Skip to content

Guest post: A retrospective on the OCR GCSE and A-Level Expos

Back in June, Marie Jones was the first exam board representative to be featured in a Teacher and Musician interview.  That post has turned into one of the most popular pieces of content on the blog, showing the extremely close attention that teachers are paying to the draft specifications for GCSE and AS/A-Level Music.  I was, therefore, delighted when she agreed to write a retrospective about the expos that she’s been part of over the last couple of months.  In particular, I asked her to focus on the questions that she had been asked the most.

This guest post has been written by Marie.  You can read my reaction to the OCR GCSE specification by clicking here and the A-Level version is here.


From 9th June to 3rd July, OCR held expos for all our subjects that are going to be available for first teaching in 2016, which meant I got the chance to present our draft music specifications to teachers.

I had a lovely time gallivanting about the country and seeing London (Emirates Stadium, lovely!), Manchester, Birmingham (the best biscuits were at this one), Leicester, Newcastle (St James’ Park, excellent sandwiches), Leeds and Exeter (and managed to fit a Fleetwood Mac concert in my free time between them!). During this time I also represented OCR at two London TeachMeets and a Peterborough CPD day.

Here are the top 10 questions from teachers, and how I answered them.

So what’s actually new?

Ofqual and the DfE consulted on the changes between July 2014 and February 2015 and have agreed new assessment objectives, regulations for assessment and updated subject content. All exam boards have to comply with these. The detail can be found here  but among the changes you’ll find:

  • 40% written exam at all three stages
  • 60% Non-Exam Assessment (the performance and composition)
  • boards to set a brief for one of the compositions
  • at AS/A level all work will be externally assessed, even the performance and composition NEA

40% Exam? Really?

Yep, really. Assessment Objectives 3 and 4 will be assessed through a written exam worth 40% (all boards must do this). There was a lot of discussion between the exam boards, the DfE and Ofqual, as well as a public consultation and the boards all stressed the importance of the practical assessments so we’re pleased to have ensured retention of practical assessment for performance and composition.

What’s this minimum performance requirement about?

This is another condition that affects all of the awarding bodies.

  • At GCSE there’s a requirement for 4 minutes minimum of performance. At least one of those minutes must be as part of an ensemble.
  • At AS the minimum requirement is 6 minutes which can be solo, ensemble, multiple instruments or a combination at the learner’s choice.
  • At A-Level there are ranges.  Where performance is worth 25%, there is 6 minutes minimum requirement.  Where it’s worth 30% is 8 minutes, and 35% is 10 minutes.

OCR have made sure that our specification at GCSE clearly states the 4 minutes can be made up of multiple pieces. As we all know, even some grade 5-6 pieces can be fairly short and then there are the learners who are in the music GCSE group because they are gaining more from their music lessons than ‘just the lesson’ (social skills, engagement, enjoying their school experience…) and may actually have low performance ability.

It’s worth mentioning here that the ensemble piece can be longer than the 1 minute minimum!

At AS and A Level the whole performance must meet the minimum time, and can be a mix of the above.

Has the Creative Task gone from the GCSE?

Yes. The new weightings and definitions of non-examined assessment mean that keeping it would detract from the performance and composition coursework. We have kept its essence in the composition briefs, which we will be releasing for the board set brief, but now learners will have from September until May of Year 11 to work on a full and complete composition.

Why no set works at GCSE? How does that work?

Lots of research into our current cohort and lots of consulting with teachers and learners shows that the “no set works” approach works well. Instead, we have areas of study which each have a dedicated page in the specification to filter them down to the specific characteristics and fingerprints that learners need to study. This way, no matter what piece of music they are listening to within an area of study, students can be learning about and applying their knowledge to its specific features. All areas of study will appear in the listening exam and the board-set briefs for composition will relate to them. We have updated our areas of study to ensure there is wide coverage of genres whilst not overwhelming learners and teachers with masses of content. You may spot Bhangra and Indian classical are still there, as is film music. Previously they were within much larger areas of study which feedback told us were a bit too big!

Where are the visiting examiners at A-Level?

