RAG Marking- Update

This is my presentation from #ITTSNoJoke Teachmeet held on 1/4/15 at Sunderland University.

As it was aimed at trainee and recently qualified teachers, I decided to present RAG Marking as it’s had a big impact on my workload (ie cutting my marking time) but hasn’t compromised on the quality of feedback given.


Feedback is important but only if it supports improvement in performance or is used as a basis for improvement. It needs to move learners on.


I use RAG in several different ways to give feedback.


I used colour coding in all KS’s and in several different ways. I kept and tweaked the ideas that worked and discarded the ideas that didn’t work so well. Tweaking is key; some ideas work well, some work in different environments and some did not have the desired impact, these were discarded.


I stuck with ideas that had a good impact and that worked well. Using coloured dots during listening tasks allowed me to give instant feedback during tasks without interrupting the flow of the lesson. This then gave discussion points for a more convenient point in the lesson.

Boxes allow more space for writing and were ideal when students needed to assess their knowledge in different areas. This then meant I could use “green people” as experts to check and clarify knowledge and support each other. It also gave me a good indication of what the most urgent issues need to be addressed in class, so I could plan accordingly.

Gold stars are great for identifying excellent work to use as examples for others.


After further investigation on Twitter, I found Kev Lister (@ListerKev) on Twitter who had formalised his use of colour coding into #rag123. I read his blog then very cheekily asked if he would send me his marking guide and what a superstar- he did. I tweaked (vital for your own classroom) and used initially to test out the success.

Slide7  Slide8

My classes took to this very quickly and more importantly it didn’t dilute the quality of feedback given as it was specific. Responses were also good as it made the students think about WHAT they had to do to improve and why, without being actually told by me what EXACTLY it was- more work for them than me.

Despite it working well, I had some more tweaks to make and also implemented RAG within my department and also using individual outcomes matched with RAG criteria.


This is evolving all the time and I doubt this will be the final tweak; the tweaks are important as each class, student and subject is different so I will change this as often as I need to. The system works really well though and I know 1) it works 2) it’s quick and 3) the students understand it well so as long as it works in my classroom, I will use it.

Most Prized Possession 

Over the last few weeks I’ve become re-acquainted with one of my longest-held items. Something that I’d lost touch touch with and almost forgotten about. I hadn’t realised quite how much this item has had on my life. 

My Besson Sovereign baritone has been attached to my life since the beginning of my last year at school- 6th Year in Scotland. I remember the day my  parents and my music teacher had a discussion about the need for a new instrument and lying wide awake at night in awe at the prospect of my parents parting with several thousand pounds to help me become a better player and have my own instrument rather than one loaned from school or my local brass band. The investment they made and their belief in my ability and potential made me determined to make them proud, gaining my music degree, PGCE and playing in brass bands at the highest level for the best part of 15 years. 

Fast forward to today, 17th March 2015. I have had 3 years out of full time playing. My family needs me first. At the start of the year I was asked by a colleague if I would help his brass band in a few engagements. I had no reason not to, I was available on the dates but since I hadn’t played for a while I had a lot of work to do. 

Over the past few weeks I have realised how music making is so very important and the journey that my little gold baritone has had with me but also what important lessons it has helped me learn.

Developing relationships

As a musican and as a member of an ensemble, both in school and in the local community, it was a chance to mix with people older and younger and still is. Developing these lasting friendships and relationships are one of the most pleasurable aspects. Some of my lifelong friends are ones I met in local, county and national ensembles and it makes me happy when I see my students doing the same things. The cast of our musical ranges from year 7-11 and they all know each other. They become tight knit, almost like a family. In no other subject or activity will they knit together like this, and develop such friendships, culture and family. 


As more milestones are met as a performer, confidence grows. As confidence grows, performance standards get higher, motivation improves and another milestone is met. The cycle continues. We are developing some very confident, resilient and motivated performers in our PA department in all areas and every day I am filled with pride with some aspect of student work. 

