Ofsted, illusions and Myths

On Wednesday, as part of the Teach Through Music Inspire events, I attended a day devoted to considering advocacy for music. I really enjoyed the event. The panel raised some fascinating questions and a couple of the presentations articulated quite dense arguments with Twitter like brevity. Some of the talks can be found here. In the afternoon I played the trumpet; I’m ashamed to say it was the first time I have ever tried – I was pretty hopeless but I enjoyed @peterromhany relaxed direction and the encouragement of my trumpet playing guide. I also heard from Ofsted the latest Myth busting advice on music teaching.

A couple of the speakers argued we were at a difficult time for music education. For example @GarySpruce1 noted how many official reports and Ofsted announcements have moved from a narrative of difference to a more uniform vision of music.

Focusing on advocacy might be a distraction – despite the widely acknowledged challenging times for music education. I doubt improved advocacy will result in improved conditions for music education. The weakness of some advocacy is it ends with individual music teachers having to convince SLTs that music should have a more important place. It makes the differences in provision and standards one of individual accountability rather than collective responsibility. It marginalizes the role of structures and power and puts too much faith in rationale debate to win and change minds. It felt at times some of the genuine struggles of being a music teacher in difficult and challenges circumstances were being overlooked and marginalized.

Jon Finney has written about the issues with too much focus on advocacy arguing that what we need is to have a coherent sense of the purpose of music education. For example in his blog here.

Is there another subject of the school curriculum that is beset by so many well-meaning claims on music’s power to transform lives, to make us more intelligent, emotionally virtuous? Is there any other subject so fixated by its side-effects? But take care not to be distracted from questions about the purposes of music education and what it is.” Jon Finney

Chris Philpott pointed out that young people engage with music because they make meaning from it not because it develops their character. Equally there was recognition that there was a need to hear the voice of students more clearly. What was interesting about some of these comments is they start to move the debate over to the purpose of education. Why is it that, as @GarySpruce1 suggested, aspects of Musical Futures and Youth Music are useful models for music education rather than models based of El Sistema? How do we make sure we value the journey and different types of musical progression rather than the particular “top of the pyramid” music destination?

It very tempting to want to have a consensus view that ignores difference and divisions. However there are strong ideological divisions amongst music teachers that aren’t always articulated. For example music’s autonomy is often assumed and not questioned. @GarySpruce1 quoted Nicholas Cook’s suggestion that there has been an extraordinary illusion maintained that music is an object that can be encapsulated by a score.

The Ofsted talk (@EnglishCadence) was for me a rather ambivalent experience and offered the illusion of help. He reminded music teachers to claim the uniqueness of music and take a stand in rejecting levels and urged them to put forward more musical and holistic assessment and then he warned teachers of the consequences of low standards – ie same old Ofsted. The sense of business as usual was camouflaged by a generous gesture of freedom, a magnanimous gesture rooted in a kind of meanness.

In this talk OFSTED myths were exposed. We don’t need to sub level, we don’t need to write learning objects and we don’t need to have three part lesson structures with plenaries. However with our freedom comes responsibility. If you aren’t using levels then you must have in place an assessment system. Mark outlined an example that included things like plenty of video evidence of student’s progression and development. He also talked about the need for having documentary evidence that showed how your department was working beyond the national average – for example getting 15% of your school to do GCSE and having 300 or so students doing extra-curricular work and evidence of good results. The examples were quite specific in its numbers and percentages. Of course it was just “an example” – not to become another OFSTED myth. The inability of a music teacher to show to OFSTED what was in place instead of sub-levels or examples of good achievement and uptake did mean serious questions would need to be asked of the leadership of music.

This sounded to me a classic, to use an over used phrase, passive-aggressive stance. A passive do what you want with an aggressive punitive response if things did not look like they should. It puts the individual music teacher as the focus of blame.

Education needs a different approach that recognizes context as constitutive of individual success. It needs to reduce the emphasis on accountability and stop looking to individual teachers and inspirational leaders to rescue education. Or as Michael Fullan suggests we need more effective drivers that:

  1. Foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students;
  2. Engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning;
  3. Inspire collective or team work; and
  4. Affect all teachers and students – 100 per cent?

The above align very well with the TeachThroughMusic philosophy – encouraging collective responses, focusing on improving pedagogy and working with the intrinsic desire of music teachers to improve their own practice.

The Ofsted myth here is that poor music provision is down to incompetent or lazy music teachers not proactive enough to develop holistic assessment or create a flourishing music department from nothing.

It’s a myth as Ofsted don’t recognize how a substantial and sustained campaign from the current Government to reduce funding in the Arts and encourage the Ebacc has resulted in a decline in the Arts. Or how the enormous pressure to be Outstanding has created SLT’s implementing strategies and systems just so they can be Outstanding. In this context Ofsted giving me freedom to teach is actually no freedom at all but just another way of constructing greater pressure and accountability. The freedom becomes an illusion, an illusion we are grateful for despite its harmful impact.

Meanwhile the music education profession needs to recognize its own Myths. Or rather recognize how issues of ideology and power need a deeper understanding. There are many extraordinary illusions around music teaching that seem hard to uncover.

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