Farewell, radar diagrams

I seem to have become Mrs Radar Diagram over the last 8 or so years. So many people have been in touch to tell me how they’ve found them useful too, and have adapted them for their own practice. Some people have done amazing digital things with them, others have integrated them with Google Classroom and so on. It’s been brilliant to hear about it all.

It’s disappointing that so many music teachers are still being forced by their schools to do jiggery-pokery with data, and devise ‘scientific’ methods to come up with quasi-levels to report home with. It is such a monumental load of old bollocks. You might as well use the Duckworth Lewis method. If this is the situation you are in, you have my deepest sympathy. The best advice I can give you is to choose the easiest method possible to give your managers the numbers they desire.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far it’s probably because you’re wondering what the meaning of my dramatic headline could be, so I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. You’ve guessed it, I’m giving up radar diagrams.


In a nutshell, because the effort that goes into them is not reciprocated by the value that we and our students get out of them. There is an input/output imbalance.

Yes, they look amazing, and show a really detailed picture of what students have done over time. They enable us to keep track of what groups are doing over the course of an extended project. This is useful, especially when we all have multiple classes and none of us can possibly recall whether Johnny was using a ukulele or a keyboard last week, if he can’t remember himself. However, last year, I started using my own unstructured, notes-to-self in my notebook for that. I still used a different coloured pen each time (I love pens. I know I’m not the only teacher with this particular kink), and added to the previous lesson’s notes, but with my own squiggles and symbols. What I was taking out was the need to make my notes understandable for anyone else, which made them much quicker to do, and less likely to need revisiting out of lesson time.

Previously, the radar sheets were used to give feedback to groups. This is where they were proving less effective. Students didn’t really ‘get’ the radars themselves. I know we could spend more time explaining them, but we’ve got much better things to do with our time (i.e. music) and the most effective feedback moments are those ‘in the moment’ things when you say things like ‘try it like this’, ‘just move that finger there’, or ‘hold it the other way up.’ What we wrote on the sheets had very little impact on what students did.

‘But they’re such good evidence!’ I hear you say. Yes, they are. But I’m still waiting for anyone actually to demand evidence from me, and I think I’m ready now to say that I’m just not doing anything for the sake of generating evidence that I’m teaching my students. Just look at and listen to what they’re doing. There it is.

So what will I do instead? I will continue to make my scrappy, multi-coloured, incomprehensible-to-anyone-else notes for myself. Verbal, valuable in-the-moment feedback will continue unabated. There are so many recurring themes that whole-class feedback, on a slide, will pull these together the following lesson (once I have tested and wreaked this, I’ll put it here) and provide a platform for moving-on strategies.

Another area where the radar sheets were falling short of what I wanted was keeping track of students’ achievements over time. Even back when we were transferring the radar data to a tracking spreadsheet (which took hours, and was next to no use) the big problem was that students didn’t have access to their own stats. I know some teachers have found brilliant solutions to this, but while we’re a Microsoft school, we don’t have full Teams integration, and using OneNote for this kind of thing proved clunky and time-consuming – again, the effort involved was not reflected in the gains.

Last year we tried this, on the back of students’ Wider Listening booklets:

It was a horrific failure. It took ages to do. Students didn’t understand the numbers. Plus our school system for attitude to learning (A2L) grades goes the other way from radar scores (on a radar, 3 = can do very well; for A2L 1 is outstanding and 5 is execrable). Having targets going from one project to the next is futile – if I can’t remember my own performance management targets, how can I expect my students to remember a target? As before, we’ve got much better things to do than keep going on about targets.

We need a system that is much more direct and easy to understand. So we’ve invested in a set of gold, silver, and bronze 1cm star stamps for each teacher. The back of the booklet has space to write what the star is awarded for – which could be anything the teacher deems worth assessing, and could be a small, single thing, or something more cumulative – and then precisely-sized circles for stamping into. We wanted a special, sub-bronze stamp for students who have put in no effort: we didn’t want to leave it blank for those who were present, but did nothing. I thought about having a poo emoji, but could feel the parental complaints on the horizon, so we went for a sad-face emoji instead. The page gives space for the same thing to be assessed more than once, so someone could go from silver to gold, say, or sad-face to bronze. Again, once we’ve done all of this in practice for a bit, I’ll report back here.


Assessment tweaks 2021

Apologies for the long silence here – like a lot of other music teachers, I have spent the last 18 months disinfecting my Boomwhackers and putting arnica cream on my body-percussion-induced bruises. I will attempt to fill in with a few posts about my current thinking on a few topics. There will be a couple to follow on more curriculum-related topics, but today here’s some info on where we’re at with assessment.

To see info on the evolution of all this, see this post – and, if you really want chapter and verse on the whole system, have a look at this webinar I did for Music Excellence London a little while ago.

