What happens when you get to year 6? Chatting to a friend with a child just coming to the end of primary school they told me how suddenly everything changed. Gradually the topic work that brought together geography, history, art, science decreased and the volume of homework grew and grew. Sheet after sheet of mock questions came home, there were extension groups that meant missing younger years doing class assemblies, RE and topic left to PPA cover and the child grew disillusioned with school and increasingly stressed about the pressure they and their teacher were under. Tales of being shouted at by the deputy head and behaviour in class deteriorating worried the parents, yet there wasn’t a thing they could do. As a borderline level 6 student the pressure was on. When I asked the child about the last term before the SATs he can only remember literacy, writing and maths lessons.

I’m sure as a result, the class will do well in their SATs. That level of intervention, the slimming down of the curriculum until there are only the exams topics left must result in improvement in these areas and the school will most likely hit the targets that have been set for them. They have to. For the last 2 years they didn’t make it and the ofsted ‘data dashboard’ doesn’t look too healthy.

But what of the other subjects? Languages, music, ICT, history, geography, french, art? What happens in year 7 when progress and attainment in these subjects will be mapped out by a series of targets based on the grades the student achieves in maths, reading and writing after a year of hot-housing and learning devised for the purpose of achieving a high mark in just a few areas to the exclusion of these very subjects? If teachers in foundation subjects stand any chance of making the required levels of progress across KS3 then first they need to make up for what maybe hasn’t happened in primary school and then build on this as well. That’s not an easy task.

It hits us hard in music. Surely it defies logic that 7 years of learning in literacy and numeracy measured by a number and a letter would have any effect whatsoever on musical attainment. The musical experiences children have in primary schools can be a lottery. Children don’t arrive in Y7 with a set of musical skills or experiences that year 7 teachers can be sure they have covered like they do with literacy and numeracy. Some may have had a year of whole class djembe, some may have sung in monthly music assemblies, some may have had a visiting class music teacher and done some composing or recorders or played tuned percussion, others may have had absolutely no school music for a few years (as was the case in one school I visited last week). It is completely inconsistent and there is no requirement at all for primary schools to pass on any information about music to their local secondary schools although the Community Music work at Monk’s Walk has gone a long way in improving the transfer of information and helped us to pitch our year 7 work at an appropriate level which has resulted in a massive improvement in engagement and attainment across KS3.

Can music teachers come up with a better alternative? What if we devised a project that allowed year 7 to show every facet of their musical ability in a way that doesn’t require any prior musical experience? We could spend some time creating something, we only get an hour a week with them, it’s not going to happen quickly. What if we then used the assessment system we have to grade the work of each student? In our case, that would be a level and sub level. We could then estimate how much progress students would have made in the course of that project, let’s say roughly 1/3 of a level. Working back from there this would give us a baseline to start from. Calculating 6 levels of progress from that point would then give us a target to work from that had been created, not by a computer, but through musical interaction with those students.

This is why the first project of year 7 is crucial in music. We have to get off to a flying start, collect some accurate information about our students and set the tone for the next 2 or 3 years. We need to make sure that our KS3 curriculum makes sense, that it is musical and that is inclusive and appropriate for all students. Getting this right should result in a higher uptake of the subject at KS4 and raise the profile of the department with SLT.

It’s an important topic, after all if we want to persuade SLT that our baseline is the starting point we should be using then we need a project that will allow students to demonstrate their true musical abilities, regardless of what they may have done at primary school or via external music tuition. It must give us the information we need to identify what they will need to progress through the year and beyond and should allow them to show what they are capable of in the areas of musical learning we value at our school-performing, composing, improvising.

We must also remember that if they can’t articulate what they know or can do in writing or verbally that doesn’t mean they don’t know it or can’t do it!