Inspiring a love of learning (rather than a fear of exams)

There will always be challenges in this profession, but perhaps we’re getting the problems and solutions the wrong way round. Could we approach exam preparation differently?

Here’s a real-world solution with a fantastic outcome!

One of the biggest challenges young people are facing in our schools is examination fear. For most students I’ve spoken to recently, they talk of ‘the fear’, but find it difficult to specify the causes. I’ve also noticed that teachers (including myself) naturally draw conclusions as to why there is this fear, but I’m finding more and more that these perceptions are inaccurate. I’m also finding it helpful just for students to have an opportunity to share how they ‘feel’. Often worry is only developed when students feel that those supporting them ‘don’t understand’.

Often as teachers, we design systems and practices that we perceive to be the best for our students. It’s now fairly commonplace (or should be) to see ‘student voice’ activities taking place in lessons. These are just as important regarding preparations for our exam systems as for any other aspect of school life.

Worry about exams has always been there, but in recent years it appears to be having deeper health implications for our young people. Ultimately the examinations are not therefore proving their ability and understanding. If anything, the process is making students feel that whatever they do, it won’t be enough. I’m not completely sure as to why this has become worse. I certainly remember feeling nervous about my own school exams, but not to anywhere near the extent I see in students now.

The natural reaction is to blame the national system and speaking to lots of teachers, the Progress 8 measure in particular has been a factor in their view. Teachers, particularly English and Maths have felt a much greater sense of accountability to deliver numbers, no matter the circumstances or students they’re working with. There will always be challenges in this profession, but perhaps we’re getting the problems and solutions the wrong way round. Could we approach exam preparation differently?

About 15 years ago, having worked through a long period of mental illness, I learned that we each cannot help how we ‘feel’, but we can certainly change how we ‘think’.

So why share this now?

We are currently going through a full 2-week GCSE mock exam period with our year 9s. The music exam was timetabled for the Friday afternoon at the end of week 1. My perception was that students were finding it tough – they have certainly been very tired this week in rehearsals.

However Friday’s music exam created completely unexpected outcomes. Happy students, they enjoyed the exam, felt like they understood the questions and could confidently find answers. There was a great sense of community between the two very different pathways who were together for the first time. It was a ‘golden time’ in the 10 minutes afterwards with a great sense of joy around the room.

Results were great too, average mark for all Y9s was just 3 marks lower than the national average for last summer’s Y11 GCSE exam results using the same paper. If you’re familiar with my other recent posts, you’ll understand this is especially remarkable as quite a few of these students do not have a musical background.

How did we prepare?

All of these were designed as a response to, or developed by, collaboration with student voice.

– No pause in learning ‘to revise’, just keep creating, keep the momentum, always developing deep, internal experience-based understanding.

Theta music games with league table and Easter egg prizes – these are online games with correct terminology to support aural awareness. I’ll blog in more detail about this soon.

– Ultimate revision guide – I’ve done an analysis of every music exam ever set to determine question types. With former A* students, we’ve discovered which specific musical concepts need to be understood to answer confidently and how to prepare. This resource is used continuously as a skills audit with traffic light feedback, rather than just in ‘revision time’.

– Wordwall placemats. A3 laminated placemats of WordWall2019 allowed in this exam. At this point in the course, I’m more interested in students confidently finding information, rather than remembering it all.

– Tune of the week. Created as part of my action research for this year. Tune of the Week is now commonplace on both courses and we try to do at least one every week. Therefore, when this exam came up, I could share that it was just 8 TOTWs back to back. Students really enjoy TOTW.

I’m so happy with the outcome of this mock. Please try in your own school and let me know if you’d like any support. You can contact me through

Blog Post Photo by Dave Lowe on Unsplash

ORASingers #PerfectInspiration

Last night I was fortunate to be at LSO St Luke’s in London to listen to ORASingers. It was the second time I’ve experienced the choir live, the first being at Manchester Cathedral with 40 or so of our students (aged 13-15) in February 2018.

After last night’s performance I tweeted:

Why #perfectinspiration?

For me, ORASingers symbolise a perfect solution in music.

1. Always something new

“ORA Singers was established with the aim of commissioning 100 new works by 100 different composers in 10 years.” (

It’s very easy as a music teacher to ‘stick to what you know’. Often the challenges in recent years have been to adapt what we do to changes in policy or assessment – in practice, not a particularly musical process. This creates a real risk of us becoming disinterested in our passion, the music itself. As creatives, there should always be an aspect of ‘finding the new’ in music as well as keeping hold of the opportunities that repeatedly inspire us. ORASingers’ aspiration encourages composers to reflect on the much loved works of Renaissance music and we should do the same. For me, a new model for music education must encourage space and time for teachers to reflect on all aspects of their teaching and to discover the music most impactful for their unique culture of students, but with flexibility to encourage constant development in what and how we learn together.

