Assessing the DfE’s listening skills

In their wisdom, the DfE have set out content for study at music GCSE and A Level which appears incompatible with the criteria they also wish to adopt. And which would lessen both the appeal and the relevance of these qualifications. Go to the Protect Music Education campaign pages for more information. Here’s my response:

Dear Department for Education and Ofqual,

I am responding to the Department for Education’s consultation on GCSE and A level reform in respect of the subject content for music, and the Ofqual consultation on Developing new GCSE, A-level and AS qualifications for first teaching in 2016 in respect of the subject criteria for music.

I am not a teacher. However, I can see that much of the subject content is inconsistent with many of the aims and objectives set out in the subject criteria established by Ofqal. Incompatibility of content with criteria is undesirable for any qualification in any subject at any level. The Incorporated Society of Musicians, on behalf of the music community, has set out the inconsistencies and shown the ways in which the proposed subject content would limit both the rigour and the relevance of GCSE music as a qualification.    As they state, the Aims & Objectives set out by Ofqual and the Department for Education are excellent but it is not clear how these are going to be achieved by the proposed content. Music is a discipline focused on processes, so, for example, focusing on ‘musical language’ as opposed to ‘musical skills’, or ‘a composition’ rather than ‘composing’, increases the risk that pupils can be taught to pass a test rather than to develop essential musical skills; this would do neither them, nor the examination’s credibility, any favours.

The proposed subject content appears at odds with the programme for the National Curriculum at key stages 1,2 and 3. If from Year 1 to Year 9 students are to appreciate a broad range of musical styles, genres and traditions,  why then is GCSE study limited to a rather arbitrary 200 year window in only one tradition? As an A-level student in the 1980s, I studied a work in depth from the twentieth century (Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste), a work which has stayed with me to this day (and engaged me far more than the romantic work by Tchaikowsky that I studied at O-level). My musical education was fairly narrow in that it was limited to Western classical music. But within this limitation, it had great depth. I was very fortunate to have school music teachers interested, able and allowed to teach music from across the centuries, but with a very particular focus on the twentieth century. These teachers, who were free to teach to their strengths and their pupils’ interests (in both the general curriculum and examinations) have had a very significant influence on the musical choices and skills I have since developed, and on my desire to be actively involved as a musician in my children’s schools.

In short, I am concerned that music, despite its importance to individuals and to the economy, is already a niche subject at GCSE and A-level. By introducing unnecessary restrictions on the genres, styles and traditions that can be studied, these proposals seem to me likely to reduce the appeal of music qualifications even more. That is not in the interests of pupils, examination boards, the music profession or the music industry.

I support the core changes put forward by the National Association of Music in Higher Education, the Music Education Council, and the Incorporated Society of Musicians. In the interests of future generations of musicians and music-lovers, as well as of the music industry, I hope that you will incorporate their recommendations in full.

Yours sincerely
Emma Bishton

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