How music exams are making an impact at St Mary's College

How music exams are making an impact at St Mary's College

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BY: Guest Writer
28 July 2021

Research and published evidence on the overarching academic benefits for students of learning a musical instrument have been debated for a number of years. One of the arguments regularly put forward is that, as it often the more able students taking up an instrument, the actual progress and achievement is perhaps clouded. In this article we hear from Andrew McIntosh at Trinity Champion Centre St. Mary’s College in Hull, who has analysed the impact of music education in their school, and through their findings can challenge some of these theories.

Since 2018 our MAT has operated its own ‘mini music service’ to serve the curricular, extra-curricular and instrumental needs of our seven primary schools and one secondary school. The establishing of this team brought together instrumental and curriculum staff from a range of backgrounds and with varying levels of experience. One of the common factors that quickly became apparent, however, was the unanimous preference to offer Trinity College London qualifications to our instrumental pupils.

We registered our secondary school as a Trinity Registered Examination Centre and hosted our first set of exams in the Spring term of 2019. Since then, over 100 students have gone on to pass qualifications from Grade 1 to Grade 8; four Sixth Form boys achieving Grade 8 brass qualifications this term is a recent highlight. Of course, these qualifications are only part of the musical offer that our students receive but they are important milestones and useful ‘motivators’ for practice and continued development.

We’ve recently done some analysis on our instrumental cohorts, based on three years of pre-pandemic data, and made some interesting findings. We identified three successive groups of Year 11 and Year 13 students and compared their outcomes in GCSE, BTEC and A-Level assessments to the outcomes of their peers. In each case, the instrumental cohort outperformed the remainder of their year group, often by a significant margin. Shocked? I wasn’t particularly, though perhaps a little surprised at quite how significant the margin was in some cases (Progress 8 of 1.54 for the cohort of 30 Year 11 musicians compared to a year group average of 0.87). Now, whilst I assume that I’m preaching to the converted here, occurrences such as these are usually explained away by ‘facts’ such as ‘only the good kids do music’ and ‘you get all the lovely ones don’t you?’ etc. However, dig a little bit further into the make-up of the instrumental cohort and one or two interesting facts begin to emerge:

Firstly, only 50% of this Year 11 cohort were previously identified as ‘higher achieving’ students, so out straight away with the theory that the ‘clever kids are the only ones that do music’. The cohort also had approximately 20% SEND students and around 20% FSM, both figures that are broadly in line with year group data year-on-year. There is a wide range of reading that can be done around this subject, in terms of why these outcomes happen, but I’m sure that if you are reading this you don’t need to be convinced about the wider benefits to a child when they learn a musical instrument.

Bearing all of this in mind we try and make sure that all of our students are given the chance to learn an instrument. In Key Stage 3 we use JamPod technology in our music lessons, which gives whole classes the chance to learn the basics of guitar, bass, piano and drums and this has been a solid ‘recruitment ground’ for our instrumental staff. The Trinity Rock & Pop qualifications provide a natural progression on these instruments that, perhaps, the traditional notion of ‘classical grades’ wouldn’t ordinarily do. One of our Year 11 students recently achieved a Merit for their Grade 4 Rock and Pop Drum Kit assessment, having first picked up some sticks in Year 8 during a curriculum music lesson.

Widening access to students in Year 7 and 8 has been really important to us; this age group had perhaps been neglected historically in terms of identifying new starters on an instrument, with resources focussed towards primary schools and on ensuring that learners continue as they transition to secondary school. We’ve had some real success in this area and would encourage anyone to not ‘write off’ students as being too old to get started!


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