2. Flawless Performance

If asked to pinpoint why I’m most inspired by ORASingers, it’s the seemingly effortless precision of vocal performance. It is flawless. Every note is purposely placed, with truest timbre, exact articulation – perfectly consistent with all similarly articulated notes, perfectly tuned, and each note tonally and dynamically shaped with control of expression from beginning to end. When every voice is so perfectly placed, the richness in overall timbre is incredible. This sense of quality is there in each of the individual voices before combining together with the others, with no one voice standing out as superior in quality or importance. This example for young people beginning to sing and communicate in music together is unmatched. It therefore should be our focus in the classroom too. Why not challenge our young people to aspire to flawless perfection. In previous blogs I’ve described how counterproductive target grades based on KS2 Maths and English are. Even though as we consider each individual student’s potential in music, aiming for full marks is restrictive. Aim beyond, teach beyond. Who knows what can be unlocked.

Reflecting on the GCSE Music performance mark scheme, it is relatively straightforward to find ‘the right notes in the the right order’. It is also relatively straightforward to understand and play a rhythm correctly. Students with determined aspirations, should be able to understand pitch and rhythmic aspects easily. The second aspect of assessment, ‘expression & interpretation’, is far more challenging as it requires the young person to engage with the music, and it’s only through a deeper, spiritual understanding of the music that they’re able to deliver the performance, and fully bring it to life. The ‘accuracy’ is the only aspect of the performance that could be (vaguely) related to the KS2 Maths. Since enjoying the last concert with ORASingers at Manchester Cathedral, the difference in how our students have approached their performance work is vast. We are incredibly grateful to the choir who organised for our students to attend for free.

3. #youngpeopleareawesome

“Our young people have much imagination, curiosity and creativity already inside them. The role of the music teacher is to help them to unlock what’s already inside”. Julian Watson

I wonder how many of us would truthfully consider this when planning a new unit of work. Martin Fautley helpfully talks about how important it is to focus on the learning in curriculum design, rather than the assessment. Julian’s comment, challenges us to go even further to consider the individual young person. From recent experiences of teaching composition using technology and having a particular focus on how to make GCSE Music accessible to those who love music, as opposed to those who happen to already play an instrument or sing, I can completely relate to the importance of designing a flexible approach that encourages ALL students to explore their own unique musical gift.

This year ORASingers have run an amazing Composers Competition aimed at high school aged students. I can’t wait to hear what the chosen 10 young people have designed to be performed by ORASingers.

4. The importance of us all being different together.

Absolute inclusion. Music is for everybody.

Just before last night’s concert an audience member arrived who was occasionally very loud before the concert began. I have to admit that, during Suzi Digby’s spoken introduction, it crossed my mind as to whether or not the choir may be distracted by the sudden sounds coming from the audience. However, from the moment the choir began to sing last night, I can’t remember a single moment when I felt distracted by the wonderful sound in front of me. It was perfect and inspiring from beginning to end.

Sometimes we really have to work to recognise that everyone is different and to not become transfixed by things contrary to our personal expectations. A musical product of the highest quality requires everyone working together to ‘make it work’, just as the voices in ORASingers do, fitting perfectly together. Each stakeholder has a responsibility in the performance. Each must maintain their own ‘quality’, no matter the circumstances, while constantly working to find new ways to work together. Just in the same way that conflict is necessary to see resolve, a balance of dissonance and consonance in musical harmony is important in creating a sense of contrast in the development of musical ideas. In a faculty team, it’s ok (and healthy) that people don’t agree as long as they leave opportunity to listen to each other, leading (hopefully) to a point of collective resolve.

Another wonderful experience providing new thoughts, perspectives and ideas to share. Thank you again to Suzi and the team at ORASingers.


Blog Post title photo from:

No part of this article has been written with the permission of ORASingers. I am equally not affiliated with the group. I’m just a very fortunate audience member.


What could you make in 60 minutes? Be inventive. Be creative. Try it!

I’m exploring what’s possible with an iPad and 60 Minutes #MusicIn60 #JustBeCreative #MusicIsForEverybody #CreateWithoutFear #Challenge #MusicEducation

The best way to demonstrate our passion is to create.

