How do we balance our priorities for Key Stage 3? A reflection on Music Excellence London's ‘In Perfect Harmony’ CPD day for Cultural Organisations
Last week I was fortunate to be invited to represent the KS3 Music teaching community at Music Excellence London’s CPD event for Cultural Organisations, which aimed to consider how cultural organisations in London and beyond can support Music teaching at Key Stage 3, and support the ongoing professional development of KS3 teachers.
I’ll admit I felt flattered and slightly nervous at the task of representing all Music teachers across the capital for the day – far be it from me to know the ins and outs of every different school and teaching approach! But numerous discussions amongst the group and a presentation of the key findings from Music Excellence London’s precursor, Teach Through Music, gave a lot of food for thought. It was encouraging to hear that those who represented cultural organisations – which included among them Music hubs, an orchestra and a higher education institution – had a fairly accurate idea of the types of content covered in a Key Stage 3 curriculum. What was perhaps less well understood was the wide range of other priorities for, and issues experienced by, the average KS3 Music teacher. The musical considerations were perhaps more clear - students’ prior musical learning and the required differentiation, transitions between KS3 and KS4 programmes, the importance of practical music making – while others started to overwhelm : assessment frameworks, curriculum design, lesson objectives, homework requirements, literacy focus... the list goes on.
Hearing all of these ‘priorities’ for Key Stage 3 music teachers listed and explained to an audience of musicians and practitioners, I felt anew the tension between the duty of music teachers to teach engaging, practical, and above all musical lessons, and the requirements placed upon us by a whole variety of ‘higher powers’ (Ofsted, our own schools’ systems, etc). And, of course, we retraced the all-too-familiar debate of how to argue the case for Music in schools, and to what extent it should be treated as a ‘unique’ subject. But above all, the discussion made me begin to consider afresh what my own priorities were as a teacher of Key Stage 3 Music, and which of these frameworks and requirements I felt were beneficial to students’ musical learning.
Part of my role in the day was not only to explain my own experience of juggling all of these conflicting priorities, but also to respond from a teacher’s point of view to the questions asked and ideas suggested by those from cultural organisations with regard to how they might support the Key Stage 3 curriculum. Which, given that I was beginning to question my own ideas and priorities in teaching, let alone to consider the differing priorities that others might have, was somewhat challenging! And no less so than when, in the afternoon, we were given the task of imagining projects which might be delivered in schools in partnership with cultural organisations. I found myself becoming tied up with boring logistical constraints and concerns about how leaving behind my ‘normal’ curriculum might affect my students’ learning and progress towards their next assessment... That is, until I took a moment to step back, and recognise the incredible opportunities that were being offered to my students through these potential projects: to work with professional musicians as equals; to learn, first-hand, what it is to make music in a ‘real-world’ situation; to compose new music for performance at world-class musical venues; to have musical career aspirations widened and eyes opened to new paths. Suddenly, my concerns about the minutiae of the curriculum and worries about the next half-termly assessment didn’t seem so important.Of course, that is not to say that we cannot ignore these factors – especially when they are imposed on us by our schools, and expected of us on a regular basis. And thus for partnerships with cultural organisations to be successful, they have to be precisely that: a partnership, whereby all parties understand the others’ priorities, and work to support each other. But I would argue that the power of such partnerships to change the musical lives of students is such that we, as teachers, should make every effort to embrace them. Even if that does mean some inconvenience to our assessment schedule, or some difficult conversations with senior leaders in school. Because the opportunities that cultural organisations can offer could be what turns a good musical education into an outstanding one.