Last week saw the publication of most recent triennial Ofsted report about music education. The report was very negative about music education in schools. But I want to say, very loudly, that I will not be taking any lectures from Ofsted about the quality of music education in the UK. Whilst the report itself surprised me, in that it did contain some sensible ideas about how we can improve music education in various ways, I was, once again, left flabbergasted by the shockingly compliant responses of our national music education organisations. These organisations clearly have no backbone for a fight and no willingness to perhaps even consider that a report like this is anything other that the gospel of music education, to be read as a kind of holy scripture against which all objections are seen as blasphemous (or the outworking of a sacrilegious mind).
But, like any organisation, Ofsted has its weaknesses. I haven’t really got the time or energy to work through them all, but I’ll just make a few passing references to the work of the Education Select Committee completed last year. Their report examined the work of Ofsted closely to make recommendations for its future (and, incidentally, their observations apply specifically to the period of data collection specified within the music education report).
The Select Committee’s report identified the following key criticisms (paragraph numbers in brackets following each criticism):
- ‘The expanded Ofsted has lost the elements of specialism associated with its predecessor bodies’ (20);
- That there is a need for ‘more substantive evidence about the relative performance of Additional Inspectors as compared to Her Majesty’s Inspectors, about which we have heard contrasting views’ (61);
- 60% of Ofsted inspectors themselves judged ‘the performance of their peer inspectors to be variable at best’ (70);
- Many Ofsted inspectors say that ‘inconsistency was often caused by newly-recruited inspectors finding their way; (70);
- It is often the case that ‘inspection teams often contain inspectors with little knowledge of the phase or aspects they are inspecting and often with limited experience of inspection itself’ (70);
- There are too many inspectors lacking recent and relevant experience of the settings they investigate (76);
So, rather than taking all elements of this triennial report into music education at face value, perhaps our national associations should have been a little more critical and better prepared to ask some serious questions of Ofsted.
If, as the Select Committee report, over 60% of Ofsted inspectors themselves consider their peers’ performance as inspectors to be variable, where are the questions about the data collection methods, the overarching research methodology, the process of analysis and triangulation of data? All of these, I suspect, have weaknesses and call into question the findings of the report. They are entirely missing.
If, as the Select Committee report, judgements are skewed by ‘newly-recruited inspectors finding their way’, where are the questions about how often this was the case in respect of the judgements made about music education in our schools? Again, they are entirely missing.
If, as the Select Committee report, it is the case the inspection teams are making judgements about phases or subjects whilst having little knowledge about them, where are the questions about who has been making these judgements about music education and their qualification to do so? Again, they are entirely missing.
From the work that I and my colleagues have done over the last ten years, through teacher education programmes and other initiatives, I know that in the vast majority of schools, committed teachers are working hard, teaching music musically and doing their best – despite numerous cack-handed educational policies and pressure from senior manages – to do a good job for all their pupils.
I will not let the broader political context that OFSTED are working within, and the messages that they are required to spread, diminish the work of music teachers up and down the country. I hope you will not be discouraged by this report and do all you can to spread the word about the high quality music education that is delivered, day in day out, in schools across our land.
I hope that you will not take at face value the criticisms made of music education within this report. The report itself, and the organisation that has produced it, have many weaknesses.
I have no doubt that Ofsted HMI will be making addresses to music education conferences up and down the country over the next year, citing the report and its findings as evidence of the decline of music education in our schools. But it should not be read as the gospel of music education or presumed to be as such. You do not need to believe what they say. This message of declining standards should be robustly challenged. Time and time again, over many years, Ofsted itself has be found to be wanting in numerous aspects. ‘Wider still, and wider’? No. Ofsted clearly is ‘wanting still, and wanting’.