UK schools under Oftsed fire for dropping art and music

UK schools under Oftsed fire for dropping art and music


norman lebrecht

September 19, 2018

Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted, has come out with an attack on the Government’s results-oriented policy which has caused a narrowing of the education arteries. She writes:

Some secondary schools were significantly shortening key stage 3 in order to start GCSEs. This approach results in the range of subjects that pupils study narrowing at an early stage and means that they might drop art, history or music, for instance, at age 12 or 13. At the same time, the assessment objectives from GCSE specifications were being tracked back to as early as Year 7, meaning many pupils spend their secondary education learning narrowed and shallow test content rather than broader and more in-depth content across a subject area….

This is strong stuff from a public official. More here.




  • Sue says:

    You need to watch this CAREFULLY to hear first hand the consequences of ‘progressive education’ in Britain – or anywhere.

    • Alex Davies says:

      I don’t see what ‘progressive education’ has to do with the subject of this post. If anything, ‘progressive’ education is the remedy for the problem outlined in the post, not the solution. The problem is that the government is too focused on quantifiable results (with a further focus on a narrow range of subjects) and schools are too focused on their position in league tables (determined by those same quantifiable results). Consequently, schools are forced to focus on preparing pupils to gain the highest possible marks in tests which do not necessarily reflect the most worthwhile educational outcomes.

      Religious studies, for example, has been a particular cause célèbre. There is a consensus that RS is the worst taught subject in British schools. Both a cause and an indicator of this problem is the fact that RS is the subject most likely to be taught by teachers with no qualification in the subject. A large part of the problem is that it is compulsory for RS to be taught, but it is not compulsory for it to be taken as a qualification, and, in particular, it is excluded from the English Baccalaureate. There is therefore little incentive for schools to teach RS well. Since it rarely leads to pupils gaining a qualification, and, even then, that qualification is regarded as having only second-tier importance, the only benefit to teaching RS is if a school actually believes that its pupils are deriving a purely intellectual benefit from exposure to the subject. I was fortunate to attend a school where RS was offered as a GCSE, was given the same curriculum time as other GCSEs, and was taught by a theology graduate with a qualification in teaching RS. Consequently, I spent three hours per week for two years studying the New Testament and ethics.

      That’s the fate of RS. This blog is concerned with ‘classical music and related cultures’. I went to a school with an excellent music department, including an orchestra, two concert bands, a dance band, a brass band, three choirs, a string quartet, and countless opportunities for chamber music and solo performances. Our concerts were assessed by inspectors as ‘approaching professional standards’. Our director of music had known Benjamin Britten. Music was taught as a compulsory subject to age 14 (as was art) and participation in at least one choir was compulsory to age 13. My primary school, meanwhile, was unusual, not to say unique, in possessing a gamelan. Pupils were able to volunteer to be selected to spend a period of time each week learning to play the gamelan. When I did A-level music and studied Bartók’s Mikrokosmos as a set work, I was able to announce that I knew all about the gamelan because we had had one at primary school!

      This is precisely what is being lost with the focus on quantifiable results. Schools no longer have the luxury of teaching the stuff which for many of us actually made learning worthwhile, such as studying religion, having compulsory music and art lessons, having timetable periods blocked out for choir, and devoting time each week to learning the gamelan. If that is ‘progressive education’, let’s bring back progressive education.

      • Sue says:

        Dont take the word of a recognized expert working in UK. Of course. Going to tell you what you do not want to know. Intelligent.

  • Will Duffay says:

    She won’t last long. Education in the UK isn’t about broadening interests and developing thinkers: it’s about providing industry with corporate drones, in a wholly misguided belief that because that’s what Asia does so must we.

    • Alex Davies says:

      Indeed. East Asian education systems are consistently ranked the best in the world, but those rankings are based on a very narrow set of data. Comparisons of national education systems typically rely on data that measure outcomes in literacy, numeracy, and science. I think we can take it as read that any education system in which children cannot read and write is not fit for purpose. Literacy, clearly, is the most essential skill necessary for life.

      The case for most people in a population having particularly high levels of attainment in maths and science, on the other hand, is less clear. When I was at school I chose to take the minimum possible amount of maths and science options in order to free up more space in my timetable to take options in history, geography, and religious studies, which I knew I would be better at and would be more useful to me in the future. I got A grades in the maths and science that I did take, and I can remember some basic algebra, trigonometry, and statistics and some concepts such as natural selection, momentum, and chemical compounds, and, to be quite honest, even this is more than I really need in my day-to-day life. These skills may well be useful for people who have careers in engineering or finance, but they would not be useful for me.

      I am not saying that the British education system is the best in the world—far from it. If I had children of my own I’d probably want them to be educated in central Europe or the Nordic countries, rather than the UK, but I also wouldn’t want them to be educated in east Asia. We also need to consider the deficiencies of east Asian education and the strengths of western education—things that international rankings do not take into consideration.

      In history, for example, to British curriculum has for a long time placed emphasis on social, economic, cultural, intellectual, and scientific history, as well as more traditional strengths in constitutional, political, and military history. It has also for a long time now placed emphasis on learning from primary sources, including texts and visual sources. Students are given the skills to interrogate sources for themselves, asking questions such as what information does it contain, when, where, by whom, for whom, and why was it produced, why has it survived, how useful is it, how reliable is it, and what biases does it reflect. Students are also taught to evaluate the opinions of different scholars. At a higher level this leads to a more formal study of historiography as a sub-discipline. This is a world away from more traditional ways of teaching history which frequently amounted to little more than committing facts to memory and assimilating the prevailing consensus of historical scholarship. This is one very clear example of the ways in which western and ‘progressive’ education is succeeding. It is also not difficult to see why at least some east Asian governments do not want their young people to learn to think in this way.

      Of course, the education system which I experienced does have deficiencies. For example, I did not begin to learn Greek and Latin until after I had left school. But let us not pretend that east Asian education systems, or, indeed, the British grammar school system of the post-war years, are ideal either.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        I find your remarks rather depressing. Especially the claim that maths and science do not matter (much). Solid maths skills are the basis of most “higher level” thinking, even in many arts-type subjects. It is certainly more than mere numeracy. Learning science is as much about learning a methodology as particular scientific facts. Both are about thinking logically as assessing evidence. Being able to assess lots of data is becoming increasingly important in most senior management jobs.

        Of course, your comments about history are also true, although it talks about evidence in a different way than in more scientific disciplines.

  • Anon says:

    It’s broadly a problem with focussing and trying to engineer the outcome, rather than the input and opportunity. The same applies to much of the current levels of social engineering in the music world. Attempting to fix a perceived problem by helicoptering in results or enforcing ill-thought out progress markers will frequently produce an undesirable outcome, as the above report indicates.

  • Jonathan Bennett says:

    It is interesting that it is Amanda Spielman who said this. When she was appointed to Ofsted in succession to the outspoken Michael Wilshaw there was every appearance the government thought they had found a compliant Conservative-leaning poodle who wouldn’t say anything embarrassing.

    I imagine most UK readers of this website will agree that music should be better valued in schools. Thankfully it is in some, my daughter’s school for one. It is a pity that the “English Baccalaureate” didn’t include a creative subject – allowing children the option of art, photography, design technologies etc as an alternative to music according to their inclination.

    Some interesting comments above about doing the minimum maths and science – the point is that Alex Davies did have a rounded education which included a basic literacy in those subjects. His comment about RE got me thinking. Once again it could have been a component of the English Baccalaureate, by ensuring the syllabus was structured so it could be offered as a humanity instead of history or geography.

  • professor says:

    It is Oft Sed, a fool and his money are soon parted.