Some things have not changed much. Because of the way we work in our department – with almost no computer access for KS3 students in music – we love using our radar sheets on actual paper when we’re doing a longish project in groups. It keeps everything in one place in a format which works well for both teachers and students, with the info where we can all access it when we need to (i.e. on a bit of paper that we’re looking at in the lesson). The only thing we’ve tweaked here is the little section above each radar:

The basic premise with these sheets is that you write on it in a different colour each time, to show exactly what happened when. It works really well (and is a great excuse for having lots of lovely pens).

This now has space to put in a brief target – this will be something that carries over from the previous topic. ‘A2L’ refers to ‘attitude to learning’, which is something that we have to report on in termly reviews – it’s a 1-5 scale where 1 is outstanding and 5 is very poor. It’s a pity that this 5-point scale interferes with our otherwise 3-point scale, but hey ho – the reasoning behind including it here is to bring it more to students’ attention, and to strengthen the links between A2L and progress in general (i.e. if your attitude to learning is poor, then it’s no wonder that you’re not getting very far). The blank space is just to add what instrument a student is playing at any one time, to keep track and monitor any weird chopping and changing.

The big change we’ve made – and this might surprise you – is to completely ditch our tracking spreadsheets. These were the ones that looked like this:

It seemed like such a good idea for a long time… however, here are the reasons we’ve ditched it:

  • It took time (quite a lot) to transfer info from the radar sheets – or other ‘in-lesson’ assessment records – to the spreadsheet
  • It really wasn’t great at showing progress over time – at one point we were screenshotting the spreadsheet once a term in order to get a picture of how it was changing
  • Because students can’t access the info in class, it was really difficult to get students to engage with it in any kind of meaningful way
  • Ultimately, there was no benefit either to students or to us – so it had to go

This year, we are (shock, horror!) using booklets in our KS3 lessons. I know, I know… but we still don’t do a lot of writing. They’re mainly used right at the start of the lesson when we’re doing wider listening (more on this another time). But the back page looks like this:

You’ll notice that this is a pared-down version of the spreadsheet. It’s basically a summary of how the student has done in each project. We think we’ll get them to fill in their estimates first (i.e. ‘how do you think you did on this project?’) and then fill in our numbers – still using 1-3 for not yet/can do/can do very well – afterwards. Then it’s right in front of the student, every lesson, we can refer back to it when we need to, and see how things are progressing across the year.

Dual coding and direct instruction in KS3 music

I thought I would share a video I’ve made for my trainee teachers about how to present musical information to KS3 classes. (Apologies, by the way, for the sound quality – it’s the best I could achieve quickly on Loom, and I plan to re-do it when I have time and a better way of doing it!)

Some of my lockdown reading has been Olivier Caviglioli’s excellent book on dual coding theory, and the brilliant Sherrington/Caviglioli Teaching Walkthrus. I was also inspired by Steven Berryman’s blog post here. Creating resources is one of my favourite parts of teaching, and I’ve always been interested in the best ways to use visuals to help explain musical concepts.

A lot of the material in the video is from Little Kids Rock – the quantity and quality of the free resources on their website is mindboggling. If you’ve got time on your hands you could do a lot worse than spending a day looking through it. The two enormous workshop powerpoints, and the teacher manual, are just brilliant. And that’s before you even start looking at the song bank – I would recommend the scaffolding videos in particular.

I’ll be posting in the next few days with a whole bunch of GCSE flipped learning/revision videos that I’m in the process of making. Hopefully these might be useful in setting remote learning tasks.

Plans for 19-20

I can’t quite believe that it’s almost a year since I wrote a post!

So what’s new?

We haven’t changed our curriculum map significantly: the only thing that’s going to be really new next year is a Stormzy/Mozart project at the start of Year 9. I’ll write about this more in due course (once I’ve sorted it out!) but it will involve exploring some Mozart and some Stormzy through performing, and then getting students to make comparisons between them. We’ll look at the idea of structure, repetition and variety, harmony and melody, and unpick as much as we can how the pieces are put together. We’ll also look at their different historical/cultural contexts. Then students will be asked to describe the merits of each using correct ‘mad t-shirt’ musical terminology. Anyway, more to come on that one once we’ve a) planned it properly and b) done it with students.

The one big thing we’re pushing next year is behaviour and attitudes. We are struggling a bit with this on a school-wide level, and feel that we need to be more explicit about what our expectations are. In music and drama, we have noticed an increasing tendency for students to regard our subjects as play rather than work, and we want to nip this in the bud too. These are the things we have decided to do:

  • Have a set of specific expectations that are common to music and drama so that we can create routines that are common across the performing arts
  • Increase the learning demands that we place on our KS3 students
  • Keep referring back to why we are doing what we’re doing: essentially doing a bit of PR for ourselves to try and counteract EBacc mentalities


I know this is absolutely not rocket science, and pretty much every school has their own version of these. We just wanted to have our own versions of the generic school ones, where the ‘what is disruptive behaviour’ is balanced with the expectations, so that we can be really specific when giving praise or sanctions. We have found students increasingly likely to question absolutely everything. Hopefully this might help. Clearly, having these on the walls is just the first step – we actually need to refer to them and use them to help us create good routines – but we are looking forward to having a cohesive approach across the two departments.