Rehearsal and resilience

A bit of a growth mindset lesson really. I remember as a very young player rehearsing a section over and over and over again in my bedroom, to get it right in the next rehearsal. It was a solo part another player was to play but they had been missing at the previous rehearsal but I didn’t have the confidence to play it on my own. I was determined to play it at the next rehearsal if the player wasn’t there but I had to make sure I was able to do it. My parents were sick of hearing the passage I was rehearsing so diligently- the mantra of “play it until you can’t play it wrong” clanging along in my head each time. As it happened, the player was at every rehearsal since but this didn’t deter me from making sure I was ready, if I had to be. The time just wasn’t right. Constant rehearsals, perform, rehearse means that students become resilient through rehearsal and can self and peer critique constantly. Indeed, my parents can still sing that passage may years later! 

Dealing with nerves

I completely feel for students who become so nervous that their performance is affected. The only way this can be overcome is to perform more. Dealing with anxiety head on. I feel a bit hypocritical writing this as I identified last year that I needed to get better at speaking in public as I always felt very nervous but as a performer, on stage I generally am pretty solid. I had to think why there was such a variation in nerves and performance in what essentially is the same sort of activity. Experience was my diagnosis. I had to take more opportunities to speak publicly. In my students case, I needed to do the same for them and needed to address their confidence levels as well as create more performance opportunities for them. This was addressed in KS3 planning and also re designing KS4 choices. I have watched some nervy performances but have also now got a lovely track of evidence to show these students how much they grow each time they perform and how dealing with nerves is part of the rehearsal process. Effective rehearsals then lead to increased confidence and then that leads to the circle referred to earlier.

Emotional intelligence 

This links with dealing with nerves, part of helping others deal with nerves, part of linking music to emotions and memories, as well as building memories with performances and people. Anyone who knows me knows that I am deeply reflective and become very affected by my own and other people’s emotions. Part of building a culture of family within a group of students and staff means that emotional intelligence is also built and developed. They are a tea and everyone counts. 

Performing in public

I used to dread school concerts as I became very nervous if my parents were in the audience. Nerves appeared in the form of clumsiness; tripping up steps, knocking stands and plants over, bumping into others trying to make a sharp exit. Awkwardness; taking bows and acknowledging applause, taking compliments- I still find this difficult and am still awkward in this situation. Audience situation; concert, competition, sponsor, school. Performing is the essential part of any performing arts subject and I have been very fortunate to have played in some very prestigious venues all over the country. None of this prepared me for the nerves I felt delivering CPD to all staff in a session last year. The same sort of nerves as if my parents were there in the audience. I understand why the students get so nervous performing in class as I feel it too. Peers and family are the hardest audience, concert halls full of strangers are easy. 

I am on stage in this picture taken in the Royal Albert Hall, this performance was enjoyable with minimal nerves. Rehearsing for months for one public performance is exciting; the same excited, enjoyable nerves our students feel performing their showcase, pantomime, exam pieces after months of development. Performing in public adds an extra dimension to the experience of a performer and addresses all the other points I have made above. 

Managing time

Fitting in rehearsals and engagements, schedules, family, work and social commitments is difficult. Until my family grew, I found it fairly easy to fit most things in quite well. I didn’t fit things in very well though, just quite well. I needed to prioritise so I could fit things in VERY well. I had to take a back seat from my band and although I miss performing as often as I did, at the standard I once did, I know I am doing my family justice and also a better job at work because of this. Do less, better. Teach less, better. Working with young performers, we demand a lot of their time for rehearsals, commitment to learning a part, believe in them to be confident on stage, rely on them to guide and lead others and allow themselves to be guided and led by others too. Following schedules, attending regularly and punctually and keeping up with work in school are excellent disciplines to have and also to develop.

On Sunday past, I performed in my first competiton since my maternity leave. Although it was lovely winning (yey!) the rehearsals I attended last week were so enjoyable, the piece we were rehearsing was so lovely to play and gradually by the end of the week I felt my “lip” return to form. Muscle memory, movement memory and flexibility had all returned and whilst absorbed completely in a piece of music during rehearsal, I suddenly found myself thinking about how lucky I was to have had all the opportunities I have had as a performer thanks to my parents. I also felt tinged with sadness that I can’t go back to performing full time yet to the level I once did. At some point the time will be right but the time is not now. Not yet. 

