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Insights into inspirational arts practice in schools: Investing in Key Stage 3 music at Roundwood Park School

Written By: Nick Gray
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5 min read
Investing in Key Stage 3 music

Roundwood Park School is an academy with 1300 pupils on roll and 7 pre cent pupil premium. The music department consists of four members of staff; a full-time head of department, a part-time assistant head, a part-time head of sixth form and one part-time teacher of music. Additionally, there are 15 visiting peripatetic teachers. At Roundwood Park School, music is compulsory for one hour per week until the end of year nine.

My predecessor had placed a greater weighting on practical music making and performance, which meant that students enjoyed music greatly and our class sizes were about in line with the national average for GCSE and A level. One difficulty we encountered regularly though, was that students seemed unprepared for the theory and composition aspects of the GCSE course, and so we were doing a lot more teaching in year 10 to get students to the right standard, rather than focussing on the content of the course, which was difficult to manage.

At this time we knew that the new music GCSE was on its way, which provided us with a great opportunity to change things. I wanted Key Stage 3 to be the focus of our efforts for a number of reasons:

  • better teaching at Key Stage 3 should lead to better students at Key Stage 4
  • encouraging students to encounter all three aspects of music (performance, composition and listening & appraising) early on should mean that students achieve
  • some level of competency, which should help to motivate them at Key Stage 4
  • we wanted to increase numbers at GCSE and A level and we felt that raising expectations at Key Stage 3 would support this
  • I firmly believed that after studying a robust Key Stage 3 curriculum that any pupil should be able to opt for GCSE music and then achieve their potential. I wanted music to be for all, and not just people who already played an instrument.

Due to the structure of the department, all extra-curricular was mainly run by the head of department. In order to do this important part of the job and also create more challenge in the Key Stage 3 curriculum, I needed to be prudent with how I used my time, as my role was more than just about music teaching. As head of department, there were concerts, reports, data drops, meetings and also looking after my team, who all had other responsibilities. One of our drivers therefore became: ‘what is the impact on the pupils?’

We first carried out an audit on all our current schemes of work and decided which should be kept, which should be altered, and which should be scrapped altogether. We then decided on the format for each year, which we wanted to reinforce and build upon the skills that were being taught. We wanted to ensure that we were always using one of the three main disciplines in music, composition, performing and listening, enabling pupils to use the skills that they would need for a wider musical appreciation, but also trying to maintain the practicality of music. In the end our curriculum looked like this:

Year 7

Term 1: Journey through Space – Western classical music, notation, composing for a stimulus, and performance.

Term 2: Music and Media – Writing a score for a film.

Term 3: The Blues – Performance and composition, chords, scales, improvisation, melody writing and notation.

Year 8

Term 1: Stomp – Performance and composition based on rhythms, texture and notation.

Term 2: Chords and Melody – Piano composition on Sibelius, creating a melody, accompaniment styles, chords, scales and keys.

Term 3: Indian Music – Performance and composition, accompaniment, scales, improvisation, melody, rhythm and notation.

Year 9:

Term 1: Musical Futures – Learning a new instrument and performing.

Term 2: Minimalism – Composition on Sibelius based on the principles of minimalism.

Term 3: African Drumming – Performance and composition, rhythm, texture and notation.

Each term contained one scheme of work which was deliberately written to allow for deviation, repetition and practice of skills.

We used listening tests throughout each term which were related to the topic being studied. These were low stakes tests taken in class in order to develop students’ listening skills. We also needed to ensure we were using technical language and challenging students to do the same when answering questions in class or responding to feedback. There were assessments, mainly in the form of end-of-term performances, or playing back compositions. Taken together, these played an important role in our growing understanding of students’ needs. This then helped us in ensuring the course was reactive and fit for purpose.

One area we felt needed to change was the setting of superfluous tasks, the marking of which took up valuable teacher time without directly improving student outcomes. Our department was focussed on stripping away as much as possible and then only doing things we felt added value. We invested in the use of technology quite heavily, putting the entire Key Stage 3 course on our VLE, which allowed students to engage with wider listening, wider reading, videos and theory-based tasks. We ensured students used Sibelius, a notation software, from Year 8 onwards for composition tasks, having learnt notation in Year 7. We reduced home learning tasks and also stopped using books in music. As we didn’t use books, we needed to ensure students were able to build on previous learning. During practical tasks we photographed whiteboards for planning, made videos of rehearsals and recorded feedback for them to watch before starting the next step. This was all stored in a central area the students could access through an app on the iPads we had bought in. Verbal feedback also became a vital tool in maintaining student progress, as did whole class feedback, modelling and scaffolding. The department needed to know its students well and to have very good subject knowledge in order to react to students appropriately. This was a change for the department, and it required a lot of energy and hard work in lessons. But the hard work was tempered by the reduction in formal planning and marking required outside of teaching time; as everything was made in advance and held centrally, and we mainly used peer marking and verbal feedback.

As we had to build up from Year 7, we almost had to run two courses for a few years, but it was worth the changes as the students we started to get into Key Stage 4 were much better prepared for the course than they had been. Students still enjoyed the Key Stage 3 course based on our surveys, but they were also using a wider variety of skills and developing them over the three years. Our class sizes at Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 ended up being consistently above the national average, as did our results, all with a reduced workload in terms of planning and marking. We were fortunate enough to be recognised by the ISM for having GCSE results in the top 10 per cent in the country for a number of years, and we were recognised by Music Mark for our contribution to music society in our local area.In order to improve both what we offered and our own work life balance, we needed to invest time and energy certainly, but not in exam classes as you would assume. Instead, investing in a more robust and challenging Key Stage 3 curriculum made all the difference. This approach did have its challenges in terms of workload at the beginning; ensuring that our resources, mapping, planning and designing was robust. This process was helped by drawing on the expertise of the team and ensuring we were delegating where possible. Music departments tend to be small which creates challenges. But it’s certainly true that short pain leads to long term gain.

Nick Gray is Former Head of Music and Associate Assistant Headteacher at Roundwood Park School, and currently Assessment, Curriculum and Training Design manager at the Chartered College of Teaching.

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