Increasing the learning demands

Screenshot 2019-08-13 at 23.15.05

The knowledge organisers I have created for Year 7 and Year 8 can be found in editable PowerPoint format on the ‘knowledge organisers’ page. Feel free to adapt and use them. 

We don’t want to decrease the amount of time we spend on practical engagement with music in our lessons. However, we do want to be more demanding of students and what we require them to learn. To give an example, we have been frustrated by students who still haven’t learned basic essential knowledge, such as the difference between a note and a chord, or the difference between a flat and a minor, by the end of Year 7 – not through any learning difficulty but out of laziness or reluctance to treat this knowledge as important.

We intend to do this by

  • having a series of knowledge organisers for KS3 (we already use them extensively at KS4 and 5), which are used in lessons and as the basis for retrieval practice homework
  • just having these is not enough by itself – we intend to refer to these in lessons all the time
  • using Plickers for really quick, low-stakes testing, frequently. This will be on top of more formal quizzes set for homework using Show My Homework. It will enable us to keep closer tabs on students who aren’t engaging with the content effectively, and give us more ammunition with which to tackle this

Doing our own PR

Again, this is something that we have planned alongside our drama colleagues, and they have direct equivalents of these posters for their studios in the same format for a cohesive message. As before, we are planning on referring to these constantly – just having them on the wall is not going to be enough. We really want to focus on pointing out the benefits of what we’re doing in our lessons in a relentless kind of way!

Screenshot 2019-08-13 at 23.30.56

You will find this powerpoint on the ‘Do Now’ page. 

We also want to bring Mad t-shirt more closely into our lessons, at the same time as making a real feature of very deliberately broadening students’ musical horizons. The later knowledge organisers incorporate relevant Mad t-shirt terms, and a set of wider listening ‘Do Now’ activities will introduce students to a new piece of music each week. These are based on a set of 30 pieces of music drawn up in a very enjoyable department meeting, and is our list of pieces we really want our students to hear. You may well disagree with our choices – that is entirely your prerogative – but the point is that we want to make the point to our students that there is a whole load of music out there, and we want to show them some of it. Cultural capital if you like. Ultimately students don’t know what they don’t know.

The slides will be up on the board with the music playing as students come in (we have a large site, and no movement time between lessons, so they tend to arrive in dribs and drabs, and our corridor is small enough for us not to want them all congregating outside). Each one has some specific questions to go with the video, and a focus on one of the Mad t-shirt dimensions. The title and composer is always shown, as is the year of composition, so we can begin to build up a sense of historical context.

You will notice that I have added some pages to the blog, with a lot of these resources for you to have and use if you would like. Where possible I’ve put them in an editable format so you can tweak and adapt.

An experiment in using comparative judgment for GCSE composition

Image result for comparative judgement

Picture from ealjournal.org

Earlier this year I wrote (here) about wanting to try out Comparative Judgement with GCSE composition. Since then a collection of 63 example compositions has been assembled from 12 different schools, and 26 music teachers provided judgements via the http://www.nomoremarking.com website.

Teachers were asked to compare pairs of pieces, and choose which they felt was the better composition. A total of 597 judgements was made. No assessment criteria were used: teachers just used their knowledge and experience as musicians and teachers. The nomoremarking.com system then crunched all the judgements to establish a rank order for the compositions, and then used this to award each one mark out of 30.

Judges gave feedback on their experience of applying comparative judgement (CJ) to GCSE compositions, and teachers who had contributed compositions gave feedback on the marks awarded by the process, comparing these to the marks the same compositions had gained using exam board marking criteria.

What the judges said

The majority of judges thought that the 63 compositions presented were representative of the range (in terms of styles and quality) of GCSE compositions as a whole. Some, however, felt that there was a preponderance of mid-range pieces, with not enough really good or really poor ones.

Nearly all the judges reported finding the comparison process easy and relatively quick. They found it liberating to rely solely on musical ‘guild knowledge’ to decide which was the better piece in each pair. Some judges found it difficult to compare pieces that were very different in style. Others reported finding it hard to shake off a feeling of their value judgements being influenced by their well-established knowledge of GCSE assessment criteria, which has become ingrained over time.

In some cases – particularly with film music compositions – it was felt that knowing the candidate’s brief would have helped in making judgements. However, generally, feelings were split between feeling liberated by having no supporting documents, and wanting the clarity that knowledge of candidates’ intentions might bring.

There was an overwhelming appreciation of the opportunity to hear coursework from other schools. Some judges felt reassured that what they are doing in their own schools is along the right lines. Others felt inspired by the different styles and compositional processes they heard, and feel emboldened to try out some new ideas in their teaching.

