A Real-World Solution To Create Impact In Music Progression

This is specifically written for school leaders, for heads of music and for the parents of my GCSE music students.

We’ll shortly be going into Year 9 mocks. Historically in a 3-year KS4, it has always felt too early to be awarding an attainment grade as the GCSE Music qualification requires much applied development of knowledge to allow students the opportunity to access the full range of marks.

However since becoming an examiner, I’ve learned that my perceived ‘full range of marks’ is not necessary to grade work in an earlier part of the course. I will never meet the students I’m examining for, but it is clear from the evidence I’ve seen and reports I’ve heard that there are many challenges students around the country face in helping them to maintain a sense of progress in what they do. Some students do not have the same teacher all the way through their course, in some cases illness prevents subject leaders from being present at key times and then there are many individual changes of circumstances for the students themselves.

In most situations there isn’t an ideal setting, however just as described in my “real-world knowledge” post, if we Know the students, we can inspire them to be ambitious about their GCSE outcome over 3 years of study.

When examining I often find myself reflecting to try and imagine the circumstances each student has worked in when composing their music. In a range of 0-36, I’ve experienced work across the full available range of marks, including some that is far beyond GCSE standard. This is therefore helpful to consider. Imagine a year 9 student who has an inspirational teacher. Due to ill health the teacher is away for their year 10 and most of year 11 and although the school does what it can to cover the subject specialist, the year 9 student struggles to independently make progress. The greatest progress has therefore been made in year 9 and their musical understanding has mostly come from that year. So the progress in year 9, however simplistic it feels, is crucial. I wonder if they’d have had the opportunity to write a complete piece of original music in year 9, whether it would be of a comparable standard to what was submitted for coursework in year 11?

A flexibility in mind-set is required, that doesn’t require students to have learned all one perceives necessary to succeed before testing. As soon as a composition is written, immediately then analysis, evaluation, discussion and marking can take place.

This year, I’ve encouraged our Y9 and 10 GCSE students to self-assess their work as they look to be more independent. To support this, I’ve simplified the mark scheme as below. Students are not trying to give a specific mark – they’re trying to fit the music they create into a category.

Complex & Inventive (8/9) – 32-36

Developing with devices (6/7) – 25-31

Music makes sense (4/5) – 20-24

Works but repetitive (3/4) – 16-19

Clashes (2/3) – 12-15

Not in control (1/2) – 0-11

I still continue to teacher-assess work to ensure students understand what each category means in practice. However this extra interaction helps to encourage conversation about quality and development of product.

How to really know our music students.

In my earlier blog about measuring students’ ability in music, I described how every student is completely unique and therefore un-definable. Every student has a different musical experience profile. Using the KS2 Maths & English data to ‘know where a student started in music’ is nonsensical. However I still consider that measure as an indicator of ‘academic ability’. It’s not necessary to argue what ‘academic’ means in relation to this, but it does provide our first comparative measure that categorises students (very) generally as top, middle and lower ability. If we consider their ‘academic ability’, alongside the following categories it is possible to create a range of Year 9 GCSE Music starting points.

Thus I’ve developed 6 discrete musical starting points, each beginning a coloured line, for students to advance from. The KS3 grades below can be understood more here. At the start of Year 9 I meet with each individual student and we decide together, which of these best describes their experience so far. This best-fit is only temporary as the system encourages students to far exceed their potential.

The 6 Music Lines of Development

Lower B – Purple Line – expected grade at end with good progression 3, with outstanding 4

– No instrument on entry

– Basic aural ability

– No extra-curricular experience

– No awareness of music theory

– KS3 result in music D (developing) or S- (nearly securing)

– “Lower” academic ability

Lower A – Red Line – expected grade at end with good progression 4, with outstanding 5

– No instrument on entry

– Basic aural ability

– Some extra curricular experience

– Minimal awareness of music theory

– KS3 result in music S (securing) or S-

– “Middle” academic ability

Middle B – Orange Line – expected grade at end with good progression 5, with outstanding 6

– May or may not have grades 1-2, but some instrumental experience

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Secure aural ability

– Awareness of functional theory (understanding of how music works)

– KS3 result in music S

– “Middle” academic ability

Middle A – Yellow – expected grade at end with good progression 6, with outstanding 7

– May or may not have grades 1-2, but some instrumental experience

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Secure aural ability

– Awareness of functional theory (understanding of how music works)

– KS3 result in music M (mastering) or S+ (nearly mastering)

– “High” academic ability

Upper B – Green – expected grade at end with good progression 7, with outstanding 8

– Grade 3-4 Instrument/Voice already achieved on entry

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Strong aural ability

– Grade 2-4 Music Theory Understanding

– KS3 result in music M

– “High” academic ability

Upper A – Blue – expected grade at end with good progression 8, with outstanding 9

– Grade 5 Instrument/Voice already achieved on entry

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Strong aural ability

– Grade 5 Music Theory already achieved on entry

– KS3 result in music M

– “High” academic ability

Progress in music is never linear. The most common rate of progress is little-by-little until the spring of year 11, when there is significant increase as things all come together. This rate of progress makes data managers nervous though. So I began to think about whether students could push their ambition much earlier in the course. With “The Wheel of Music Ambition” as it’s now apparently called, we can certainly make sure everything is in place to support them.

