Ofsted 2013 Music Report: A response


I had the privilege of attending the Music Mark conference last weekend, during which Robin Hammerton presented the most recent Ofsted findings from the 2013 Music in Schools: What hubs should do Report.

Robin’s presentation of these findings was very different in tone from the report itself (he was much more sanguine, if not overwhelmingly positive). The written report in turn was very different in tone from the headlines (Music Hubs Fail), and the press coverage was so focused on Gove-bashing that one might think that they had read a different report entirely.

I agree with Robin that the timing of this report is actually spot-on. With any new initiative, like the hubs, it is important to evaluate rigorously in the early stages to prevent a lot of time and money being wasted by projects meandering down the wrong path. However, this report has not been received by the press and the general public as a progress check, but as a summative assessment, and that is extremely damaging to the work of our Hubs and to music education in this country as a whole. It seems to me that an opportunity was missed by Ofsted to set this report clearly and publically in the context of an eight-year national plan and a three-year Hub funding deal. We are at the very early stages of Hubs, and therefore we should expect patchiness of provision, and this should have been publicly acknowledged clearly and assertively.

What this report should have done is highlighted the excellent work being carried out in our Hubs, and the pitfalls negotiated or fallen into along the way. This would have been a very useful exercise for peer learning to give Hubs pointers about the strategic direction(s) in which they might go. That would have been useful, pertinent and supportive. Although of course what I am describing is probably not an Ofsted report! Maybe inviting a case-study report from ACE or indeed from Music Mark might have been more useful at this stage.

In common with many others, I feel aggrieved that Hubs seem to be being stitched-up by Ofsted, in their insistence to focus on this report on one of the extension roles of Music Hubs. Fair enough if Ofsted believe that the main role of a Hub is to improve curriculum music, but the time to articulate that was when the National Plan was put together. It is certainly not fair to create a report based on a non-core role in the FIRST YEAR of Hubs. We would never do this to a child in an assessment process: “Yes I know you prepared your A level recital on the flute, but we’re going to base your mark on your playing of the ukulele”

As for the content of the report, much of it is extremely valid. The quality of teaching in schools is patchy and can be extremely poor. Many Hubs already offer CPD support for curriculum teachers, and in our own work for Sefton Music Education Partnership we have taken things one step further and offered free consultation sessions to primary and secondary teachers to talk about music and specifically singing (for the strategy) in their schools, helping them to create a bespoke 2 year plan that they can then implement. I am sure that other Hubs are doing similar work, and again a report that charted these kinds of initiatives for other Hubs to learn from would have been a much more useful document at this stage.

Ofsted seem unhappy with the progress of the Singing Strategy aspect of the national plan. I don’t have enough of a national picture to know how right they are to be concerned, but it seems to have escaped them that no real advice has been given as to what a singing strategy actually is. In some Hubs they probably consider the work they already do with youth choirs, singing days, and vocal tuition to be a singing strategy. I imagine that’s not what is expected, but no-one has actually articulated this! Again more guidance and sharing of ideas is needed to really progress this area, rather than everyone working in isolation, and metaphorically in the dark! I would refer any interested hubs to the Sefton Music Education Partnership Singing Strategy, which interestingly uses vocal animateurs employed by secondary schools as deliverers for some projects (you see, Ofsted, there IS expertise in schools), and has a whole host of other innovative strands. I have also come across the Surrey Vocal Strategy document which is published on their website and well worth a read.

First Access has also taken a bit of a bashing. I don’t think anyone would argue against the fact that First Access, and indeed any Hub teaching, works best if it is embedded into the life of the school, but I think Ofsted are misunderstanding the complexity of achieving this. Hubs are not in a position to make demands of schools, whatever Robin Hammerton thinks. Yes, they should support and challenge schools, but if they hit a brick wall there is nothing they can do to bargain other than pull their provision from the school, which helps nobody, least of all the children.

And then there’s the emphasis on notation. I think enough has been said on this point by people far more eminent than I, including Ian Axtell and Martin Fautley, whose blogs are well worth a read. My own view is that notation is a useful tool for musical independence, and some familiarity with notation is useful for that purpose. Notation is not a ‘thing’ in its own right, it is just a support system for musical sound, and insisting that children learn notation for notation’s sake would be an extremely disjointed idea. But the main problem that Ofsted don’t appear to have really considered is that the majority of our primary teachers CAN’T READ MUSIC. How, therefore are they meant to teach it to their classes? It’s hard enough teaching notation as a concept to children who play an instrument, if you then take that instrument away and expect notation to be taught through singing or classroom percussion that makes it much harder (I have nearly 2 decades of experience as a singing teacher & primary music leader to prove this), and then if you expect someone who doesn’t understand notation to teach it in this context, well, you’re not going to get a quality outcome are you?! As a company, we actually identified this problem as soon as the 2014 National Curriculum was published, as I’m sure did many other organisations, and we are already hosting one-day courses on staff notation for KS2 teachers.

In short, while the report does identify areas which all of us would agree show a need for improvement, little thought has been given to the real practicalities of the Hubs addressing these, or the fact that the Hubs have other core roles to address before this extension role. What we need now from Ofsted, ACE and DfE is agreement and clarification about what the main roles for Hubs are. If there is to be a shift of focus to music in schools, fine, but Hubs need to be informed before the goalposts are moved, not afterwards. Ofsted also need to consider the impact of their reports and to do more to set them in context, as allowing (or even encouraging, when you consider Ofsted’s own headlines) the press to denigrate music hubs does nothing to help anyone.

This article represents the views of Elizabeth Stafford and Music Education Solutions. It does not represent the views of any of our hub partners or other clients.