Exams hall with students

Did lockdown, not grade inflation, benefit Music A-Level students?

The media outcry against claimed grade inflation by A-Level teachers, who marked their own students’ work, is not surprising but shows a poor assessment of the statistics.

Mainstream media and parents’ groups were quick to blame generous marking by teachers for the hike in A and A* grades across all subjects. Last year’s algorithm-inspired exam chaos was replaced by a hybrid of teacher assessment, exam board advice and in-school frameworks in the face of some cynicism from groups such as the Mumsnet network. With high-grade passes well above the norm, many are claiming their fears have been realised and that 2021 students have been unfairly advantaged by the pandemic. 

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, argued against claims of bias, ‘Students and their families have every reason to be confident in this year’s results, even though there have been no exams. The results are based on students’ actual work, which has been assessed by the people who know them best – their teachers. The grades have been moderated and quality assured. There are no algorithms this year, just human effort and human expert judgement.’

But results day saw a flood of cynical comments across mainstream and social media, which must be demoralising for students.

Music, in particular, has seen a massive improvement in outcomes. With 54.8 percent of Music A-Level students achieving a pass of A or above compared to 19.3 percent in 2019, it is not surprising that eyebrows have been raised, but comparing year-on-year music grades with other subjects suggests other influences, not least, hard-working students.

If this uplift were purely the product of teachers being soft on their students, or succumbing to parental pressure, one would expect this to be evident across the curriculum. Although many subjects did see a rise in A/A* grades, Music results are markedly better and so warrants closer scrutiny.

Lockdown gave students an advantage specific to music: practice time and lack of distractions. It also saw many schools taking innovative approaches to music teaching, including lesson plans, competitions and other incentives using apps and software programs designed to compensate for the loss of group and face-to-face lessons.

As schools have re-opened, many teachers have said they want to carry on using much of the ideas and technology forced upon them by lockdown as it engages students more effectively beyond classroom lessons.

However, the latest figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications suggest a less encouraging reason for the changes. In just five years, the number of students taking Music A-Level has almost halved from an already low figure. Cost-cutting and the lukewarm government attitude to music as a subject have seen more and more schools dropping Music A-Level from their offerings and the new results may also be down to the subject’s only being taken by the most determined of students.

UK Music’s Chief Executive Jamie Njoku-Goodwin called for a change in attitude towards promoting music in schools. He said, ‘The long-term trends are deeply concerning – the numbers of A-level music students has dropped by almost a third since 2014, and there are 12,700 fewer GCSE music students than there would have been if numbers had risen in line with overall GCSE entries.

‘We need action to support and grow music education in schools and reverse this worrying decline.

‘The music industry relies on a talent pipeline of accomplished and dedicated music students to produce the highly skilled professionals of the future. Many of them will go on to play in top orchestras, become music teachers or contribute to world-class recordings.

‘It is vital we continue to nurture music students and ensure children from all walks of life and every background have access to music and the chance to make a good living from it.’

His comments come as the Department for Education published its plan for the future of music education in schools and announced Njoku-Goodwin has been appointed to an expert panel to help form the new National Plan for Music Education (NPME) to be published next year.

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