We decided to move forward without visiting examiners. The performance at AS/A-Level will be externally assessed by video submission for OCR. We felt it really important to retain the sense of occasion of the visiting examiner; we are, after all, training musicians, and preparing for a live performance is invaluable experience. Therefore, we require a video of the recital from start to finish and the learners perform to an audience (or at least as if to an audience). If I was teaching again, I’d set them a date and have a recital evening (or evenings if I had a nice big class!) inviting parents and friends to attend and making the event as professional as possible. However, it would still work for the recital to be to classmates if leaners are too nervous for the whole nine yards. As long as students show it is a prepared, live performance, then they’re meeting the requirement.

There is a time window for the performances to take place (again an Ofqual stipulation) which gives us the opportunity that if something goes wrong, or a learner is too poorly, or you simply know they can do it better, the recital can be undertaken again. Visiting examiners would mean this would not be possible, or only in very rare circumstances.

Offering a window also means centres can set their own dates and manage the recital recording in the best way for them.

Where are the harmony exercises at A-Level?

They are still there if teachers and centres need them! We have been careful to include areas of study that cover Bach chorales and minimalism as these were the most popular options in our current specifications. We no longer require specific technical exercises to be submitted at AS or A-Level but I would suggest including them in teaching and learning activities as a tool for exploring the conventions of the areas of study. This way, the candidates who need to show their understanding for higher education will still have a portfolio of harmony to demonstrate. The board set briefs at both AS and A-Level, and the technical exercises in the composition route of the A-Level provide opportunities for demonstration of understanding of technical exercises too.

How do the set works at AS and A-Level work?

Of the six areas of study as AS and A-Level, the first and second are mandatory, as they will always appear in the written exam. In both cases, Sections A and B of the exam will be based on the set work and some unheard aural extracts belonging to these AoS.

At AS, there are set works for each of the other areas of study – learners will choose one essay question in Section C.

At A-Level, there are no set works for AoS 3-6, but learners will choose two essay questions from these AoS in Section C.

Co-teachability? Help!

This means our specification works where Year 12 will be taught in the same group whether they are doing the one year AS or the two year A-Level. The content of the OCR specifications is designed so this can happen in as manageable a way as possible.

Where all students will be in the same lessons/class in Year 12, AS learners will be assessed at the end of Year 12 on their learning and submit their performance and composition recordings in this examination window. The A-Level learners will carry on to the end of Year 13 and submit their performance and composition recordings in that examination window.

All students can be working on their free composition together – the board set brief for each qualification will be released on 1st September of the year of award but A-Level students could even use the AS briefs as a practise.

The A-Level has different set works to AS in the interest of wider learning for the A Level students. This means they can use the AS works in conjunction with the AS students to get their foundation/grounding of the genre in Year 12, and have something new to focus on, increase their depth of knowledge, and use comparatively in Year 13.

So, the whole group can learn about the AS set works in Year 12. AS Students will be assessed on these at the end of the year.

Then when Year 12 leave you having been assessed on the AS works, that’s when I’d advise starting the Year 13s on their set works for the A Level AoS 1&2. They will be assessed on the A-Level set works but this prior learning means they will have at least one other piece for comparison, and potentially have studied at least one piece in depth for AoS 3-6.

Of course you don’t have to cover ALL of the Areas of Study – learners at AS choose one for the exam and the board set briefs for composition will each relate to an AoS.

A-Level students choose two and then the board set briefs will relate to each. Page 8 of the specification lays this out in a table for ease of reference.

How do we submit coursework to you?

At GCSE – audio recording of the performances, with accompanying score or lead sheet. (This is a requirement – we don’t expect the learners to have learned from the music, they may well be aural musicians. It is a tool for authentication and to support the assessor and moderator when marking the work). We require audio recording of the compositions too – with a score, lead sheet or written account (which could be an annotated screen shot). In both cases it is the recording that is the assessed artefact and the “paperwork” is supportive. All exam boards are required to require this from you!

At AS and A-Level – video recording of the whole performance, along with scores and lead sheets. For compositions, as with GCSE, audio recording and accompanying score or lead sheet.

These questions and answers all relate to our draft specifications which we are very proud of, but which may be subject to change based on feedback and further requirements from Ofqual prior to accreditation. Watch this space for further updates!