Listen to Opus 1 here

Listen to Opus 2 here

Listen to Opus 3 here

Enter Competition here

More to follow…

iPad GCSE Music Demo (now with Voiceover)

This term my Y9 GCSE Music students (on both music pathways) have the challenge of producing a complete song using an iPad, beginning only with a lead sheet. They have 5 weeks in total to complete the project.

This is an example of a possible Production Via Technology Performance – an option available to students on the AQA 8271 GCSE Music course. The song I’ve chosen for this project is “Oceans” by Hillsong. Lead sheet available here

Due to illness, two students missed last week’s introductory lesson, which inspired me to make this video for them to catch-up. As colleagues around the country are just getting started in using technology in the classroom, I’ve decided to share it with you too. If you have an iPad, why not have a go! And also then think about entering my iPad music competition – closing date not until 20th April, so there’s plenty of time for great invention!

Watch the Video on YouTube

Performing Arts: Our Shared Passion

We would certainly recommend this (30 minute) conversation to all music, dance and drama teachers. If you’re on your own, consider having the conversation with your headteacher. It’s greatly positive and inspiring!

This morning our Performing Arts staff team met together to share our collective vision for the young people we work with. It was a fantastic conversation and we each left greatly encouraged by what we’ve developed together. We’ve worked together for quite a few years now, but haven’t sat together to talk about it recently. We would certainly recommend this (30 minute) conversation to all music, dance and drama teachers. If you’re on your own, consider having the conversation with your headteacher. It’s greatly positive and inspiring!

We used our understanding of the new Ofsted 3Is (Intent, Implementation, Impact) to structure our discussion.

Intent – what do we want students to achieve in PA? – what’s the vision?

Confident understanding, inventiveness, creativity, exploring, be fascinated by, positive sense of well-being, freedom to perform without fear, robust KS3 (focus on learning, rather than just doing), Skills, teachers to be inspiring, we love what we do so we want students to have the same passion, modelling exceptional practice in the performing arts.

Implementation- how do we do this?

Practical, underpinned by clear direction, opportunities to push the boundaries, aim for amazing, exceptional production values, always learning and developing, always improving, staff modelling concepts with attitude/approach also considered, build trusting relationships between staff and students and students and students, critical listening and thinking – addressing every detail. Lesson planning is thorough to offer best opportunity to achieve. Cohesive arc of learning. Clear development of skills and knowledge through curriculum design. Extra-curricular with access for all and a varied programme to support different abilities and interests. Performing Arts leaders programme to encourage students to strive for ultimate performance skills and share what they learn with other students in curriculum lessons.

KS3 Curriculum

Drama KS3 Topics

Y7: Beginning Drama (basic skills), storytelling, improvisation, working with scripts.

Y8: Greek theatre, medieval theatre, Elizabethan theatre, Victorian theatre, contemporary theatre.

Dance KS3 Topics

Y7: Dance decades (performance), Ingredients of dance (choreography), Rooster (professional repertoire: Performance & Choreography).

Y8: Capoeira (cultural choreography), West Side Story (Performance), Ghost Dances (Professional Repertoire: Performance & Choreography)

Music KS3 Topics

Every topic involves Performance, Composition & Listening to develop understanding

Y7: Elements (Exploring music), Perform 1 (Melody, Harmony, Devices), Notate (Communicating Music).

Y8: Perform 2 (Film Music, Improvisation, Structure), Production (Critical listening, Control – project to produce a complete audio product from a simple lead sheet), Song8 (Songwriting & Production)

KS4 Curriculum

AQA GCSE Dance, Drama, Music & Music Production Via Technology Pathways in Y9-11

Impact – what’s the evidence the dream is happening?

Confident learners, stunning performances, results, fascinating products. Constant communication between teachers and students (Showbie dialogue), willingness to participate, onward journeys – so many go onto related future careers and courses at the highest level, impact on whole school, events, wider community impact, connections to professional organisations – Phoenix Dance, CAPA (Wakefield), Northern school of contemporary dance a few examples of the many.

Tune of the Week

To develop confident musical understanding, students must be constantly listening to and exploring music in a range of genres and contexts. As they begin, they need support in how they focus on music when they listen, and encouragement that ‘it’s going to be ok’, especially when approaching music in a style they’ve never heard before.

As a result, students can prepare confidently to listen and demonstrate their awareness of music in their GCSE exam.

I created ‘Tune of the Week’ in summer 2018 and it is planned as the first activity in every year 9, 10 and 11 lesson every week. I use the same music for all three year groups to encourage integration and discussion between the different age groups. I give all students the same (exam) questions too, but there’s flexibility in-built to give clues or to demonstrate live answering, where I take the role of the student and think out loud to show how I would answer. For Year 11 students there’s an extension task to define the style they’re listening to, which students find harder as it requires them to apply previous knowledge.

