How to assess primary Music

We might be tempted to think that playing a relatively uncomplicated lyrical piece is of less musical value than throwing off a virtuoso delivery. Surely the person playing the ‘easy’ piece ought not to get such high marks as the other?…

… Complexity by itself is no virtue. Performing a wide range of complex music without evidence of understanding would definitely not count as a high level of achievement. And it is certainly possible to perform, compose and enjoy a high-quality musical experience without any great complexity.”

Swanwick, K: Teaching Music Musically

As Keith Swanwick points out in the above quote, assessment in Music throws up unique challenges. In most other subjects, progress is measured by tasks getting harder, but in Music (and in other creative subjects), it is possible to make progress by getting ‘better’ at simple tasks. It is not always necessary to make the tasks harder, and in fact, it is almost always better to perform or compose a simple piece well than it is to perform or compose a complex piece badly! This means that there are instantly two dimensions to consider in our assessments. 

[Assessment] is made all the more difficult in Music education because there are different types of musical thinking and musical knowledge that teachers wish pupils to engage with… Thus a complex construct like musical ability does not have a single unitary outcome; we do not say that a pupil has a musical ability of 45%, for example, as this would be meaningless.

Faultley, M: Assessment in Music Education


As Professor Martin Fautley remarks in the quote below, Music is made up of many different types of skills, and unfortunately for us, the whole of Music does not always add up to more than the sum of its parts! Pupils can be amazing performers but not so great at composing, or astute listeners who suffer from crippling anxiety when asked to sing or play. While a data analyst might assume that we could just give marks for each skill set and then add them together to give an overall grade for Music, that is not representative of what our pupils can really do.

Furthermore, Music is not just about skills, but also about knowledge and understanding. So alongside assessing the skills of listening, performing, composing and improvising, and the idea that these skills can progress both in terms of tackling more complex tasks and also doing simple tasks better, we also need to capture pupils’ understanding and knowledge of things like the history of music, staff and other musical notations, and also the so-called ‘interrelated dimensions of music’. 

As Keith Swanwick goes on to say:

“Formal assessment is but a very small part of any classroom transaction but it is important to get the process as right as we can, otherwise it can badly skew the educational enterprise and divert our focus from the centre to the periphery; from musical to unmusical criteria or towards summative concerns about range and complexity rather than the formative here-and-now of musical quality and integrity.”


Given the complex issues discussed above, we should count ourselves lucky that Ofsted is no longer looking at schools’ internal data. So instead of having to worry about how on earth to turn our pupils’ progress into data points, we can return to the original point of assessment, which is to help teachers help pupils progress!  

On a lesson-by-lesson basis, the Kapow Primary MMusic scheme of work has a list of key questions to check pupils’ understanding, and lists of things to look out for to show that pupils have secure understanding, or are working at greater depth. This helps teachers plan for interventions and targeted support within the next lesson, as well as identifying who would benefit from the extension activities built into the lesson plans. On a topic basis, Kapow Primary have produced some simple templates to keep track of how pupils have done over the course of a topic, which can then inform how the teacher approaches the next topic in the series. 

The information gleaned from the questioning, observations and recording processes built into the Kapow Primary Music scheme will be really helpful for teachers and pupils in the event of an Ofsted deep dive into Music. Observed teachers and (a selection of) pupils will be questioned by the inspector as to what has been learnt not just in that lesson, but also in previous lessons. Using the in-built Kapow Primary assessment system regularly will help the teacher and pupils to recall that information when asked for it. 

In addition to their conversations with teachers and pupils, Ofsted will also want to see that you have collected evidence of assessment over time. For most subjects, proving that assessment has taken place will be the simple task of opening pupils’ books and showing the marking – but when was the last time you set a piece of writing for your Music assessment? (Hint: hopefully never!)

In the case of Music, you will need a collection of video and/or audio files that could be compared to show progress over time. (Do not rely on the use of photographs as they only demonstrate that lessons took place, not the quality of the pupils’ work, as they do not include sound!) 

The inspector may want to watch/listen to some examples, or they may just be content to know that they are there. Kapow Primary’s Music scheme frequently prompts you within lesson plans to video performances for pupil self-assessment, and to stand as evidence for future use, so hopefully if you’re following the scheme, you are already starting to amass a bank of video evidence. A great tip to save you time is to record verbal feedback directly onto these, rather than writing notes and then trying to link a text document to a video file at a later date. Keep the camera rolling at the end of the performance as you (and your pupils!) feed back to the class – making reference if you can to previous performances and identifying how your pupils have progressed since last time. 

When followed consistently, the inbuilt assessment processes within Kapow Primary will show pupils’ progression of skills and understanding over time. They will show progress both in terms of doing simple things better (a deepening of musical skill) and in terms of tackling more difficult things (an extension of their musical skill). Because the scheme covers the entire national curriculum for Music, it will be easy to demonstrate progress towards the end of Key Stage expectations, and will therefore provide useful information for teachers, pupils, parents, and Ofsted inspectors!  

Try out the whole Music scheme of work for free with a no-obligation 7-day trial!

Written by:
Kapow Primary