How the CJ results compared with ‘real’ GCSE marks

The vast majority of teachers who had contributed pieces to the study found that the marks awarded by the CJ process were lower than those that the pieces had gained using exam-board assessment criteria. This was particularly true with the best pieces, with the difference evening out as the quality of the pieces declined.

I think I can explain this (although I am no statistician, so please put me straight if I’ve got something wrong):

  • The CJ algorithm takes the data from the comparisons, and then distributes the rank order of pieces onto a bell curve centred on 50%
  • GCSE criteria make it relatively difficult to award marks in the bottom couple of bands, provided that the candidate has offered a completed piece of sufficient length
  • Therefore (and I have no statistical proof for this) I can imagine that the curve for actual GCSE marks would have its peak above, not at, 50%.
  • A contributing factor could be that the standard of pieces of contributed to the study was of a higher general standard than the average anyway.

How could CJ be used by music teachers?

The strongest feeling that came out of participants’ feedback was the benefit they gained from listening to coursework from other schools. Everyone seems to very much appreciate the opportunity to hear what other people are doing.

If you can team up with some other centres (because the whole process is done online, it doesn’t matter whether they are near or far), putting some or all of your GCSE compositions through the CJ process could help you use the hive-mind to establish a valid rank order. You can then fit the established rank order to your exam board’s criteria in order to award marks. Along the way you have the CPD of hearing other centres’ work.

The CJ process is not difficult to administer – all the difficult stuff is done by the nomoremarking.com website (and is free). It just needs one person to coordinate, who needs to anonymise the recordings of the pieces (plus supporting documentation, if you decide to include it) and make them available to all participating judges via Google Drive or similar.

For your interest, here is the composition that came out in the CJ process as the highest-scoring.

I would very much like to thank everyone who has taken an interest in this experiment, whether as a judge or through contributing coursework. The service offered by nomoremarking.com is a remarkable and very clever thing, and it’s pretty amazing that it’s free.


Plans for 18-19

CGD pano

This was a lesson during our Year 8 work on Blues, where the emphasis was on playing the blues chords with good hand position and inversions. Those wearing hats were the ones who demonstrated that they could do this really well. Aside from the hats being a fun way to keep tabs on students’ progress, single-focus assessment like this has been something I’ve particularly enjoyed this year. The panoramic pic makes my classroom look huge – it’s not really that big!

I haven’t blogged for a while about what’s going on in my classroom and department, so now we’ve finally reached the summer holidays, I thought it might be a good time to share my thoughts about what we’ve done and what we’ve got planned for 2018-19.

Last August I wrote about our plans for the year 17-18. These involved a fluid approach to SoW planning, without fixed-length projects, and the intention to try and keep plates spinning with regard to instrumental skills, singing, and musical understanding. A lot of what we tried out, we liked very much. The changes we have made for next year involve – as ever – moving some things around, taking some things out, and putting others in.

Last year’s curriculum map

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.13.08Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.13.22

Next year’s map

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 15.20.48

What’s changed, and why?

  • We want the beginning of Year 7 to be even more explicit about establishing routines and some basic knowledge and skills. Early on we do a 3-chord mashup based on Next to Me by Emeli Sandé (C and Am with optional G – perfect for ukes and also for getting straight into playing inversions on keyboard, with just a thumb to move from C in second inversion to Am in root position).
  • Playing Link Up (from the Lucy Green book Hear, Listen, Play) was too challenging for the first term – it is a brilliant thing to do, but we needed a more basic play-by-ear melody, which is why we’ve gone for Oh When The Saints first. There are still plenty of ways to differentiate this for the ablest (different key, add an accompaniment).
  • We were also surprised at how difficult it was to do classroom workshopping (MF-style) so early on, and felt that this would actually be more beneficial later in the year, once routines have been established, rather than trying to establish the routines through the classroom workshopping.
  • Just Play is still something we love very much indeed, especially now there are even more playalongs to choose from, particularly easy ones with just 3 chords. It is a great way to build up skills in a hugely differentiatable way, while building and maintaining good routines for practical work. We wanted it to be something that percolates through the whole of KS3, and so, along with singing, it runs alongside everything else we do. This might be as whole lessons in between other things, or parts of lessons where there is a split between JP playalongs and other work.
  • We actually decided we wanted to be a bit more upfront about teaching the basics of rhythm and pitch notation. We acknowledge that fluency of notation-reading is not really achievable on one hour a week unless you make it an absolute priority, and build things up so that students practise between lessons. I don’t believe it is feasible if what you’re trying to do is provide a really broad KS3 curriculum; however, we wanted all our students to understand the basics and to be able to work rhythms and melodies out. So, Underground Music (a John Paynter project that is as old as the hills… well, it’s certainly from the early 80s, when the up-to-the-minute place for music teachers’ resources was something called Music File) has officially returned. It involves performing a rhythm piece by Paynter called And All Stations To… before creating and notating a rhythm composition based on tube station names. It’s simple but effective! For pitch notation we use Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know, which has just the right level of difficulty, and again is easily differentiatable for those who might already be fluent readers.
  • Last year the Hamilton effect transformed the work we were doing on musical theatre. Alexander Hamilton has proved an incredible song to do as a classroom performance, with everyone learning how to play it and how to sing/rap it. The kids adore it and it covers some great technical points about how a chord sequence can be used effectively in songwriting. This, and a subsequent rap composition, has taken the place of our old musical theatre project that used the chords from Michael Nyman’s Time Lapse. The old project was simply too long, and when doing it with multiple classes, we began to feel somewhat tormented by the Time Lapse chords… we also didn’t feel that our students actually learned enough from the project – so it had to go. Doing a rap composition has enabled us to focus on creating a good accompaniment out of chords, with variety in texture, and thinking about lyrics and rhythm over the top without the complication of melody.
  • Oh my word our students have LOVED doing Für Elise by ear! I wish I could email Beethoven and tell him what a hit he has with the youth of today. They love it as much as they love Hamilton! This is why we’ve put The Entertainer in as an additional play-by-ear, although other pieces may get tried as well, depending how the spirit moves. We have found it really beneficial to pick apart the thought processes that go into working out a piece by ear.

