The problem of standards in music education and the loss of happiness

Philip Flood @Philip_Flood 30m30 minutes ago Camden Town, London How many teachers are using levels and sub levels in #KS3music asks @DrFautley – 95% teachers in the room raise their hands @TTMLondon [1]

It seems that music teachers’ classroom lives are governed by systems of accountability concerned with pupil progression and ways of showing this. And this means progression against non-negotiable standards, that is, levels of attainment.

But now that ‘levels’ have been officially withdrawn a window for fresh thinking is available. But before you say: ‘ah, no more levels’, ‘performance descriptors’ for Key Stage 1 and 2 come into view. Not in music yet, but watch this space.

To imagine there would be a world without the benchmarking of standards would of course be utopian fantasy. Or would it?

Are the setting of standards inevitable in music in the first nine years of schooling?

One view might be to simply focus on individual pupil musical journeys. These could be guided by a commitment to core musical values, ways of being musical and the expressed and inferred needs of the pupil. [2]

The pupil, with some guidance, would be setting their own standards, developing that all-important sense of self-identity, self-understanding and other-understanding that we see achieved through out-of-school music making. [3]

However, there is a National Curriculum for Music which sets out what is to be attained at each key stage creating age-related standards. While as yet this has not been translated into ‘performance descriptors’, there are nevertheless statutory expectations implying standards.

Ofsted exists in large part to report on standards including standards in Music. Could this be done without reference to commonly agreed standards? No, it would be perverse for Ofsted to inspect without making comparisons (as we all do) and thus define and defer to standards. [4]

To resist the need for commonly agreed standards in Music would invite questions about the status of music as a National Curriculum subject. On what basis could Music claim its position in a curriculum sponsored by the state without a measure of accountability based upon expected standards?

One solution might be for the arts, while being in the National Curriculum, to be understood differently by government. They could have statutory status while being allowed to flourish with standards emerging from local practice and always something to be negotiated, fluid, never fixed or codified. After all, isn’t this, in some part at least, the point of the arts?

Beyond the school artistic standards shift across time and place. They are negotiated, set, re-negotiated, reset and continually revised through what emerges from practice.

We might envisage music and the arts in school operating as they do in the world where there is no imperative upon ‘learning’, rather upon experiencing, knowing and valuing while still serving worthwhile educational ends. And where instead of assessment there is evaluation, an easily felt ‘taking stock’ or reviewing the situation.

We live, so it seems, with the irreducible tension between music as practiced in the world and as constrained by the school and beholden to ‘learning’ and ‘progression in learning’.

One move might be to abandon the idea of ‘assessment for learning’ altogether, detaching assessment from learning while attaching it to the quality of the music being made here and now. This is how musical practices flourishes in the world.

‘It’s all about learning stupid’, I hear you all shout as I cower to avoid the brickbats.

The language of education is overwhelmed by the discourse of learning. With each week comes a new concept associated with learning. Until the recent Music Mark conference I hadn’t heard of the concept of ‘learning behaviour’, for example.

‘Learning behaviour’: edubable or necessary part of the managerial lexicon? Both perhaps.

We should take care that ‘learning’ doesn’t become William Blake’s worm in the night destroying the concept of education.


[1] Tweet received November 25. It should be no surprise that levels are firmly in place or that music teachers are beholden to sub-leveling. High stakes in-school accountability rules and will continue to do so as long as schooling is conceived of in performative terms.

[2] For the concept of ‘expressed and inferred needs’ see Nel Noddings (2004) Happiness and Education. Cambridge University Press.

[3] A speculative comment. But see the research of Doug Lonie on self-identity in youth music making.

The idea of self-defined standards would need to take into account the way pupils measure themselves against models they aspire to and use to benchmark their own performance. The idea of ‘my own standards’ may be a fallacy. (late edit: ‘chimera’ is better than ‘fallcacy’)

[4] Of course, before the invention of Ofsted HMI monitored standards in music education for over 100 years without the help of levels.

3 thoughts on “The problem of standards in music education and the loss of happiness

  1. Most nuanced view I’ve seen so far on this. My main worry is around decision making for head teachers, parents possibly, older students, policy makers (local/regional/national/international), funders etc etc… What happens when you need to aggregate? Levels and presumably performance descriptors are the short hand units of measurement/’code’ to help make decisions on focus, priority, funding etc etc. The downside was becoming a very blunt stick that was used for beating, but in a system where there are scarce resources how are we to decide how much, what, who? Even within a single school its bad enough. What to do beyond that.

  2. Rihab Azar

    What a great article. I believe if music education started separating learning from assessment,that would give good teachers the chance to widen the horizons of the learning experience and would create the positive spontaneous atmosphere ideal for music learning.But I do believe also that this would require extra preparation for a better generation of responsible,creative teachers.
    After all,it’s always been questionable to me if we can standardize the outcomes of the musical experience for everyone.Each individual grows by a different means through contact with music.
    thank you for this article

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