All students at Manor have an iPad and we use the app Showbie as a paperless solution. Students begin by downloading a new template like the one below. It is now a routine for them to do this so takes little time. When complete, they screenshot their answers and upload back to Showbie to keep for further study and revision.

This is the 2nd version of the template, now including an automatic marking system using conditional formatting (the template automatically opens in the numbers app to make this possible). Therefore zero additional marking outside the classroom and students receive instant feedback. As we go through the answers, students simply enter a Y or N into the appropriate column. Instantly this turns green or red and is then easy for me (and them) to see at a glance of things they’ve understood or need extra support with. There’s also an extra box to write in the correct answer so they can go back and look over it to check understanding.

The three ‘educated guesses’ encourage students to openly discuss the music as soon as they hear it – these are not exam-style questions but helpfully add context. They also help students to be aware of a wider range of styles, which they need to have available to them as they compose.

The 5 questions are on a Keynote/PowerPoint slide on the screen, shown for reference in the slide below. These 5 questions are similar to those found in the AQA Music exam. The ‘longer’ question at the bottom of the page is a more difficult exam question, purposely requiring 4 answers, as opposed to the 3 on the examination.

It was important to begin with familiar music and the customary Earth, Wind & Fire choice was an instant success as the student to my right shouting “That’s a right tune” proved after the opening 3 seconds. It’s important to begin with familiar music as it creates a natural point of confidence. As soon as we begin to unpick the music, it’s unlikely that students have considered it in this way before.

The week 3 tune, “End of the line”, is an example of where you might go next. The music feels familiar but is not heard in its usual context of the film. It wasn’t originally designed for week 3, but was suggested by a student in a separate conversation about developing narrative music in film. The outcome of that conversation was so helpful that we decided to share it with everybody as a Tune of the Week. The choice was inspired – it actually gave us a highly complex orchestral piece to hear, and sparked intrigue to discover other orchestral music.

The most interesting response from students came in the 2nd week of February – Steve Reich, Clapping Music. The 2% of students who had heard the music before got very excited as, it was announced it was a favourite of their father who listened to it over and over in the car. The 98% first listeners independently began an amazing discussion. I’d prepared a practical activity for them to experience Clapping Music to understand more about its construction. Within 40 minutes, those students went from ‘never experiencing this genre before’ to enjoying, questioning and being fascinated by it.

This project is part of our Performing Arts staff team research for 2018/19, which is exploring the impact an ‘iPad-based Interactive Coursebook’ has on students developing confidence in understanding in Music, Dance & Drama. I’ll post further updates on this project as it continues. Already, the most significant impacts have been ability to provide instant feedback to students, while building stronger relationships with them and reducing teacher workload. Watch this space!

The Betty’s Challenge

This is a critical time for Y11 GCSE students all over the country as final tweaks are made to compositions and final performance recordings. However it is essential for students to be ‘on it’ from day 1, so that their ‘final tweaks’ help them to reach their farthest point possible. Therefore I have “The Betty’s Challenge”.

For those of you reading in other parts of the world, Betty’s is our Yorkshire Traditional Tea Room, this year celebrating its 100th year. It’s a bit more expensive than most, but a high quality experience and well worth the queue around the building to get in. I don’t have any commercial affiliation with Betty’s, but I have been fortunate to have visited on several celebratory occasions in the past.

The Betty’s Challenge is simple. All students have to do is pass. That is, they are in this together and all have to pass (100% A*/C, or nowadays 100% 9-5). If they can achieve this they will enjoy Afternoon Tea all together on me. The last time it happened, this cost me over £400!

Our GCSE music course is open to all students – musicians and non-musicians. There is no selective entry exam to come to our 11-16 state school and no entry requirement to enter the GCSE course. As a result every class is mixed ability. To be ‘successful’, students must be independent in their learning and must build strong trusting relationships with other students (as well as with their music teacher). Those relationships are built on the knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and awareness of moments when encouragement is required. Students must strive to understand concepts together, without leaving anyone behind. When they start to produce exam work, they cannot help each other. However a strong culture of proactive invention and creativity continues to be inspirational, even if not directly used in the production of exam work.

The grades, although important for the students’ career progression, are quite incidental and ultimately a bonus. What I really hope to inspire is a love of collaborative learning in music. If this ultimate production environment is created, students develop great confidence in how they learn in all subjects. The music they develop is of a very high standard and I only very rarely have to consider ‘behaviour management’. Students are challenged to make the most of every opportunity they have together.

Enjoy some of their amazing compositions here.