Mad T-Shirt

I don’t know who came up with Mad T-shirt – I first came across it on one of the GCSE groups on Facebook – but whoever you are, thank you. It is a great way for GCSE students to form (or consolidate) a mental schema for their knowledge about musical dimensions. We have adopted it for GCSE (we have made it OCR-specific), and thought it would be a great idea to have a KS3 version to use right from the start. This is how it looks:

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 16.23.43

We plan to use this as a knowledge organiser for KS3 music. It is on the walls in all of our teaching rooms, and a full version (which includes all the definitions) will be available to students via their class OneNote notebooks. Individual sections will crop up in slides for all our practical work, and feature heavily in Do-Nows (see below).


A whole-school priority next year is going to be classroom routines (to be quite frank, we’ve had a dip in the standard of general behaviour at my school, and a whole-school focus on this is very welcome). One of the things that is going to become ‘standard’ is the idea of the ‘do-now’ – an activity that students get on with as soon as they come into the room. We have ‘Star Trek bells’ at our school (in other words, there is no lesson changeover time, so as soon as one lesson finishes, the next one theoretically begins immediately, even though in reality that involves 1,700 people moving around a very large site) so students tend to arrive in dribs and drabs, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that it’s better to get them into the room rather than hanging about in the corridor until they’re all there.

We saw this as an opportunity to do some good spacing and interleaving of some core knowledge, and also drip-feed some wider listening in to our SoL.

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I have already compiled quite a large collection of these. Some of them have specific pieces of music (as per the example above), while others are adaptable for use with any piece of music that the teacher can choose to go with the lesson (or provide wider listening):

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Students will answer either on a random-name-picker basis, or with a whole-class answer (i.e. holding up their fingers to show the answer to a multiple choice question).

Melodica love


I have so loved using a melodica in my teaching this year! It is invaluable when I want to lead a whole-class performance from anywhere in the room – students can see what my fingers are doing, and it is loud enough for everyone to hear. It is also a whole lot easier to hold up in order to model fingerings/hand position/chord changes than a standard keyboard.

A little tour of my not-so-new room

I have been surprised at how many people have commented how much they enjoyed my previous classroom-tour video. So here is another one, for the ‘new’ room that I have been teaching in this year. There are a couple of good home-made (and student-proof) storage solutions here!

Using comparative judgement for GCSE composing


Picture taken from David Didau’s blog learningspy.co.uk

A few weeks ago I went on a session run by Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education and Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning. Daisy now works for No More Marking, a company offering an online engine for comparative judgement.

I will not describe CJ in detail here, other than reproducing the image above, and direct you to the excellent demo on the No More Marking website. The arguments for it are very compelling.

So far, No More Marking has been used for CJ of English and History texts. I don’t know of the system being tried for music compositions as yet, but I think it would be really interesting to try it out. The process would be a little bit more complex and time-consuming than for text, purely because you would need to listen to audio rather than skim texts on-screen, but I still think it would be a worthwhile thing to try.

