Standards in Primary Music

One of the questions that I get asked most often is what ‘standard’ should pupils be at music when they leave primary school?

The question is driven by the fact that the National Curriculum here in England does not give any tangible benchmark to aim for, being instead a collection of activity descriptions ‘improvise and compose music for a range of purposes’ occasionally given a qualifying word to show that some sort of progress is indeed required ‘play and perform with increasing accuracy, fluency, control and expression.’ The 2021 Ofsted Music Subject Research Review echoes this vagueness, with a suggested approach to assessment which is articulated with heavy reliance on the use of qualifying words, such as ‘increasingly fluent use of musical elements in performance.’ A difficult job to extrapolate a particular standard from that to aim towards.

It has to be said that the 2021 Model Music Curriculum does do a better job at articulating ‘standards’ than both the National Curriculum and Ofsted Research Review in terms of the Performing (and Notation Reading) and Composing ‘key areas’, where there are some concrete benchmarks to achieve such as ‘read and perform pitch notation within an octave’ or ‘compose melodies made from pairs of phrases in either C major or A minor’. However, these statements are only concerned with the complexity of the task, not the depth or quality of the musical outcome, so they can only get you so far. (The singing key area is much more vague, and the listening key area makes no attempt at all to provide any guidance for teachers on how to develop the skill of listening, being a simple repository for 'great works' that could be listened to.) And of course there is the argument about whether these standards are in fact an accurate representation of the intent of the National Curriculum in the first place; but let’s not start that debate again!

This academic year, teachers have been asking me with more frequency and urgency about standards, but from the standpoint of whether it is ok to restart music at a lower level than perhaps they would have done with their class had the pandemic not hit. I am often asked about the schemes of work I have written and whether it’s ‘ok’ to start with, for example the Year 4 materials in Year 6. My answer to that is an emphatic yes!

We should always be starting from where the children are, and if that means starting your class off on materials for a lower year group, that is absolutely what you should be doing, rather than trying to achieve a standard for which your pupils are not ready. And that’s not just a hypothetical suggestion from me. With my own Year 2 classes, I am currently using Year 1 materials from my own scheme written for Kapow Primary. So yes, I absolutely do mean what I say!

The vagueness of language in the National Curriculum can really be to our advantage here. The fact that there is no indication of how good pupils have to be at any of the areas - ‘develop an understanding of the history of music’ being a prime example – means that as long as we have covered this content, no-one can really tell us that we haven’t done our jobs! And where a National Curriculum statement uses the word ‘increasing’ we just have to be confident that our pupils have got better at this over time! Yes we should of course be striving for our pupils to achieve as much as they can in music, but an ‘ambitious’ curriculum is entirely context-dependent. The ‘standard’ that each cohort will reach will look different from school to school, and - more so than ever this year - from past and future years.

Dr Liz Stafford, 2nd February 2022