvise for between one and four bars before it’s someone else’s turn. It would be accurate to say that the responses were random – no sense of rhythm, or melodic shape. And there was no guidance – just the instruction to improvise, make something up.

The assessment criteria given by the teacher is that ‘if you can improvise on one note, you are bronze, if you can improvise on two note, that’s silver, and if you can improvise on all three notes, that’s gold.’

Colleagues, that was not musical teaching or musical learning. Of course, the pupils were playing instruments, they were engaged in that they were occupied, they were on task in that they were doing the task the teacher asked them, but their musical development was limited. The lesson was supposedly about the Latin music, but they really weren’t learning anything deep or meaningful about the Latin musical style. And the melody they were playing was simple, in pitch and rhythm; once they had learnt it, and it was clear that they had learnt it some lessons ago, they just repeated it again and again. In terms of standards, we should be expecting so much more of 10 year-olds. Just think how sophisticated some 10 year-olds’ writing and reading can be. Think of some of the complex mathematical problems we ask Year 5 pupils to solve. Shouldn’t we be as ambitious in classroom music?

Taking back control of music education

Colleagues, we need to take back control of music education, not from government or from headteachers but from ourselves. We need to be very clear that simply providing activities, simply having music on the timetable, is not enough. Whatever time is given to music on the school timetable, we need to make that time worthwhile.

We need to recognise that there is high-level knowledge and skills needed to teach and learn music. Reducing the role of the music teacher to that of a facilitator is doing our profession a disservice. It devalues the skill and importance of teaching music. We would not accept a football coach simply setting up a game, giving pupils a ball, and telling them to get on with it themselves.

I understand the challenges that schools have, and that primary teachers in particular have to cover the whole curriculum. They cannot be experts in everything. I get it, I know that these teachers need the scaffold of a reliable scheme of work and resources to guide them. But in the primary school I’ve talked about, the teacher was a non-specialist, and using a scheme of work that says that ‘anyone can teach these materials’. Well, I disagree. If you’re teaching music, you need to know and show what it means to model musically. As with all schemes of work, even the model music curriculum, resources are only ever as good as the teachers delivering them. Schemes of work can’t be taught by just anyone, at least not successfully. Music teachers need good CPD and that includes building up their confidence to lead musically, not just supervise activity.

Doing it properly

A good music curriculum, and a good quality of music education, requires pupils to be taught properly and with deep musical knowledge. Remember that Ofsted doesn’t judge teachers, we judge the quality of education. Yes, teaching is part of that, but we need to make sure that the curriculum that teachers are given is rigorous and deep, and that they are trained to deliver that curriculum musically. If we want music in the curriculum to stand alongside English, mathematics, geography and history, then our curriculum must provide the same depth of knowledge. Putting on activities that are called music, but which don’t adequately develop pupils’ intrinsic musicality, is not good enough.

Three pillars of musical knowledge

We have said in our recent research review that it is essential that the musical curriculum provides pupils with robust, incrementally increasing and demanding musical knowledge – technical knowledge of how to play and sing accurately and fluently, constructive knowledge that understands how the music we play, compose and listen to is built and functions, and expressive knowledge so that we understand the meanings of music. These are not alternatives and they are not isolated silos – they are all essentials that work together to create what we all recognise as musical understanding.


It’s not all gloomy, though. There are schools where 30, 40, 50 pupils take GCSE music. We’ve recently inspected a school in London where, at key stage 3, pupils are taught music not in carousels but in half-size classes. All music lessons are practical and there is a focus on the development of performing and composing skills, alongside developing musical understanding and knowledge. An outstanding school in the north of England, where in key stage 3 pupils have music for one hour a week, talks about the curriculum being, quite simply, to teach pupils how music works. As they say on the school website:

'In each unit we take an existing piece of music, put it in context, and look at other works that are similar to it in style, or share some of its musical features. We explore the work in various ways - this might be by analysing it, performing sections of it, improvising ideas based on fragments of it, composing new ideas to replace or sit alongside it, or arranging the material we've made, to create a finished whole.'

The school goes on to say, about GCSE music:

'This is an immensely creative and fulfilling course with a number of pathways to suit a wide range of musicians. Having completed our KS3 Music course, all students will have the learning experiences and skills required to get started.'

The strongest way we can advocate and secure music education’s future

They’re not wrong. But putting activities like the ones I’ve described today in front of our children in the music classroom – let’s make a band but without the knowledge and skills, or let’s play Latin music but not actually play in a Latin style - does not advocate well for music education.

The one thing we can do to advocate strongly and meaningfully for music, to make music a desirable option at key stage 4, to ensure that key stage 2, key stage 1 and early years music gives pupils a thorough foundation, is to make the music in music education of the highest quality. This requires high levels of teacher training, it requires high expectations from all of us. The ISM and our professional organisations need to challenge school management and advocate for music education at the highest level. Please keep on doing that. But, music hub leaders and music teachers, we also need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask if we are really doing everything we can to make music learning in the classroom as rigorous and as robust as it should be. That’s how we can steer the future of music education. The power to do that is in our hands. Thank you.