I would like to invite you to join in with this process. Here is how it would work:

  1. You need to contact me to tell me you’d like to join in. Probably the easiest way to do this is to email me on jw@hayes.bromley.sch.uk. You might be a GCSE music teacher with coursework of your own that you’d like to get moderated, or a music educator who would just like to join in with doing the comparative judgements (the more judges, the better…). If this proves massively popular, I might need to put a cap on the amount of coursework we can handle, as it will be quite a lot of admin for me to do!
  2. You will need to send me some GCSE compositions in mp3 format. Just audio, no supporting documentation. This might be your whole cohort, or just a selection. It could be ‘live’ (i.e. this year’s coursework), or a previous year’s. It doesn’t matter what board you do, or whether it’s to a brief or free composition – for the purposes of CJ I don’t think this is important. We will need to set a deadline for this – I suggest Sunday 8th April. 
  3. I will then anonymise your coursework and create a Google folder with it all in, referred to only by a number (only I will know how the numbers link up with the schools/candidates they came from). You will receive an allocation of comparative judgements to make. These will be entirely randomised. The numbers for these will pop up on your screen via the No More Marking website. You listen to each pair of compositions and decide which one is better – just using your guild knowledge as a musician and educator (no mark schemes involved). Click on your decision and move on to the next until your allocation is finished (nobody will need to make more than 20 comparisons). The ‘window’ for doing this will be the fortnight between Monday 9th April and Sunday 22nd April (to give you a week of holiday and a week of term time to choose from).
  4. The No More Marking algorithm will crunch all the results and award a numerical mark to each composition. If you have contributed coursework, I will feed back to you the marks for your students’ work.
  5. I will ask you to complete a short online questionnaire about the process, to find out what issues arose, and what you thought about the results.
  6. I will then write up a summary on here about how it all went.

Don’t be shit: towards an ever-better KS3 programme


As Hanh Doan pointed out in her recent article for Music Teacher mag here, the best thing we can do to safeguard the position of music in schools is to stop moaning and not to be shit.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that my quest to not be shit is a never-ending one: one of the consequences of this is that I re-jig my KS3 programme every single year. While being a firm believer in ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, I do always want to tweak and improve. It is one of my little pleasures. I LOVE a little curriculum tweak.

‘Isn’t that an awful lot of work?’ I hear you ask. Well, no, not really, because I don’t write much down at all. Lesson plans, shmlesson shplans. It is an exercise in seeing the wood despite the trees: a map rather than a sat nav.

I’ve written before about our KS3 jigsaw, although it didn’t look as pretty as this last time I posted it: Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.12.18

This is a carefully-thought-out list of priorities, really… what we’ve decided is important enough to include in our precious KS3 curriculum time. As the years go by, I am ever-more aware that we cannot afford to waste any lesson time on things that are not musical. If the students are coming into my music room, I want them to be actively engaged in music while they’re there. Not colouring in an orchestra diagram, writing out a table of note-values, literacy or numeracy tasks, discovering things for themselves (yes, they might discover an E flat minor chord by accident, or I could just teach it to them in a hundredth of the time), answering ‘guess-what’s-in-my head’ questions, or doing endless self-assessment, peer-assessment or evaluation (yes those last three things are quite nice, but really not of enough value to spend precious time on them in music lessons – besides, they get an absolute bellyful of them elsewhere).

The great thing about this jigsaw is that it focusses the mind not on what students will be doing in lessons, but what they will be learning. One big consequence of this is that I have moved almost entirely away from a chunkular, topic-based, cook’s tour kind of KS3 scheme of work. You know, the sort of thing that goes 1. blues 2. junk percussion 3. musicals. I thought for a while that it was a growing aversion to genre-based SoL (remember that initiative in about 2008 that said that EVERYTHING had to be rooted in a genre, with loads of context, and you weren’t allowed to do a topic on a musical feature, say, ostinato? That. OK I do have an aversion to that, or maybe an aversion to being told I’m not allowed to do something…) However, I have come to the conclusion that it’s an aversion to music teachers saying that they’re doing keyboards, or doing musicals. What are you doing with the keyboards? And why are you doing musicals – what will the students actually learn? 

So, what does our KS3 curriculum look like now? Here it is:

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.13.08Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.13.22

I have written before about Musical Futures Just Play resources and how brilliant I think they are. Other essential things mentioned in the overview are resources for playing by ear from Lucy Green’s brilliant book Hear, Listen, Play! which comes with audio for various pieces, some of which are specially-composed, riff-based ones like Link Up, which I do with Year 7s in the first term, and some classical ones like Für Elise, which I include because kids just love being able to play it, and I just love telling them that it is not, in fact, pronounced Furry Lies.

Classroom workshopping is taken in its entirety from Musical Futures resources, and the reason it’s there is because it does a lot of great stuff in a very short amount of time (much like Just Play). It gets students feeling the music, watching for cues, developing ensemble skills, learning how to compose and improvise, and understanding structure, all at once. It takes a bit of practice to facilitate it well, but it’s well worth the effort in terms of the leaps in musicality and confidence that students demonstrate. Body percussion stuff is derived from the inspiration of the wonderful Ollie Tunmer at Beat Goes On – check out the website for great resources and ideas, or, better still, get your local hub to get him in to do a workshop. The resources we use in Year 9 for band skills stuff are from Trinity Rock and Pop. Songwriting follows the MF SoL, which never fails…

Homework… the latest

I have written before about the changing face of homework in my department. Teacher input in homework is now entirely front-end: that is to say, I put quite a lot of work into sorting out homework resources in advance, and then that’s it. No marking, no feedback. We used to spend HOURS marking and giving the most amazing feedback ever on extended homework research projects (the best of which were amazing, but the general standard of which was pretty crap). Not any more – partly because one of my departmental colleagues now has a small baby, and the other is a head of year and spends most of his time chasing up behaviour incidents. None of us has time to produce detailed homework feedback that then doesn’t have any kind of follow-up.

