Firstly, I feel I need to point out that this blog post is based purely on my own views, not my department or my employers. I feel I have to get this out though. As the weeks go on, I drive myself mad ranting to various peripatetic staff, colleagues, students and parents. Once it’s written then I can direct interested parties here, and not have to mention it again unless specifically asked. Also- apologies if it IS a rant!
Believe it or not, my frustration at KS4 courses was born out of preparing our KS3 curriculum. In school we were fortunate enough to be given planning days off timetable as a department to plan, prepare and create a new, exciting KS3 curriculum for “Life Beyond Levels”.
Our most advanced threshold- beyond- should be of the highest standard- the students that are “beyond” what you would expect at KS3, the students who are the most able, the shining stars and beacons of talent. The students who need the highest degree of challenge. It was when I was looking at Beyond, and working back that this frustration started.
What do you expect your beacon students to be able to do at the end of KS4? This is where my threshold search began. I looked at the BTEC First Award in Music specification, which we currently offer in Y11 and the AQA GCSE Music specification which Y10 are currently embarking on this year in our department. As I picked out the vocabulary, the language I wanted to use, the skills being assessed, it occurred to me that neither of these qualifications satisfied what I wanted them to be, nor did they provide suitable challenge. We were looking for Excellence and Beyond. Do these courses prepare our students for excellence? This is something I had to decide.
Before continuing, I am not saying that either of these courses are easy; the opposite in fact. They do offer challenge, rigour and prepare students for different roles as musicians, performers, facilitators and give them different learning experiences throughout the qualification. What I do find difficult is the way in which they are assessed, and what is assessed.
4 years ago, we changed from the GCSE Music to the BTEC Extended Certificate in Music as the profile of the students opting for music had changed. Since the 40% of the GCSE coursework was based on performance, and 40% was composition, it immediately put students who didn’t perform with a decent level of skill at a disadvantage. Given that a lot of students in my school were interested and enjoyed music but may not have been grade 2-5 instrumentalists or confident singers, BTEC offered different optional units meaning they could access the course without being at an instant disadvantage. It also gave a good level of challenge for the most able students, which was also important.
Due to the changes I made to the KS3 curriculum over the last 2 years, listening and performing standards have improved massively and during the curriculum review of last year, we decided to offer GCSE once more as the profile of the students had changed again. They are excellent listeners and can analyse music with an extremely high level of skill. They have had much more experience of performing and composing to allow their confidence and understanding of these processes and skills to develop and continue.
The new BTEC First Award on paper seems very similar to the “Extended Certificate” we offered only last year, however due to the inclusion of a compulsory examination, it has put many students taking the course at an automatic disadvantage. Unit 1- The Music Industry. I really struggle to believe that this is a unit which should be assessed through an exam. Why not listening? Why was the listening optional unit removed? Why have a music course where listening is not assessed whatsoever? This is the problem I have with the BTEC. I love the hands on opportunities our students have. They can collaborate with each other to create fascinating and exciting project work. They can work alone to create inspiring portfolio, they can use the recording studio and other classmates to create multi-track recordings, they can organise and set up for a live event, they can develop their own compositions but they are not assessed on listening.
Although I know it is not the be all and end all, and I can and do include it in lessons, I really struggle to believe that assessing students on different job roles in the music industry is a good or even fair test. It is a very difficult topic to keep students “inspired” with, believe me we made games, cards, dice, top trumps, revision videos, good old memorising, matching, discussion work, mock tests and any other method I could think of to prepare for an exam that I found odd and awkward. We covered every job on the spec list, roles they were related to, used scenario after scenario but there are only so many ways you can present the same information, especially when many of these jobs were unknown or students would not have any interest in these prior to, and afterwards. Exam results from June were pleasing but I feel it’s a lost opportunity for musical skills to be developed.
Part of being a musician should be developing a love for music, a knowledge of different genres, performers and how these people shaped the musical development for their contemporaries and those yet to come. Being able to list 3 responsibilities of a sound technician or describing the role of a musical director/ publicist/ distribution company are not some of the skills I would consider “essential” as a musician, but something that should be learnt by taking on that role or responsibility in a group task, or by asking or interviewing a visitor or on an educational visit. It should not be examined by being able to write these things down.
On the other hand, not having to prepare students for a listening exam for a few years and then preparing the Scheme of Learning for the new Y10 cohort has given me time to reflect on how I taught GCSE previously. Looking back, I clearly prepared students for the listening exam by teaching for the exam. I limited their musical knowledge and development by teaching them narrowly, exam style questions and we worked on developing exam style answers.
I now find the demand of the listening paper hard to swallow. From the outset in Y7, students in KS3 are encouraged to explain what they can hear using musical vocabulary, using full sentences and also justifying their opinions and decisions they make about the music. High expectations mean quality answers and detailed writing about what they can hear. When looking at the GCSE Music Exam paper from last year when preparing threshold statements, my blood ran cold with some of the “one word, one mark” questions and “circle the correct terms” questions. Was this excellent? The majority of my students could access most of the paper and although there are more tricky theory based questions, granted, many of the questions do not give students a chance to demonstrate their deeper musical knowledge and this is something I find difficult to settle for either.
Also, students are assessed on their performance on one solo piece (grade 4/5 standard will get full marks for demand) and one ensemble piece. Although good practise is to create and build a portfolio of pieces, or even a working record to show development, recording pieces to show how much improvement is made from one week to the next (we have options in double lessons, once a week), this is not essential. One piece of each is required. I am unsure that this prepares students for life as a musician, performer or even for an occasional “open mic” performance. Most students will opt to take music at KS4 and beyond because they love playing their instrument or singing and I would love these students to get more credit for the skills they love. Surely a portfolio of pieces submitted, giving an overall grade would be a more musical way to assess these performance skills?
I’ve decided to teach my own course. To rack up the challenge in listening work to mean that the GCSE paper should then be straightforward, rather than teaching for the exam as I’ve been guilty of before. I’ve told my students that we will be including a high level of analysis in our lessons to ensure they are prepared for the next step, whatever it may be. Indeed, in our new KS3 curriculum, “listening” is called “analysis” as that’s what I want students to do. By creating a recorded “working diary” of performance and composing work, it will allow students to be reflective performers and composers, being proud of their accomplishments and helping them hear how their pieces develop step by step and what they could improve on rather than recording the “final final” version and moving on to something else.
I’m not sure that the KS4 course I want actually exists, and clearly this is only my own view and opinion. I would welcome any feedback, suggestions, discussions with anyone who would like to engage in this topic further as I feel the only people getting a raw deal in music are the students with their current course offerings. What do you teach and why, and are you happy with it? Get in touch please!