When I first developed the 6 starting points, it was to try to define a close-as-possible ‘musical start and end point’. Manor principal, Simon Barber asked in the development of this new system whether it was possible for students to move between the coloured lines. I initially responded ‘no’ as I’d set out specifically to try to prove a specific start and end point in music, but Simon was absolutely right and from this development we’ve created a real-world success, inspiring real ambition amongst the students.

On the first occasion of discussion with the students, they instantly made a visual connection to the London Underground map. They saw the lines as tube lines and the circles (points at which we’ve chosen to measure grades) as ‘main stations’. When at a ‘main station’, it’s possible to get onto another line. This has developed conversation amongst students about what it’s like to be on each line and the different things they’re having to think about. It’s also naturally created ambition in students wanting to discover what’s necessary to be at a higher level station when the next opportunity of grading happens. Students are also very aware of the possibility of going down to lines below, but as such no-one has ever moved down (yet).

For senior leaders, the system has created a method to ‘target-set’ based on musical experiences and musical outcomes. Ultimately this is the only information they’re really concerned with, as it gives a real-world outcome in a P8 hypothesis. Based on a starting point, it shows what should be achievable at the end of the course. It’s still not relevant to KS2 banding alone, as the calculations for progress 8 are related to, but it’s so much more helpful in our real world.

By each measuring point (3 times a year at Christmas, Easter and July), students complete the following:

– whole or part of a real GCSE Music exam paper – for AQA, section A only /68 in Y9 and 10

– Compose an original piece of music

– Perform a piece of music or create a Production Via Technology

None of these measures is ever an ‘easier version’. There’s no point. Students are graded in composition and performance as if it’s their final year 11 work. As much as targets are mentioned above as required by schools, in reality students are offered the opportunity to achieve 100% of the available marks. It is counterproductive to suggest students aim for anything less.

When I worked at Huntington School in York, headteacher John Tomsett challenged us to think like the British Cycling team had done in their preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games. They used the ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ as a method to create the ultimate outcomes by constantly looking at how every detail of preparation could be improved. Inspired by this, every grading point on the GCSE course is immediately followed by an AMG point, although the AMG chart is available for students to look at whenever they like. Often AMG conversations help students to independently identity the aspect they would like to improve next. It also encourages students to plan and request specific help to advance. Students may also request a hypothesis at any time to see the impact each change will make.

AMG 1: Year 9 and 10

In the first 2 years of development, I consider the ‘long brushstrokes’ of the assessments, being careful not to over-measure and to make sure my focus is on their learning, rather than the numbers. Therefore just one number for each of composing, performance and exam each term. The far left-hand column shows their KS3 result (Developing, Securing or Mastering). Students without grades have joined the cohort from other schools at Y9. The red column of target grades based only on KS2 data is interesting to compare to the targets with good or outstanding progress created by the Musical starting points, but ultimately irrelevant. The “expected attainment December” column shows the ‘main station’ point they should reach. The column just before that shows their actual real-world GCSE grade based on grades that term. These grades are given based on the previous year’s grade boundaries and update automatically using a Lookup table (if you’re reading this and want to know how to programme that, let me know). To the left of that, the overall % is the easiest column for students to understand as ‘the bigger picture’ as they see their exam progress grow.

A great example of a real-world success already is with the student 7th down. He achieved an average of 24.2% in term one of Y10. We looked together to see that he’d particularly struggled with how to approach the listening questions and also how to retain element information contextually, so that helped to create a plan together for intervention. One half term later, he’s advanced to 43.8% and in real-life is significantly more encouraged and confident in the classroom.

Finally, the colours in the “expected attainment” column are as follow:

– Red – below the ‘main station’ point expected on that student’s coloured line

– Orange – on the ‘main station’ point

– Blue – above the ‘main station’ point

In the case of Red or Blue, the student has moved to another line.

Having completed the first term’s projects and seen how much many of the class were struggling to make the expected progress, we has some very open and honest discussions together. All students had worked hard in the first term, but something wasn’t fitting together. We realised that everyone struggled with harmony. So I put aside the scheme for this term and wrote the new harmony project described here. The impact in progress is already significant as many of the reds are now orange, and we’ve just finished for half term today. There’s still another 6 weeks of learning until Easter.

