Ofsted: 7 key findings from its music subject report

Inequalities in music education that Ofsted first highlighted over a decade ago persist, its latest subject report says

Inequalities in music education that Ofsted first highlighted over a decade ago persist, its latest subject report says

21 Sep 2023, 11:40

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Inequalities in music education still persist, Ofsted has said in its latest subject report

Inequalities in music education that Ofsted first highlighted more than a decade ago persist, the watchdog has said, while some secondaries are not giving the subject enough time.

The findings form part of the watchdog’s latest subject report, which delivers the strengths and weaknesses of how music is taught in schools.

Evidence was gathered by inspectors who specialise in music from research visits carried out between December and June. His Majesty’s Inspectors also gathered evidence as part of routine inspections.

The report builds on Ofsted’s 2021 music research review.

“I’m pleased to see primary schools making music more prominent in the curriculum,” said chief inspector Amanda Spielman.

“However, music is not given enough time in secondary schools and it’s clear that in most schools, teachers need more support to deliver a high-quality music education.”

Here are the key findings.

1. Secondaries not giving music enough time

Inspectors found that while almost all primary schools made sure pupils had “adequate” time to learn music, there was “considerable variation” in the amount of curriculum time allocated to music at key stage 3.

In just under half the schools visited, leaders had not made sure pupils had enough time “to learn the full breadth of the national curriculum”.

The report added that where time was limited, pupils were “far more likely simply to ‘do music’ than get better at it”.

It recommended that pupils, particularly at key stage 3, had enough curriculum time to develop musical knowledge and skills “incrementally”.

2. Singing faring best at primary

The strongest part of the curriculum identified by inspectors in primaries was teaching pupils to sing.

In some schools, leaders had set out how the curriculum would support pupils to become better singers. Curriculum plans also “clearly specified” the component knowledge pupils needed to learn to develop their signing technique.

But the report found most secondaries did not build on the strong progress and enjoyment that pupils had experienced in signing at primary.

Only a “very small number” of secondaries placed singing as a significant aspect of the curriculum.

3. Music composition often ‘weakest’ part of curriculum

Across both phases, the weakest aspect of the curriculum at most schools was teaching pupils to become better at composition.

At primary, composition was the area where pupils “knew and remembered least”. Very few pupils demonstrated “secure” knowledge of musical devices, how to manipulate musical ideas and how to organise ideas into musical structures.

At secondary, though leaders had “high-level aims” for pupils’ compositional work, few had given “sufficient thought” to the detail that would allow pupils to achieve these aims.

Ofsted recommended the curriculum identified “precise end points” in performance, composition and listening work, and then sets out the knowledge and skills pupils need to reach these points.

4. Impact of Covid still apparent

Many heads and music leaders told Ofsted that Covid had a “significant” impact on the range of extracurricular activities at their school, with many still in the process of re-establishing the provision that was previously offered.

Ofsted recommended that schools should make sure pupils can “develop” their musical talents and interests by offering extracurricular activities.

At primary, leaders said the number of pupils taking extracurricular music lessons “remained below pre-pandemic levels”.

At secondary, music teachers described a “significant reduction” in the number of year 7 pupils who had learned an instrument in primary school. They added significant numbers of pupils had given up learning an instrument because of the pandemic.

Many music teachers said that as a result, they were “struggling to maintain previously well-established music ensembles”.

In some secondaries, music groups and ensembles had not restarted.

5. Inequalities highlighted more than a decade ago persist

Ofsted said that the “inequalities in provision” it highlighted in its last music subject report in 2012 persisted.

Inspectors found there was still a divide between the opportunities for children and young people who families could afford to pay for music tuition and for those who came from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

“Concerningly, in some [secondary] schools, pupils are only well placed to continue their musical education and achieve well after key stage 3 if they have access to paid instrumental or vocal lessons,” the report said.

Meanwhile, many school leaders reported that in the last few years they had reduced the extent to which they were subsidising instrumental lessons, “because of wider pressures on school budgets”.

6. Some music teachers lacking confidence and knowledge

Many primary teachers said they “lacked the confidence and musical knowledge” to teach aspects of the curriculum “well”.

And while leaders in most primaries had a “realistic view” of teachers’ subject expertise, “far fewer” had a clear plan for addressing weaknesses.

In most secondaries, music specialists were delivering the curriculum. In only a “small number of schools” was it delivered by non-specialists, but these teachers were “rarely supported or given any training”.

7. Too many instruments can make for ‘shallow encounters’

In the schools where inspectors found “the most effective teaching”, leaders understood that it takes a lot of time “to develop fine motor skills” on any instrument.

They had decided to “narrow” the range of instrument choices within the curriculum as a result.

“By contrast, where the practice was weaker, pupils often had shallow encounters with too many instruments or insufficient time to rehearse and practice,” the report said.

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