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Interview: Martin Fautley

Interview with Martin Fautley - Teacher and MusicianNot many people in music education can have their name used to describe an idea but that’s exactly the case for Martin Fautley.  It’s not uncommon to hear a music teacher describe a particular thought as being “a bit of a Martin Fautley thing” (most recently, Jane Werry at a TeachMeet).  Perhaps it’s not surprising that Martin has reached this level of infamy when you consider that his book, Assessment in Music Education, tackles an eternal issue for music teachers with a healthy dose of common sense and straight talking.  I was delighted when Martin agreed to answer a few questions for Teacher and Musician (and take a selfie with me!) and his answers are characteristically insightful with an occasional bit of tongue-in-cheek.

As the man who literally wrote the book on assessment in music education, what have you seen change in school music assessment since it was published?

I wrote my book (shameless plug: Fautley, 2010) on assessment when the National Curriculum was still statutory in all schools, and NC levels were the norm. It was published in 2010, and therefore written before that. I wasn’t at all happy with the sorts of assessment practices I saw in schools, and wanted to try to give some sort of steer as to what teachers might care to think about. I think that, since then, music assessment practice in schools has actually worsened, particularly at Key Stage 3. I think this can be ascribed to three main causes:

  1. SLTs requiring all staff to assess in the same way, often based on a STEM modality, which doesn’t suit music and the arts
  2. Music teachers not having sufficient training in assessment practices to be able to articulate what is wrong with this
  3. Music teachers being principally concerned with music making, doing, and learning, and wanting assessment that helps with this, but having their hands ties due to 1 & 2 above

The main areas in which I think things have worsened are these (another list, sorry!):

The school-invented need for what I have called unilinear attainment measures – this is where kids cannot (on pain of excommunication or worse) score less on unit Y than they did on Unit X, where Y could equal, say, the Viennese waltz, and X = songwriting. The kids enjoy and are motivated by X, less so by Y. But they have to score higher.

Linked to this is the need for whatever spreadsheet of attainment the SLT have purchased and/or bought into be proved to be correct, so assessment isn’t so much a measure of what kids have done, as a verification of the spreadsheet’s accuracy. And if the results don’t match, it’s not the spreadsheet which is at fault, it’s the teacher who isn’t good enough.

Assessment by accretion. This is where assessment is not uniquely defined (I do discuss this in my book and elsewhere). It’s where an assessment schedule reads something like:

Level 3.1: Can play keyboard melody with one finger
Level 3.2: Can play keyboard melody with 2 fingers
Level 3.3: Can play keyboard melody with lots of fingers
Level 3.4: Can play keyboard melody with two hands, LH playing one note
Level 3.5: Can play keyboard melody with two hands, LH playing chords
Level 3.6: Can play keyboard melody with two hands, LH playing an Alberti bass
Level 3.7: Can play keyboard melody with two hands, LH playing an Alberti bass, and changes voice sounds
Level 3.8: Can play keyboard melody with two hands, LH playing an Alberti bass, changes voice sounds, and adds expression
Level 3.9: Can play keyboard melody with two hands, LH playing an Alberti bass, changes voice sounds, adds expression, and sings tune at the same time
Level 4.0: Can play keyboard melody with two hands, LH playing an Alberti bass, changes voice sounds, adds expression, sings tune at the same time, and directs others in ensemble
Level 4.1: Can play keyboard melody with two hands, LH playing an Alberti bass, changes voice sounds, adds expression, sings tune at the same time, directs others in ensemble, directs the choreography, and makes the tea

….and so on. Okay, I made the last bit up, but even so, this sort of assessment by accretion doesn’t really help, I don’t think! Also worth noting nowhere in this litany does it actually say if the performance is musical or not. But back to the list….

The assessment lesson. Sadly a requirement in many schools. Only what kids do in the assessment lesson can count. Anything else is not allowed. Can also be a behaviour management nightmare in some schools.

Assessment for its own sake: “Why are we doing this, sir?” “Because I need some grades for the deputy head by Friday”.

I think assessment is, in many cases, not actually about assessment of the work and progress of individual named kids at all, but of some sort of weird Kafka-esque statistical game that we don’t quite understand the rules of, but know that at any given moment we are doing something wrong!

Of course, this is a bit of a bleak picture, and I characterise somewhat, but I am often saddened by what I see and hear. Also by the sob-stories teachers from all over the country tell me about what they are required to do. There are, however, some rays of hope, but I know of fewer of these. Maybe they just don’t tell me about them? Be nice to know, though!

You get quoted a lot in blogs and throughout the Twittersphere – is there anything you feel that you get mis-quoted about?

I sometimes think that teachers are so grateful for some of the information they hear from me – eg about what Ofsted want, and Robin Hammerton’s blog, that they miss out on other messages in their eagerness to convey this back to their heads. So I don’t think I get misquoted much, but feel maybe that sometimes the headlines are heard, and the details skimmed over.

One of the things that really resonated with me in your book was your assertion that music teachers are really good at formative assessment. You’ve since gone on to suggest that this skill is overlooked in schools. What do you think can or should be done about it?

This is an important point, I feel. I do think that since the earliest music pedagogic practitioners, Morley, Bach, Mozart’s dad, etc., we have wanted to improve musical learning and doing by formative assessment. In music, I think we really understand this. JS Bach didn’t say (as far as I know) to his multiple offspring “sehr gut, that was a Level 4b, ve vould like a Level 4a next time, ja?” without actually helping them to know what they had done that he wanted improving! But so often I hear kids saying “I got a Level 4b for performance” and not really know what that meant. In ye olden days, people used to collect cards in, I think it was, PG Tips tea, and swap ones we had with friends. Maybe this is what collecting levels is like?

I also fear that formative assessment is becoming the test before the real test. So formative assessment tells you what grade you might get, rather than being directly helpful. When you have driving lessons, this doesn’t just consist of endless mock driving tests. You do have some teaching and learning about use of the clutch, 3-point turns etc.

Dylan Wiliam said “If formative assessment involves making marks on a piece of paper, or putting scores into a spreadsheet then you’re doing it wrong” (source:, and yet this is what it has become in many schools. I’d like to see it reclaimed for what we know as music teachers we can do. In other words, we were doing formative assessment before it had been invented, so let’s tell everyone it’s them who are wrong, not us!

As an ITE provider, what would be the one tip you give to those embarking on a career in music education?

One tip only? Blimey! At interview, prospective teachers are asked why they want to become a music teacher. I’d say remember that enthusiasm for music that brought you here in the first place, and make your music lessons as musical as possible. Swanwick got it right when he said “teaching music musically” (Swanwick, 1999), so keep it like that.

So my tip: Don’t teach about music, teach music. How’s that?


Fautley, M. (2010) Assessment in Music Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Swanwick, K. (1999) Teaching music musically, London, Routledge.