But last week also made me realise that my forgotten gold baritone has helped me develop so many skills that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise and that’s why it’s probably one of my most prized possessions. It just took a while to realise this. 

Stop and Listen!

Music has always interested me and I’ve always had an eclectic mix of music in my collection from a very young age.

Inspired by people discussing their favourite books, EduBooks, poetry etc, I thought I would ask our staff at Belmont School what their favourite pieces of music were.

I wanted to create a display that would show our students that staff listened to a wide and varied selection of music. All too often, students can be dismissive of music out of their “comfort zone”, music that is unfamiliar to them. I love creating listening tasks and stimulating students aurally, pushing them out of their comfort zone of familiarity.

I was conscious that after reading Graham Nuthall’s  The Hidden Lives of Learners, students can already have been exposed to up to 50% of the material we may teach them in a classroom and possibly more so in music, where it is part of their daily lives. With engaging films and video games with their carefully thought out and skilfully written soundtracks, for example the “Pirates of the Caribbean” or the “Halo” series, students are familiar with a much wider variety of music than I probably was, at a younger age. When planning our new curriculum, I made sure I tried to push some of these comfort zones and familiarities to increase the unfamiliar and unknown music that students were exposed to in lessons.

When I asked staff about their favourite pieces I hadn’t anticipated the time and effort that people would put in to their responses, or the time and thought they would put into selecting their final “favourite”. I also hadn’t realised that I would also find it quite so difficult to select mine.

As a musican, many of my musical memories are linked to performances, to memorable moments with memorable people and as a performer, moments of elation, dispair, glory and bewilderment are all linked to various sections, movements or whole pieces of music. I remember the first (of many) times I performed at the Royal Albert Hall, I remember coming off stage at Symphony Hall and cementing it in my memory as the favourite place I’d ever performed (still is to this day) and remember millions of moments of rehearsals in various locations all over the country. Music matters to me and my memories.

Music is a very personal thing and pieces, songs and sounds can hold very emotional connections. It may be linked to a memory or transport you to a place, a time or a journey. Music can motivate, relax, energise or become a soundtrack for an event, occasion or situation. It can bring people together to listen to, to perform, to celebrate and create memories, it can isolate people in small “cells” of sound with headphones, oblivious to the world around them.

I thoroughly enjoyed compiling the staff selection into a display and whilst I was collating the selections made by our staff, I loved creating the QR codes as it meant I had to listen to the songs for a final time, one by one, I typed each slide one by one ready to be displayed.

I decided to use a QR code on each slide to allow students and other staff members to have quick access to the music selected. This meant that there were no “what does that one sound like?” moments, especially with some songs that were older, pieces that were unfamiliar or those to which the title was simply unknown.

Students have been extremely interested in the display and have enjoyed reading about the music our staff listen to. It has also made me learn something about every member of staff who has responded and I think allowed our students to also learn something about the staff they encounter daily.

I really appreciate the time our staff spent to contribute to my own personal crusade to demonstrate that listening to a variety can be exciting, stimulating and engaging for others, and also that their teachers are perhaps a bit more like them than they think.

Below are a few of the selections chosen by some of our amazing staff.

What would you choose?


Working with children means I have to keep up with the latest “fads” and crazes. Teaching music means I can usually manage this fairly well, as keeping up with new musical trends, or ones I’d sometimes rather avoid.

When completing listening tasks in class, I often find students lack some depth of answers when writing about the mood or the atmosphere created by the music. Usual “happy”, “sad”, “scary” or “exciting” tend to be the most popular adjectives used and when there are so many beautiful words out there to be used, I always try to find ways to develop and integrate some different adjectives into these musical activities. 

Last week I saw an excellent post on StaffRm Emoji Obsession by Leah Sharp. She writes about how she used Emoji icons to help develop writing techniques in her classroom. This got me thinking about how I could use them in music to help improve the mood and atmosphere answers. 

I already use emoji icons in performance tasks to help students justify their confidence and comfort levels when performing but I had never thought to use them to help build a better musical language in the classroom. 

