Progression in the Expressive Arts

Currently, most of music education discourse is related in some way to the idea of progression. It might be semantic debates about whether progress, progression and progressive are the same thing. It could be arguments about ‘cognitive development’ and how that does or does not dictate progress. It could be very valid and righteous worries about how inclusive our progression frameworks are. Or it may well be just a good old-fashioned bunfight about whose ‘progressive’ resource is best. What cannot be denied however is that progression seems to be at the heart of our concern as a sector.

Rightly so, one might argue. The fundamental purpose of education could certainly be seen as helping children to ‘make progress’ towards adulthood. We don’t just let children grow like bushes and then see what they look like when they’re 18, we nurture and shape them, giving them the skills, knowledge and understanding that they need in order to make a success of their adult lives. Education as topiary, if you will.

When one considers the music curriculum however, often it provides the garden but not the horticultural know-how. If we think of the curriculum in England, we have end of Key Stage expectations which really only provide an indication of coverage; ‘compose and improvise music for a range of purposes using the interrelated dimensions of music’ from KS2 being a prime example. The absence of benchmarks, standards, or any kind of detail as to what exactly pupils should be able to achieve is both a blessing or a curse. As I often tell worried non-specialist primary teachers, if all the curriculum tells you is to ‘play and perform with increasing accuracy, fluency, control and expression’ that does at least mean that as long as your Year 6’s are slightly less rubbish than they were in Year 3, you’ve ‘completed’ the National Curriculum and no-one can say you haven’t! But taking that kind of approach to progression is probably not going to win you a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The Model Music Curriculum recently had a crack at providing a more structured progression route for the Music National Curriculum in England. Unfortunately, this is all over the place in terms of reliability. The errors that pepper the document mean that progression routes sometimes move backwards rather than forwards, the progression of some skills (particularly improvising) contradict received wisdom on musical development, and some areas do not provide for any skills progression at all – such as the listening strand which is simply a resource bank. Some serious weeding and replanting would need to be undertaken before this became a useable progression framework.

Ofsted too have popped on their wellies and had a go at sorting out progression in their recent Music Subject Research Review. Unlike the MMC, Ofsted have at least got the hang of the fact that there is more than one type of progress to be made in music, and this is reflected in their 'Interaction of Pillars and Lesson Activities' assessment / progression framework table. Here the skills of Performing, Composing and Listening are developed through three different aspects, technical, constructive, and expressive. So far so good, but that still leaves us with only three statements for each skill area, all of which use nebulous words like ‘increasing’ which can’t be pinned down in terms of an actual standard or benchmark.

Over in Wales a new curriculum is being implemented, and it is here that we find one of the most useful progression frameworks that has been produced by an official body in the UK. This is all the more surprising in that it is a global framework covering all of the arts, and not just music specific. Three overarching aims are provided for the Expressive Arts Curriculum, and these are then broken down into three progression steps, which themselves contain multiple points. You can find these here.

What is most powerful about these statements is that they are fixed and clear – no ‘increasing’ or ‘developing’ to be found here but instead finite, specific instructions about what children can actually do. At the same time, there is the flexibility to fit these to your own context, so the teacher can decide which resources to use, what is an appropriate activity for their pupils, and how to design a learning journey which moves their pupils through these progression stages.

No wonder they have so many wonderful gardens in Wales…

Dr Liz Stafford, 3rd December 2021