Can anyone help?

I first blogged this on the Peer to Peer network and the comments at the bottom show it’s a hot topic for debate. The search for answers to some of these issues and in particular how using Musical Futures approaches can have an impact will underpin one of the first tasks in my new role as I visit Musical Futures teachers across the UK, spend some time in lessons, discover how they have integrated and adapted MF into their teaching and departments. I know I will learn a lot.

My original post reflected on my formal performance management lesson observation. It was linked to my appraisal and therefore to my pay and progression in my career, so it’s pretty important, can be stressful and you absolutely need to get it right or the consequences can be dire.

I decided to request that this observation be of a year 7 class, lively, creative, really hard work but unbelievably musical and talented. They are just finishing off a whole class songwriting project, the outcome of which will be entered into the school House Music competition.

My lesson contained no reference at all to levels, assessment, keywords, scaffolding, grouping by ability, peer assessment, seating plans, written work, verbal feedback stamp, student log sheets etc. We simply made music together, they shaped the lesson themselves through the homework they had done and through the ideas they contributed in the lesson. You can hear it HERE if you’re interested and scroll down to see what the students have been saying about it as we have gone along.

Of course I was assessing every second of that lesson. I had to diagnose on the spot what was needed to move on the pace, to keep them interested, to make sure the music sounded good and got better, to take notice of their feedback and ideas, to differentiate for their needs whenever they needed me to! I had to be able to spot who was struggling, look to challenge those in danger of going off task, watch for the hot spots for behaviour from some. But there was no way I could evidence that beyond actually doing it. On my plan I noted down where the observer might be able to look for this but I was honest. I said that because the lesson depended on the students and their interaction with me and with each other, I may not be able to stick to the plan, I’d let the creative process take us where we needed to be.

Then I did what I do and at the end I realised I’d hardly noticed the observer in the room except for the times I saw his foot tapping along with the music they were playing and a smile on his face when he first heard them play. He thought it was an outstanding lesson.

This is not meant to be a stealth boast or a post about how amazing Musical Futures approaches (which I used throughout) are. Because I realise I’m incredibly lucky. I’ve been able to work with our SLT over the last few years to be given trust and freedom to teach music how I (as the music professional) feel I should teach it. We have talked it over, debated the positives and the danger areas and I’ve taken on board the feedback and thought about how to evidence what they have asked for and all along I have fought hard and argued and coerced and jumped through a lot of hoops. But we have managed it and the impact has been massive.

Well lucky me. But why should this be the exception? Why on earth is the knowledge, experience and expertise of a strong workforce of music teachers and those in the music education sector being largely ignored? Why aren’t we trusted to do the best we can for our students and forced to fit our subject into the narrow, restrictive shapes that suit other subjects?

Looking online there are hundreds of calls for help from music teachers being forced by their SLT to compromise what they know to be a tried and tested and effective approach to teaching music (and one clearly advocated by our OFSTED subject lead) because it doesn’t ‘fit’ the expectations of their schools. And don’t even get me started on assessment, levels, sub levels and the rest.

So you can imagine my anger and disappointment to hear later that day from two teachers in two different schools asking for my advice about situations they have found themselves in at their schools.

The first teacher was observed with a class 4 weeks into a notation-based project who started with very little experience of using notation and within 4 weeks were using Sibelius competently to notate their compositions. Whilst observers accepted there had obviously been progress over time, the lesson was rated unsatisfactory because there was no written work to show the impact of the teacher’s interventions and to log student progress. The target? To produce a set amount of written work in every lesson in line with school literacy aims and to start on a programme of support for struggling teachers.

The second was a teacher being observed by a someone from a different department who had some musical experience. The lesson was also deemed unsatisfactory because the observer felt that the practical, hands on lesson they saw didn’t constitute an ‘appropriate’ music lesson because the students weren’t being taught notation and theory and that’s what music education ‘should’ be.

We know this is happening. We hear about it day in and day out. So my questions are:

1) Why should my experience be because I’m ‘lucky’ in having a supportive SLT? That trust and freedom has helped me become a far far better teacher because I’ve been given the space and support to try things that were very new to me yet have changed our department so much for the better. Some work, some don’t but I know I’ve got support there and that’s worth a lot.

2) What support is out there for teachers who aren’t so lucky? What do I say when I’m asked what they can do to challenge the poor lesson observation grades and subsequent ‘support programmes’ that are put in place? I don’t know. I have no answers other than ‘I’m lucky’ or on some cases “I’m really sorry you’ve had to go through this but…”.

I know there are useful documents and publications that say all this but they don’t seem to be doing the job.

So please could someone tell me where do we go for answers? We are demoralising good teachers and our students are missing out on fantastic classroom music experiences because of this. It seems to be getting worse not better!

Who will help us? Where do we go next? If whoever it is that can help could just post here with their email address and a magic wand, we could save music in our schools. If not then I can’t see how we move forward from here and that’s too depressing to contemplate.

Answers please.

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