I decided to incorporate this with a technique I magpied from Lisa Ashes (@lisajaneashes) which can be used in a variety of different ways. I use balls from a ball pool with holes cut in them to add a bit of variety in lessons sometimes- too often and it wouldn’t have the same impact. I saw Lisa use these as “thought bombs” at a teach meet and instantly thought of ways to use them in different ways in my department. I will come back to the different ways I have used them near the end. 

Ball pool balls- stolen from a toddler’s bedroom….

I decided to download a variety of different emoji icons and use them as a starter activity, folded up and put into a ball to avoid the initial discussion and excitement I was sure the appearance the emoji icons would have. The purpose of the starter was to think about the different sounds the students would expect to hear to match the emoji they had in their ball. 

 Emoji icons- copied and pasted from Google images.

Emoji balls waiting to be opened!,

I asked the students to open their image without talking or discussing it with the students sitting near them, and gave them one minute to write down what they thought they might hear or what sounds they would create to match their image- we are about to begin a composition task to create music to match their drama and dance work which will be played as they perform, so mood and atmosphere created is vital in this task.  Once the minute was up I asked them to move to another student’s desk and add to or develop what they had written- they had 30 seconds. I repeated this process twice more, cutting the time down twice more to ensure pace and urgency was kept. This is a Kagan based technique I use often in discussion tasks and also in peer assessment of student work. 

When I looked at the student responses I was very pleased and when I asked the students they also admitted that it would probably help them expand their adjectives when discussing or writing about mood or atmosphere. 


What I also found that was when we completed a listening task straight after, there was an improvement in the vocabulary used to describe the mood of the music. 

My next steps- 

  • To create an “emoji adjective” sheet for students to use as prompts during listening tasks.
  • To build on the discussion work to ensure we re visit the adjectives and the usual happy/ sad etc become rarer each time.

Other ways I have used #ashesballs-

  • Colour coded questions- also easy to differentiate with colour too.
  • Heads and tails.
  • Images to prompt discussion.
  • Number order for performances.

Obviously the addition of the ball doesn’t improve learning, but the task suddenly becomes a bit more exciting as students are eager to see what is in their ball. I don’t use them constantly, so the novelty factor isn’t worn out and I see it as an enhancement to an already useful task rather than a tool to make a dull task seem more exciting. 

#Nurture 1415

I absolutely loved doing this last year and enjoyed looking at other people’s, as well as checking back on my progress several times throughout the year.

I can’t remember a year that I have enjoyed so much, both personally and professionally and I really hope that I can continue my happy way of life into next year. 2014 has been an amazing year!

Reviewing last year first, this may take some time as those who know me know I like to talk.

1- Do not be late with gifts- MOSTLY MANAGED. I think on the few occasions I was late with gifts, it was acceptable, compared to before. @JulieRyder2’s present at Christmas was the most annoying, thanks Royal Mail!

2- Practise what I preach- MOSTLY MANAGED. I try my best to give other people the advice and help they need and I have had some amazing and also some very difficult conversations with colleagues this year. I find myself learning something about the person I’m conversing with and also myself every time. Every day is a learning day and I do try my best to practise what I preach but I’m also very self critical behind closed doors and really think about things too much, so perhaps I could improve this still.

3- Eat better
I start the week full of good intentions but by the weekend it’s all gone wrong. FAIL- This still remains the same as last year. Sadly, I like eating nice food.

4- Have more cherry bomb cocktails in Madame Koo’s. They’re the best!
MANAGED AND EXCEEDED- Ebony Cham69 cocktails top trump the cherry bomb ones so my aim is to find the next best cocktail,

5- Attend as many TeachMeets as I can- and be brave enough to present at some of them too! MANAGED AND EXCEEDED- I was tasked by SLT to organise our first ever TeachMeet. I loved the challenge of this as it was something different to my role in school in my department and I got to work with people I don’t normally day to day. It also made me realise what a strong team of staff we have currently in school and also how many people are willing to go above and beyond their day to day work to help other people achieve their goals. Attending all the local TeachMeets I could last year, plus events like Northern Rocks and Cramlington Festival of World Class Learning, and more recently the Whole Education Conference have really enthused, inspired and motivated me and my whole outlook so, so much. We are in an amazing profession and I feel so lucky to have been given the chance to attend these events with the view of changing the lives of the children who are lucky enough to attend our exciting, vibrant and inspirational school.

