What I learned from… a conversation with Christopher Stevens HMI

One of the many things I love about the Music Teachers Association is the opportunity to hear the right conversations at the best time. This particular conversation was in a January 2023 meeting with Ofsted’s Music Lead Christopher Stevens HMI and Catherine Barker, president-elect of the MTA.

The conversation both confirmed our recent developments were in line with the national expectations, as well as making me think that we’re ‘trying too hard’ to show what we do. When time is at such a premium in our jobs, this is really important.

In the last few years, I’ve found the Model Music Curriculum to be very good to reflect on. More specifically, it has challenged me to consider the depth of the music education I’m offering. In September 2022 my school moved to students having 1 hour of music, every week. (it had previously been on a rotation and I would only see the students regularly every 3-6 months. The natural reaction to having twice as much time was initially to cover twice as much content or have twice as much assessment, but in many ways, it is the continuity of learning and development that is more impactful and most beneficial rather than the detail. In fact, this coversation has inspired us to look again at the bigger picture, focusing with greater determination on ‘what should the students be able to do’ by the end of year 9, as well as at the different stages in the course.

I’ve written before about the importance of education being a shared responsibility and Christopher talked about how good feedback should require the student to do more work, not the teacher. Since the lockdowns, students have become more dependant so our natural reaction is to help them when they need it, but independence is a critical aspect in their learning.

Just as his predecessor Mark Phillips HMI spoke about, Christopher again shared that continuous aural feedback was by far the most impactful way to support the students. He went further to say “written feedback slows the process of feedback”. He’s absolutely right. So much of our advice relates to something that is heard in a live moment, that can’t easily be written-down. That live conversation is the ‘main event’ where feedback is concerned in music. In the last 12 months when I’ve been asked for a ‘book trawl’ as part of a QA process, I’ve asked colleagues to come and listen to these conversations rather than looking at any written evidence. This has been a helpful way to share a greater insight into our work.

Christopher confirmed that we do not need to provide written evidence of aural feedback.

Terminator graphic analyser

In the real-world, music teachers are actively assessing and feeding-back all the time. The best way to describe this is like the analyser view from the Terminator films (above). We constantly carry around so much information allowing us to know the young people we work with and know the best advice to give to everyone. We are aware of what they can and can’t do by constantly analysing their actions when we’re together. At least, that would be the ultimate, but every week I teach 400 different, individual, unique young people. I do what I can! With year 7 and 8 I teach them in larger groups, with year 9 the groups are slightly smaller and at GCSE every conversation is 1-1. Any student can message me a question at anytime and they can access my teaching on YouTube when they need it. This highlights the importance of students becoming independent again, but knowing where to get help and advice when they need it.

Christopher also said “Summative assessment (like a mock exam or termly assessment) stops the fluency of musical learning.” Again, I agree. There are times in our whole school when summative assessments have to happen, but I was challenged to think about if I overtest and why I use these tests. The assessments are helpful to show the effectiveness of the curriculum, but don’t demonstrate the students’ musicality. I find myself creating more and more Kahoot! quizzes as a way to talk about key musical language in context with musical examples. This is an important part of their learning, but the collection of data from these tests (which is something I’d encouraged the students to engage in) is less important than knowing which concepts students are understanding/struggling with. Moving forwards, I’ll continue to use them to check understanding, but will come away from including that data in assessment.

Christopher said “It takes time to make progress in music”. He challenged us to think about how frequently we are assessing in KS3 music. Even with the 1-hour per week opportunity, if we assess them every half term, they’ve only had 5 hours of input before we’re assessing them again, and thinking about how long they are ‘creating with purpose’ in that time, the time to develop is even shorter. For this reason we’ve decided to assess once a term now. In the past we’ve assessed them on the details of each unit, but it’s then too easy for the students to lose sight of what they’re trying to learn overall.

Our overall vision is for students to ‘confidently compose their own original music and perform it with control and expression’. It’s taken a lot of thinking to reach that statement as we’re so focused on the level of detail and depth we want in our content. The details are important in understanding context, history, influence, theory and process, but they can overcomplicate our classroom practice if we’re too focused on them. This vision is where I would like every young person to reach by the end of year 9, but to get to this point, students must have had opportunities to create their music along the way. It’s from these points that we can understand their progress and understanding so far.

Christopher asked “What is it children can know and do as a result of our curriculum?” (a question often asked in an inspection). The best people to answer this are the students and there is nowhere to hide if they can’t answer. Even better for them to show the music they can create or perform so far. However, it matters ‘how they are asked’ and this is a worthwhile dialogue to have with those visitors leading the QA process. Good questions are questions that allow the students to be honest about their learning. ‘What are you learning about at the moment?’ ‘What’s the last thing you created in a music lesson?’. ‘Can you show me something you’ve created in music recently?’ We’re moving towards helping the students to understand the overview of their learning more, but to ask them analytical questions about progress over time is not what they’re learning about. To asking them about the strategies a teacher uses to support them is equally irrelevant as we do not expect them to know what we’ve trained for years to understand ourselves.

So you can tell that we’ve been deeply challenged from this conversation. We’re now focusing on:

  • Quality in the indivudal student music learning experience, not the quantity of what we do with/for them
  • Assessing less-frequently, but still delivering continuous aural feedback
  • Ensuring the assessment is highly calibrated to the curriculum
  • Assessments are no longer the first thing planned in the diary and are flexible
  • Less time spent dealing with data from summative assessments
  • What can the students do as a result of the curriculum?

Overall we have begun to develop a new holistic end of KS3 mark scheme that students will use to tick off their skills and understanding as they feel confident about those things. They’ll use this one page from year 7-9. There will be two levels of achievement in Year 9 – ‘securing’ and ‘mastering’. Securing is for students who have met the above vision. Mastering is for students who are writing more advanced music having already met this vision. We are determined that formal assessment, which has been such a focus for so long, will be an occasional tool, rather than a major focus.

I’ll share more as we continue to learn in this area…

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