Measuring Musical Progress at KS3 - the Huntington ladder system

by Liz Dunbar @HuntSchoolMusic

How do you know if students are making musical progress? Not simply going through the motions of completing tasks, collecting a bunch of marks, and being no better off for it?

How do you create Music pathways at KS3 for everyone, regardless of students' starting points? How do you devise a way of working where bit by bit, your students understand something with a little more depth, or can apply a new technique or device with a little more skill and dexterity?

How do you design a curriculum, a scheme, a lesson - where you and your students can see that change taking place?

How do you design a curriculum, a scheme, a lesson - where students have ownership of their progress, and work at a pace that takes their existing experience into account?

Here's one idea - the Huntington 'ladder' system.

This is not a scheme of work. It's a tool that sits inside a scheme of work. It's a skeleton, an outline, a framework that students and teachers use to map musical progress in the 'hands-on' aspects of a 6-7 week scheme.

It's a really simple way for students to identify where they're up to, to dwell or push on. It's a system for students to be able to pinpoint a specific sticking point and ask for clarification, a model, extra support, or sometimes just to seek reassurance.

Each KS3 unit of work in Music at Huntington, has its own 'ladder', and we even have a 'skeleton of a ladder' for the first half term of year 10 as a familiar, reassuring transition scaffold.

Here's an example of a 'ladder' from a scheme used at the start of year 8: (you read from the bottom upwards btw...)


The bottom 4 rungs are designed to let everyone make quite rapid progress. (We all know that it feels good to get off the bottom rung....) Some tasks are more challenging than others. Some require accuracy alone, others provide opportunities for creative freedom.

Some tasks are purely performance driven. Some with, some without notation - some with, some without letter names - depending on which aspects of musicianship you most want to see progress in. If I'm looking for rhythmic accuracy, or pitch direction, I may well provide letter names to speed up the process.

Some tasks require students to really use their ears, and analyse material in detail, in order to progress.

Some tasks develop ensemble skills, co-operation, leadership, nuance. How groups are formed is really important. Do you pre plan student combinations? What modelling, what training have you provided? If things aren't going well, how long do you leave it before you intervene? What skills might students be developing when ensembles are left to work things out for themselves?

Some tasks are open to interpretation. There's a real craft to knowing how much freedom to allow, based on student skills and experience to date.

When you compare the examples directly above and below, you can see the progress that students will have made as improvisers, between year 7 and 9.

The numbers running up the right hand side of the 'ladder' are part of an objective marking system we use /15. Students are taught how to use both this system, and a holistic marking system so that when it comes to assessment (teacher/self/peer) they have a clear picture of how a mark is arrived at, what areas of musicianship they have made progress in, and what areas they need to work on next.

The curly brackets are another story for another day. It's a whole other discussion.  It's about expectations and high standards. Email me if you want to know more.

Back to the the point.... The lovely thing about this system is that everyone can see how much progress has been made inside a lesson/over a number of weeks/over a term/over the year/over the key stage.... and most importantly, everyone has a clear picture of the areas of musicianship where a student has either taken a step forwards or gained a little more depth of understanding.

Students really enjoy the sense of achievement as they move up the rungs on the 'ladder'. And the fluidity of students working on different tasks at their own pace, generates industrious 'music chatter' in the room. Nobody is sitting there, waiting for you to show them what to do next, because the 'ladder' system encourages student autonomy and cooperation.

Where are you up to? Oh.... I'm only up to here... What did you do to make that chord minor? How have you broken the chords up? How did you do that bit? Can I listen to yours?

So how do you devise 'ladders' for your own schemes?

  1. Talk as a team and really get to the bottom of what the purpose of a scheme is.
  2. Highlight the key moments where tangible musical progress takes place.
  3. Decide how you want to structure each of these moments - what support will look and sound like through modelling and scaffolding.
  4. Link these moments to a specific area of musicianship.
  5. Log each of these aspects of musicianship in your curriculum progression map.
  6. Scan the whole thing and look at the balance of the objective and subjective, the types of musicianship being developed, and your choices of repertoire.

And keep on tweaking. For each unit, we keep a scruffy paper copy of the 'ladder' to hand for scribbling on - so that the resource can be rejigged, improved, made clearer in someway, if we decide to run the unit the following year. It's a never-ending process.