6- Switch all devices off at bedtime…this one I will struggle with but I think it will help my sleep. I end up reading The Times in bed then trawling twitter and before I know it, it’s midnight! I’m just lucky my boy sleeps or I’d be a zombie! FAIL.

7- Gardening- sort it out! Our garden is massive but I didn’t get half my jobs done this year. FAIL.

8- Fun days out- have as many as we can, including weekends away. I had loads this year so need to create more new, fun memories with my boys.
MANAGED AND EXCEEDED. These days remind me why it’s so important to work hard during the week, so I can play hard at the weekend. We have made so many happy memories this year.

9- Remain calm and organised MANAGED. I’m SO much better at this even compared to last year. I think I have had the biggest pressures on my time this year in my job so far but I’ve dealt with most of them fairly calmly and methodically and as long as I continue to do this I am confident I know my limits and how to deal with problems in an effective manner.

10- Rehearse my piano pieces I enjoy playing- for pleasure. This is a time constraint issue so I need to find an extra 15/20 mins per day to do this. FAIL. I’ve definitely played more for pleasure than last year but nowhere near as much as I’d have liked to and to the standard I’d have wanted to.

11- Keep trying new teaching ideas I find and like. MANAGED AND EXCEEDED- also shared with department staff and other people. I know these things have had an impact in both my classroom and in my department. I had some lovely feedback from a recent lesson observation (we don’t grade lessons) and some of the ideas I have embedded into my classroom and shared with others have really helped student engagement, enjoyment, progress and achievement in lessons.

12- TRY to get back into running- living at the top of a massive hill is the biggest deterrent to this! MANAGED AND EXCEEDED- I am a runner. I completed the Great North Run, many 10k, 5k and parkrun and trail events, as well as a cross country, and also joined a running club this year. This is probably the thing I am most proud of in the last year and know I will continue to run. It helps me have some think time, some time to reflect on the events of the day, time to cry get it all out, time to meet with friends and gossip at running club, time to push myself out of my comfort zone, time to feel exhilarated. I love it.

13- Keep smiling no matter what- I’ve been great at doing this this year! MOSTLY MANAGED. This links really well to number 2- practise what I preach. Sometimes smiling is easier than reacting to a mood Hoover, then I use number 12…

14- Read, read, read, read, read! MOSTLY MANAGED- I’ve read loads in the last year but there’s always room for more.

So, for the coming year I want to…

1- Listen more to others- I like to talk so I tend to listen then join in, rather than listen and digest. I was conscious of times this year when I should listen more and talk less. I want to be better at this.

2) Digest then react- I can sometimes react quickly to situations without thinking the whole thing through and then afterwards think I could have or should have dealt with things differently. I never give a flying off the handle type reaction but I can certainly take more time to digest and react possibly in a better way.

3) Use Skype more- we Skype an amazing group of students in Canada and I love the reaction from both sets of students. It is an amazing learning experience for all, teachers included. I want to involve this more in the work of the department and use this tool to bring amazing people into our exciting classrooms.

4) Improve- my department at work to make it more amazing than it already is, and my running times set from last year. The level of work, dedication, disappointments, training and effort I put in will lead to the improvements I want.

5) Not to be so self critical- I will really struggle with this. I even don’t take compliments well as in my head the things that didn’t go well/ disappoint/ slipped/ are the things that I remember the most. I really do over think things too much sometimes so perhaps need to learn to brush things off better too?

6) Be brave- I’m so much more confident than I was this time 2 years ago but I still become a nervy wreck in some situations. I need to be braver than I am currently.

These are the ones I think I should tackle this year, not quite the 15 but the ones that are most important for me. I might add a few more on at a later date just for the craic.

KS4 Music- Excellent courses?

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!

A Design for Life

I’m just back from a fantastic Performing Arts trip to Holland.

We travelled to Valkenburg, a lovely town near the German and Belgian borders. We have taken students there previously but not for three years. When we have gone before, we took our excellent school band but these students have moved on and left and the band no longer exists as it once did.

