Ofsted challenges Music Education Hubs but it is the government’s attitude to music and arts education that will handcuff them

Allan Beavis's picture
This month, Ofsted published a short Report revealing that the Music Education Hubs, set up by the coalition to implement the National Plan for Music Education, had largely failed to improve music education for all. Only a third of the hubs surveyed had taken steps to work differently by at least engaging with schools in a dialogue about improving music education. In more than two thirds of the schools visited, there is little difference from the support previously given by local authorities

123 music hubs began work in September 2012. They are funded not by the DfE but via Arts Council England. From 2012 to 2015, £171 million is allocated to them in order to improve music education by achieving specific ‘core’ and ‘extension’ functions. These include instrumental teaching and support orchestras and ensembles, choirs, festivals and holiday music courses as well as liaising with schools on how best to improve and implement music teaching.

So if the state of music education has not improved, the situation across English makes for depressing reading. Here is a summary:-

1. Persistently wide variation in the quality of music education in schools, with too much being inadequate and with meager musical content, even in schools that were overall judged to be good or better overall.

2. Schools expect little of students, failing to ensure that all pupils understood, and could use practically, common musical features such as notation, time signatures, scales, melody shape, chords and key signatures.

3. Many primary schools consider, without good reason, that pupils were not ready for such learning involving musical theory, and believed that they would not enjoy it. At Key Stage 3, schools often gave students a range of experiences of different musical styles but musical learning was disjointed and superficial. Classical music was rarely introduced to pupils.

4. There is a lack of understanding, and low expectations in music, among schools’ senior leaders and their consequent inability to challenge their own staff, and visiting teachers, to bring about improvement.

The remit to Hubs is that they do not just passively ask schools what they need but to take very pro-active steps to act as “champions, leaders and expert partners, who can arrange systematic, helpful and challenging conversations with each school about the quality of the music education and how the school and hub can work together to improve it. “

A small number of Hubs have begun to show a potential and commitment to make a difference by starting to tackling weaknesses in schools’ music teaching, for example by introducing systems whereby hub staff had periodic discussions about how it could support the school in improving music education and by recognising the importance of two of their funded core functions which are:-

1. The First Access programme, under which every child should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument through whole-class teaching in schools and

2. The singing strategy, intended to ensure that every pupil sings regularly.

The report reveals a serious disconnect between the work that Hubs are financially supported to do and the schools that should be accessing their services. For example, most school leaders in the survey understood neither their weaknesses nor that the local music hub could be a source of expert advice and support in bringing about improvement.

In some schools, hubs found it hard to get noticed, especially by senior leaders, and gave up too easily; in others, the hub’s involvement was either non-existent or irregular and too often, hubs provided or sold music services to schools without asking about the schools’ existing music provision and failed to challenge the school to improve it.

The Report makes a number of recommendations to Hubs and to schools, which can be summarised as:-

• Hubs promoting themselves as confident, expert leaders of music education in their areas, not simply as providers of services, so that they can regularly challenge and support schools to improve music education.

• Schools, in return, making better use of Hubs’ provision, be challenged by them and evaluate their musical provision more accurately, especially teaching and the curriculum, and seek training and advice as needed.

The report also says what Ofsted and the Arts Council can do to ensure improvement, with the DfE’s role limited to “supporting” the Arts Council.

It will be interesting to see what impact this Report will have in awakening commitment from both Hubs and schools but the coalition’s education policies have not inherently been conducive to ensuring that the National Plan for Music Education can be effectively or universally implemented.

Free Schools and Academies (approximately half of all  secondary schools and ten per cent of primaries) are exempt from the National Curriculum, so there is no obligation for them to teach music. This means Hubs may exist in their area but they are powerless to influence music education in those schools.

The English Baccalaureate performance measure is made up of English, Mathematics, History or Geography, the Sciences and a Language. The Ofsted Music Hub report goes to great lengths to underline the academic rigour required for music, as well as it’s powerful impact on the spirit yet it’s importance is sidelined when it is excluded (as are the other creative and expressive arts subjects) from the government’s instrument of assessing excellence.

When the government’s new GCSE codes downgrade music – and other arts subjects – in this way, schools are in turn tacitly urged to discourage them. Under Michael Gove’s reforms, 14% fewer students are taking arts GCSEs. The Commons education select committee found that the EBacc effect narrows options way from the arts and that this affects disadvantaged children the most – a recent survey found that schools with a high proportion of children on Free School Meals are more than twice as likely to abandon arts subjects as schools with more affluent children.

When the political climate on education polarizes the merits of “academic” subjects with “practical” or “soft” subjects such music, technology, design and so on, it is going to be extremely difficult – if not impossible – for Music Hubs to be able to revitalize music education in schools in the ways that the government’s own National Plan for Music Education or this Ofsted Report demands.

There is much that has been incoherent, badly planned and executed by the current coalition in it’s pursuit of educational “reform”, so this Ofsted Report, in criticizing a failure of hubs funded by the arts council to engage with schools that are encouraged by education policies to sideline music, should also address it’s failure to point at least one figure at the Department for Education.
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