So technology and a bit of forward planning has come to our aid. I use Office Mix (an PowerPoint extension that is quite addictive – the only downside is that it won’t run on a Mac) to create bespoke videos. Here’s one I made on how music is put together:

As a school we have recently got ourselves Show My Homework. It is brilliant. It was devised by a teacher (I hope they have made an absolute mint from it) and systematically eliminates every single crap homework excuse in existence. Homework is there on a to-do list when they log in (there is a phone/tablet app too) and parents have a log-in too. All the resources they need are there. Awesome. Through SMHW I can set a homework task to watch the video, and then answer a set of multiple choice questions on the content. This is marked automatically, and students can see straight away how well they have done (as can I, and their parents). So, a lot of front-end organisation, but after that, no hassle whatsoever. Time spent doing the prep is paid back in spades later on.

So, the knowledgey, theoryish, part of what we do at KS3 is covered by the homework, then followed up in lessons with related practical work. A little bit of flipped learning, really.

Formative assessment – freeing ourselves from the stress to assess

A really quick post (I’ve got moderation to do…) just to offload some of the thoughts in my head about assessment…

  1. Sometimes – or even a lot of the time – we need to assess things that don’t look like the final outcome.

formative assessment may 2017

If you are a rugby coach, you use drills to teach the skills you need for a match. If you are musician, you practise scales and studies to build up the skills you need for a performance.

We can’t just assess performances all the time.

Today with my Year 7s I was assessing how well they could play major and minor chords on the keyboard. There are different parts to this: knowing where the notes are, knowing what a semitone is, which way is ‘up’, remembering ‘4 then 3’ and ‘3 then 4’ rule for major and minor, and getting your fingers organised on the keys. That’s quite enough for one assessment!

Getting round them all, though, is a lengthy job. Life’s too short!

So I said that if they showed skills that were good enough to be an assessor, I would give them a hat. (Hats as motivators – never fails for some reason) Then they could help me work round and assess the rest of the class.

It worked brilliantly. Here they are in their hats (left over from a production of Cabaret):

Year 7 hats

2. Taking away ANY kind of numbers reduces the stress to assess.

We have moved from this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 19.37.54

To this:


It used to result in a mark out of 60 (12 x marks out of 5). Now it doesn’t – it just goes on a spreadsheet to show who has demonstrated what skills, and whether they’ve done it really well or not.

So if you don’t assess all 12 things on the radar, no sweat. They just do the ones they can.

And relax!


What’s going on in my classroom: spring 2017… quite a lot on assessment but other stuff too

In case you’re at all interested, I thought it might be good to return to the ‘what I’m up to at the moment’ theme – because so many music teachers are so isolated in their work, it’s always nice to have a chance to be nosey about what other people are doing. So here’s what I’m doing right now.

I know I promised more on the dark art of shitistics – scroll down for the meaty assessment stuff!

Numbers for EVERYTHING

Well, pitch and rhythm. This has developed out of a SingUp warmup called ‘1-121’ – essentially it involves playing around with pitches within a scale, using numbers. Sounds boring, right? WRONG! It is brilliant. There are so many permutations! You can:

  • do rounds
  • build up chords
  • talk endlessly about major/minor, adding 7ths, dissonance, consonance
  • do inversions (one group sings from 1, the other from 8)
  • move about in parallel triads (three groups, one starts on 1, one on 3, one on 5, sing up to 8 and back down to 1, and then back to where you started – leave out all the 7s for a really great effect that is complex enough to keep everyone concentrating)
  • practise holding a harmony line
  • learn about creating your own harmonies for whatever melody you like, because you know about 3rds and 6ths…
  • learn about key changes (the ‘1’ moves to a different pitch – bang)
  • use it when you’re teaching a song – this is so useful! You can learn the whole thing with numbers first, including harmony parts. You can even then translate this to instruments – particularly handy if you have transposing instruments… as long as you know where ‘your’ 1 is, away you go!

Also, you can combine numbers 1-4 (pitch) with beats of the bar – hold up 4 fingers and students need to sing note 4 on the 4th beat, etc. (use a backing track – that’s another thing – there are now so many useful backing tracks, in every key, tempo, and conceivable style, on YouTube – you are very likely to find something that is perfect for what you want to do)

Rhythm: my new favourite way to start a lesson is to put on a piece of music (anything, but perhaps related to what we’re doing) and get them to ‘find the 1’ and clap on it. This develops into finding other beats, doing different sounds on different beats, incorporating the ‘ands’ (the second half of each beat). I have some classes that clap on 2 and 4 no matter what number you ask for! So focussing on this at the start of the lesson is a great way to get them tuned in and thinking actively about the music, before we move on to other things.