The performers we took this time were very different. 2 groups of dancers, several vocal soloists and a small group of singers. Many were first time performers, or emerging performers. All, with the exception of one or two have only performed in front of a small, classroom audience and no more. Would they manage 2 concerts in public?

On the coach journey to Valkenburg, I was re-reading the amazing “Leaders of their Own Learning”,


taking advantage of the long journey to refresh memory. I had initially read this in February but wanted to re-read it to clarify and consolidate what I had read, especially in light of the developments in our school in that short period since.

As I was reading it I became very encouraged, warmed almost, inside. I knew the students I had with me very well, I know all the ups and downs they have been through in their performances and we have been all working together to develop growth mindsets, confidence building and taking small steps towards the bigger goal. It made me realise I had an amazing opportunity to really see them thrive over the next few days.

The performance programme was the key. Each set of performers had to be placed in the concert at a point where they would feel the most comfortable. I also had an excellent opportunity for self critique and instant improvements as there were only 2 hours between concerts so changes could be made quickly.

The youngest of our performers were a group of fresh Y8 students. A set of 7 lovely girls who had been rehearsing hard after school since the return in September. Despite their hard work on their performance and choreography, they were yet to perform to an audience other than myself. I decided they would be the first performance, as they wouldn’t have time to get too nervous. This would then allow them to watch the rest of the performers without having to worry about their own performance.They performed excellently, smiling and happy in both concerts. In the second they were definitely more at ease. Job done.  I was proud of them and they were excited to have performed.

The second performer was a gamble. A wobbler. The student is a lovely singer but can be crippled by nerves. She had to go second to again, get it over with. In the first concert the nerves appeared…words were forgotten and the tears appeared. Fear not! A lady in the audience walked over, told the student that her voice had touched her heart and that she must start again and sing all the way. This was enough for this student, the backing track was restarted and she nailed it from start to finish. The lady in the crowd had tears in her eyes when she finished and so did I. Mindset. She didn’t even falter in the second concert, she took to the stage with confidence and performed with ease. In a way I was glad it went a bit wrong in the first concert, as the security she will now have after this failure and then the fact that two subsequent successful performances were better, will help her in activities I can’t help her with. I can help her prepare for her college audition but I can’t be there with her. Hopefully the memory of her success will be there with her, reminding her how to succeed.

Performer three is an edgy Y8 singer. She brims with confidence and bravado. She was visibly nervous and forgot to count the bars at the start of her song, meaning she was out with her track. She realised this and tried to correct it but it wasn’t right. I was proud of her grit- she carried on, fearless. After the performance she asked if we could go through the track during the break in the concert to re count her bars in the introduction and between verses. I was proud- she wanted to fix her problems without me even suggesting this. She knew it needed to be better for the next concert. We sat together and counted the bar patterns and sang the song through together. In the second concert I didn’t even need to count for her. She held her head high, looked straight into the audience and put the earlier errors to bed.

After seeing this, performer 11 wanted to go through his backing track before his first performance to make sure he knew what he was doing, making sure he was confident. He is a lovely singer but can also be a nervous performer. In the first concert, he probably performed better than he had in any concert in school. He loved it, he said. He was looking forward to the second concert. In the second concert, many of the audience members joined in with him which gave him a boost and he smiled instead of looking scared, looked around instead of fixed. Afterwards he was “buzzing”, I’ve never seen him so happy. I can’t wait to record his next performance as I know he will use the confidence he has gained and will develop his performance further.

One by one, the performers took to the stage and performed their best in concert one, but in concert two they lifted the lid. Fixed their mistakes, encouraged each other with specific feedback, looked that bit more confident and felt that bit more at ease.

I want these students to remember these performances and what they learnt in the short space of time between performances. How they upped their game, looked the part and sang their hearts out.

Clearly not every one of these students will go on to be professional performers or dancers but the whole point is to prepare these students for real life- A Design for Life. If at a college or job interview they falter, hesitate, go blank, even crumble, they are developing skills and strategies to help them overcome this, to rectify this and to bounce back stronger.

I have never felt prouder of students making mistakes as I know and they are beginning to realise that making mistakes is the best way to fix them.