Audit culture and the music teacher

It was in 1995 that I received my first communication from a secondary school music teacher telling about the problem of mis-recognition. That is, being observed teaching music and not being understood, of not fitting with the template of the observer. [1]

Last week, and twenty years later, Anna Gower told of the long conversation over time with her line manager that has been productive and by the sound of it, mutually rewarding. Anna is now understood. [2]

Sadly, Anna’s blog also told of the continuing and all too common professional degrading of other music teachers where the heavy hand of managerialism leaves the teacher compromised and demoralised.

I had thought this to be specifically a Key Stage 3 problem, for it is in secondary school that music comes under the same scrutiny as other subjects.

But this week I heard another story and this time coming from Key Stage 2. The music lesson focusing on pentatonic tonality was being inspected. The observer thought the lesson needed to be more challenging for some by allowing the use of more than five notes.

(Is the kind of conversation needed to release this observer from ignorance too tortuous and complex to contemplate?)

Anna ends her blog with a request for help in identifying an authority that might be able to arrest this sorry state of affairs. Could it be Ofsted, a subject organization, an intervention by a minister of state, the OECD? Isn’t there somebody out there with power and authority to address this most serious of problems holding back the development of music in our schools?

All that can be offered, so it seems, is sympathy and a willingness to rant alongside Anna.

The utopian solution is to call for the abolition of the audit culture that pervades education systems throughout the world justified as it is in terms of a global race for economic ascendency. The commitment to neo-liberal values gives education a particular trajectory and this means that the language and logic of financial auditing along with rampant managerialism is the order of the day.

The teacher is no longer accountable in the sense of being ‘responsible’. Instead, ‘accountable’ now means ‘checked out’ for compliance with the systems working within the school, working on the school.

There is talk of ‘evidencing’, ‘proving’, ‘efficiency’, ‘cost effectiveness’ – the language of audit culture representing the logic of a market orientated education system. There are no signs that this will change. [3]

The intensity of the audit culture varies from school to school, from academy chain to academy chain. Where it operates at its most severe there is little scope for the teacher’s voice, little scope for a music educational dialogue between music teacher and line manager.

Anna shows how there can be a productive dialogue. There is an ongoing conversation with a line manager over some time bearing fruit and not unconnected with the ways in which the fruits of the music classroom are visible throughout the school.

So there can be mutual understanding in place of mis-recognition. Accountability can be replaced by a sense of mutual responsibility with trust at its heart.

Contrast Anna’s sustained dialogue with her line manager and the primary teacher faced with a stranger’s ignorance of both music and music educational practice and where limited or no scope for dialogue presents itself.

While there will always be the ignorance of strangers and the ignorance of line managers, Anna offers a way forward showing that it is possible to grow a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual understanding.

Anna describes a year 7 music lesson observed. From the description there is a dialogic approach thriving on a commitment to unpredictable outcomes in a climate of mutual responsibility and trust.

The observing line manager understands how this works.

So what can be done beyond expressing sympathy?

1.Attend to the education of music teachers so that they become articulate about their values, principles of practice and the basis for their micro pedagogical decisions. [4]
2.Find an organization committed to music education willing to commission research into the extent of the problem.
3.Create thickly described case studies of music teachers in dialogue with line managers including transcripts of conversations. Detail is needed for others to be able to generalize to their situation.

Point two is wishful thinking I fear. And point three therefore ambitious.

This leaves point 1 and I can’t find this in the The National Plan for Music.


[1] By the mid 1990s the full ramifications of the 1988 Education Reform Act were beginning to be felt. A new set of values were being established. See Bonnett, M. (1996) New era values and the teacher-pupil relationship as a form of the poetic. British Journal of Educational Studies, 44(1), 27-41.
[2] See http://peertopeer.ning/discussion/can-anyone-help
[3] For hope see Biesta, G. (2010) Good Education in the Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy. Paradigm Publishers: London.
[4] This is not about articulating the ‘power of music’. This is a distraction from articulating values and a music educational rationale. These are not dependant on claims about the power of music.

2 thoughts on “Audit culture and the music teacher

  1. John, thank you for writing this, your three suggestions are really interesting, for me particularly the first one.

    I think there is so much we can do in terms of making sure we as the teachers actually understand what we are doing and why. If we can’t do that, if we don’t have some clear pedagogical and musical justification then how can we possibly hope to convince others that we are on the right track. The danger then is that we fall into trying to tick the literacy, numeracy and numerous other generic boxes and lose that focus on the music.

    So some research into the problem would be fantastic for clarifying it for us. All we have really is anecdotal and assumptions that follow on from this can seem to paint a really depressing picture. Then perhaps we would be a step closer to providing some answers about how we can reclaim our music classrooms for music!

  2. LJ Radick

    I agree with John’s point 1 (education) also. Teachers and TAs appear defenceless when presented with inappropriate expectations. What strikes me again and again is how much stronger john’s “audit culture” is in education than in the business sector (technology innovation) within which I have spent my career to date. It is as though SLTs are accepting a parody of market-led cultures because they lack the tools to identify them as that – just tawdry parodies.

    John does not include Anna’s quoted term “performance management” in his list of audit culture vocabulary but to me this is the most dangerous term of all. Anna asks who else can help – who represents the workforce. I would answer “The Unions” and query whether the NUT policy of seeking to minimise observations is sensible when it comes to misunderstood subjects like music. I’d rather have someone in without notice at any time until they “got it” than engage in a one-off “performance”. Only once that person gets what I’m trying to achieve can tell me if I’m good at the job and what they think I could do to get better.

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