Musical Futures: Just Play, and how you might build in assessment

Yes, I mentioned this in my last post, but feel I must come back to it here. I cannot tell you just how much I love this! Just Play is a set of whole-class performing resources from Musical Futures that involves students playing any combination of keyboards, guitars, ukuleles, bass, chair drums, and vocals, all with playalong videos. We are currently using it with year 7, 8 AND 9, because it is so good we didn’t want anyone to miss out!  If you haven’t seen it, you can download some sample materials from the MF website here.

Why do I love this so much? It is really musical. It engages students in improving their instrumental skills, their ability to play in time and respond to visual cues, and moves them on quickly in a way that they find satisfying. It is super-differentiatable (I’ll come back to this in a moment). The resources are great, and although you have to pay for them, they are very much worth it for the return that you get. Plus, the kids LOVE it! So, let’s say we’re working on Uptown Funk. This only has two chords, but there are many changes in texture that you need to watch for. Students are arranged around the room on all the instruments, following the video and playing along. I can differentiate for individuals by:

  • getting them just to play on beat 1 of each bar if they need time for chord changes
  • getting them to strip back to just root notes
  • use a sponge under the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings of the guitar to simplify chords: you only have to worry about strings 1, 2 and 3 because the others are muted by the sponge
  • get them to play a more ‘authentic’ strumming pattern if they can
  • taking out the sponge and asking them to try ‘full’ guitar chords
  • on keys, ask them to try putting in a root note in the left hand while playing chords in the right hand
  • ask them them to try singing and playing at the same time
  • getting them to try different instruments

I have been doing some great video assessment of Just Play lessons. I don’t want stress to assess, but it’s nice to chart progress sometimes, plus students do find it motivating. So I video a Just Play performance, making sure I get everyone in. I don’t have to try to make notes while they’re playing, I can watch it back later (it doesn’t take long). Then I can create a chart that looks like this:


The numbers here are only a shortcut to the colours – it’s these that are the important bits. Red means ‘not yet’. Amber is ‘can do this’ and green is ‘can do this really well’ (there’s more on this below). Generally there are fewer reds by the third week, so if I wanted to ‘prove’ progress (which I really hate doing, but I know a lot of teachers have to) you could put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I can track what they’re up to and give them personalised objectives, like this:


Moving upwards and onwards with assessment

If you want to know all the ins and outs of where I’m at with KS3 ‘life after levels’, then it is outlined in the webinar above, that I did in conjunction with Music Excellence London  and the ISM Trust in January. If you’ve read about radar diagrams and the way that I’ve been using them in previous posts, it’s all about how that is evolving. If you are a fan of the idea of shitistics then watch the last 10 mins or so. I couldn’t say ‘shitistics’ itself in the webinar but you’ll get the idea!

In case you don’t have time to watch the vid, here are the highlights:

  1. Moving to a 3-point system. Before, everything was marked on a 1-5 scale (where 5 is great and 1 is terrible). I’ve changed this now, to a 3-point scale: 3-point-radar-2017

There are still 12 things round the edge – we need 12, our projects are a whole term long. I don’t ever attempt to assess all 12 at once! The main difference is the 3-point scale: ‘not yet’, ‘can do’ and ‘can do really well’. I really like using this. Taking numbers out of the whole thing is good. I like that ‘not yet’ is the lowest one. It all makes sense to everyone and is really simple.

2. All the things round the outside are selected from a list that I’ve now compiled – one of the things I’ve had to do to fit in with the way that we’re moving towards doing KS3 assessment at my school is to create a PLC (personalised learning checklist – although they’re not really personalised – this whole idea is a PiXL thing, for better or worse): this is essentially a list of the skills, knowledge, and concepts that we want KS3 to be all about. Each department had to fill in a jigsaw – here is ours:

music-ks3-jigsaw-revisedI also used the ISM framework for curriculum design and assessment at KS3 (it’s here) which is brilliant – as a process to work through, with its ‘big questions’, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

So, after all that, I came up with a list of all the things that are important enough that we want to assess them. The things round the outside of the radars are selected from these, appropriate to the content of the topic. Over time, we’ll cover all of them, and a picture builds up of where each student is with their skills – can they do each thing at all, do it really well, or not yet? So much more musical, human and real than saying ‘you’re a 3b’.

Bob Marlead


Kids cannot coil jack leads properly, and my attempts to teach them to do so were causing me great frustration. The solution – Bob Marlead. Like all the best ideas, I stole this one, but it has revolutionised lead storage in my classroom. Just stick it on Bob! Made for us out by our fab caretaker Kevin out of a laminated Google Images pic of Bob stuck to a board with two bits of dowel sticking out to hang the leads on. A sequel featuring Alice Cooper will be coming to the classroom next door very soon!