AMG 2: Y11

This version takes the mock grade as (hopefully) the worst case for the exam mark and considers the live overall result – in the gold box on the right – together with the ‘live and always improving’ coursework elements. The main focus in the last two half terms has been recordings of performance. Students can record their own performance work and securely upload using @Showbie to receive feedback. For it to count for their final exam though, it has to be recorded with me under exam conditions. The development of performance is most helpfully done on an individual basis, so we use the AMG to identify the aspects of performance students could improve. It was easier for students to calculate grades this year with the removal of UMS, so the Y11 AMG is now simpler too as it just adds up the weighted marks and compares them to the previous grade boundaries.

It is a further nonsense to compare specific individual grades in music year-on-year as no two students are comparable. But to give an indication of the impact of these AMGs and the implementation of ‘The Wheel’, grades for our centre have gone from being A*-C equiv. 67% to consistently 90%+ and A/A* from 10-30% to 40-70%. I will also say, I don’t think we’ve cracked it yet and there’s certainly lots more development to come. But this is working well for us so, if it helps, go ahead and try it at your centre.

Happy half term 🙂

A Wall of 2 Sides – increasing students’ learning ambition in Music

One wall in the Manor music department is more important than any other.

Side A – The Wall of Fame

The Wall of Fame is a visual display to celebrate the achievements and progress of Music students choosing to study for graded exams. Students have a choice as to whether or not they would like to be included on the wall. On entering the academy, or completing their latest grade, exam students use a board in the music room to write down their details of instrument, grade and result. For GDPR reasons they must also sign and date to confirm they’re happy for this information to be displayed. A new coloured slip is then created and added to the Wall of Fame. The slips are in the three colours to show whether a student has received a pass, merit or distinction in their grade. This encourages discussion between students at all levels about the aspects of exams they struggle with.

A student must achieve at least a ‘grade 1 pass’ to be added to the board. When they achieve a higher grade, the previous slip is removed and they move up the wall, attempting to reach grade 8 by the time they leave us after year 11, which is usually achieved by 2 or 3 students each year. Through our tutor team, students are encouraged to develop technical competence and musical understanding, rather than focusing on taking back-to-back grades, but the most committed and passionate students can make an incredible amount of progress in a relatively short period and we are constantly challenged to create higher expectations.

Students walk past the ‘A side’ of the wall every day, whether they have a music lesson or not. Students are proud to have their achievements shown and they are encouraged to move up the wall during their time with us. Community is so important at Manor and students are encouraged to build good relationships with other musicians in the academy, no matter what year they’re in. Younger students see our higher grade students as role models and as they get older, or more advanced in their studies, they aspire to become leaders themselves.

As a leader in music it is great to celebrate with them in this way and so important that I keep track of where everybody is up to. It also helps when planning our extra-curricular programme.

Side B – The WordWall

I created the first version of the WordWall as a result of a piece of action research in my NQT year at Huntington School, York. The enquiry was looking at how we could help students to use appropriate vocabulary in their learning. The ‘wall’ began with around 200 words, but has evolved over time and its use has inspired students to be more ambitious in their studies. The latest version of the WordWall (shown above) has now developed to over 500 words. The terminology hasn’t changed in the last ten years, but the depth of understanding we are now seeking has increased greatly. This is incredibly exciting. It is not really creating more work for us, but a greater opportunity that allows us to understand more music and in more detail. The expansion challenges students to be more passionate and determined in their approach to the study of music than ever before.

How does it work?

The WordWall is fundamental in every lesson and makes musical language the starting point, reference point and focus. Towards the bottom of the wall, the ‘elements of music’ are printed in bold. These categories of musical words have a column each and are printed onto different colours of card. Elements that are closely related to each other are given a similar colour, for example ‘pulse’ and ‘tempo’. Students find it helpful to remember terminology in categories rather than individual words, just in the same way as they recognise foods as fruits, meats and breads etc. Above each element, there is a list of related ‘musical words’. The order of the words is important in each column. Dynamics, for example, are ordered from top to bottom as loud to soft. Below the elements in bold, there are words to remind students of their meaning, but these are not then used when students give answers. They just act as a safety net.

Lessons often focus on experiencing and discovering what a word means, before then having opportunity to explore how it feels to sing, perform or compose with that concept in mind. Students are encouraged to think of each term in its category or context and discuss an alternative or combination of words (or devices). This approach ensures that students are not just learning words, but understanding tools to use, which is great for composing.

The concept of printing key terminology to stick on a classroom wall has been around for years, but this is not a poster… it is an entire wall! It is very much an evolving resource as students discover more helpful ways to order the information too. The ultimate aim is to be able to describe any piece of music, from any year and from any culture or country.

I recently spoke at the Education Expo conference at Old Trafford, Manchester. During the panel discussion, a delegate asked how I even begin to plan to teach the increased depth of content in the newly reformed GCSE curriculum. I explained that, in the lesson time we have available, it is just not possible to teach every style and genre of the last 400 years. The students would also not be inspired to learn in that way. However, I can encourage my students of how to listen, how to analyse and crucially, how to discover the terminology that all of our music has in common to the point where they can confidently understand it and create their own.