Developing Musical Inclusion with Peripatetic Instrumental Teaching

This article was first published in Sounding Board, the journal of Soundsense, the UK membership organisation for community musicians

Music education hubs were formed to provide a more diverse offer of learning music for young people, and have recently been tasked also with improving social mobility. Perhaps a more effective measure of inclusion, social justice suggests musical inclusion depends on developing a musical offer that responds to the different needs and interests of all young people, rather than one particular genre of music or style of learning. However, to be genuinely inclusive and effective, this needs to be accessible to all, and as ongoing as the instrumental music teaching already offered by music services.

For the past 3 years, MusicNet East, a partnership of Hertfordshire, Essex and Cambridge music education hubs and funder Youth Music has been developing the role of the instrumental tutors strategically, as a way to prevent school exclusion. It aims to develop musical, personal and social outcomes including musical skills, confidence, social inclusion and agency. A research strand explores the barriers, enablers and advantages to music services developing this work.

Whilst the National Plan for Music Education advocates for the power of music to engage at risk of exclusion young people, and praises the El Sistema-inspired In Harmony orchestral model as a successful innovation, it overlooks both community music more broadly, and the potential of instrumental music teaching to support inclusion in schools. As community musicians have usually been commissioned to support personal and social outcomes, these are often valued over musical outcomes, both by commissioners and tutors. Projects have often been timebound, taken place beyond school, and lacked progression to ongoing activities. Instrumental music teaching in schools is usually ongoing, but explicitly valued less for personal and social outcomes than for its ability to progress young people through exams and into more formal ensembles. It’s also generally catered for middle class families who can afford lessons. Music services have supported vulnerable pupils with music therapy teams, and offered remission of fees for instrumental lessons to pupils qualifying for free school meals. MusicNet-East seeks to combine elements of these disparate traditions by diversifying instrumental music teaching to produce personal social and musical outcomes for young people who don’t traditionally learn.

Diversifying the workforce

The instrumental tutor is often the only regular one to one contact young people have with adults in schools, and is thus well placed to pick up and respond to vulnerable students’ difficulties, and to pass on concerns. But this pastoral element of our work is often overlooked, and we seldom receive the special needs information we require to teach inclusively. When we’ve mentioned this at music service training, there’s been an immediate ripple of energy through the room, and tutors have shared many powerful stories of vulnerable pupils whom their teaching has supported.  Pupils’ declining mental health is reported as an increasing problem both by these tutors and by pastoral staff seeking to prevent exclusion.

In response to this, the project team has developed dialogue between instrumental tutors, and special education needs coordinators (SENCOs), encouraging exchange of information to develop the role of the instrumental tutor as a music based mentor in schools. It’s also expanded the range of tutors employed by the hubs, bringing in community musicians to work in mainstream and pupil referral units (PRUs)  attended by excluded young people. Drawing on this is helping broaden dialogue within music service training, to help instrumental music teachers diversify their teaching to better respond to young people’s interests and needs, both to prevent their initial exclusion, and to support reintegration.

More Diverse Pupils

We’ve learnt that many young people are excluded due to difficulties in socialising as a result of trauma and loss in early years. This can further contribute to learning difficulties masked by poor behaviour. The pupils who provide challenges to Whole Class Ensemble (WCET) tutors are often different from those we’ve historically taught, and will be presenting challenges to broader curriculum classroom teachers also.  But music can also support pupils whose ostensible good behaviour conceals difficulties.  Might WCET teaching be usefully conceived as the beginning of learning music to support school inclusion as much as the start of progression into county orchestras?

Community music approaches have been embraced enthusiastically by WCET tutors as a way to manage inclusion and differentiation for challenging pupils. An extension of WCET, a Family Music strand has also offered schools informal music workshops as a way to engage risk of exclusion families alongside other families.

School league tables and cultures of testing can present further difficulties to pupils already at risk of exclusion. Many excluded young people are bright, musical and creative, but simply don’t have a good fit with the type of transmissive learning valued by the school exams that instrumental grade exams can also parallel. But pupil-centred individual instrumental music lessons can offer a more welcoming place in schools for vulnerable pupils. SENCO’s have contrasted the relaxed approach of instrumental tutors with the more stressful classroom environment.

‘They’re more relaxed than the classroom teachers, and that’s what really helps…’ SENCO

Our pilot music mentoring project in a Hertfordshire school initially sought to progress young people into the school orchestra, but research there and from PRUs suggests many that young people at risk of exclusion don’t necessarily want to learn classical music or join an orchestra, but want to start by playing the music they already know and like. In particular, many enjoy Grime, as it ‘tells it like it is’.

Problematising ‘Interventions’

However, we’ve also learnt that even when music is in a genre they like, many excluded pupils have so many interventions they don’t want to receive another,

‘It was all going really well, until they got a whiff it was supposed to be therapeutic, then they didn’t want to know.’ Head of PRU on a previous Urban Music project

This can offer a challenge when gathering impact evidence for funders, but also suggests the benefit of music services developing and framing musical inclusion work as simply learning music. Centres have valued how having a responsive instrumental teaching offer has improved pupils’ wellbeing, their feelings about the centre, and their wider learning. Impact has become clear to centre staff witnessing pupils perform their own music at celebration events.

‘You have just added a new dimension to what we can offer, it’s amazing’. Head of PRU

Diversifying Progression Routes

Improved outcomes have resulted particularly from tutors adopting creative approaches based on song-writing, to help young people ‘tell it like it is’ from their own perspective. Song-writing also offers a way to listen to young people through their music. This of course requires more diverse progression routes in schools, and in music centres, which have focused on more formal ensembles. But this progression into musical communities within and beyond schools is a key benefit of developing this work within instrumental teaching. Songwriter offers an informal music progression route from individual lessons to an online chart, feedback from professionals, chances to perform at showcases and workshops. Songwriter has successfully engaged vulnerable young people from PRU’s alongside parent-funded students in music centres, breaking down the negative group effect that can sometimes occur in PRU’s. As the project has developed, this value of song-writing to form accessible and inclusive communities has been increasingly evident. It’s also offered an informal progression route to HE, and several participants have returned to become trainee workshop leaders. Throughout, high quality musical outcomes and levels of ‘ownership’ by young people have demonstrated that inclusion builds music as well as social justice.

Challenges, Enablers and Benefits

This is not to say all has been plain sailing.  As well as valuing what is already working, effective development requires investment in long term relationships to build trust. Schools can be too busy to immediately see the potential inclusion benefits of music. Demonstrating this with participation, and developing Informal connections takes time but has proven more effective than formal approaches.

Whilst it offers ongoing work to community musicians, musical inclusion practice in PRU’s can be intensive work to set up and sustain, can rely on a small number of tutors, and break down easily. Signposting and monitoring of take up of progression routes is often a concern for all instrumental music teaching, but requires particular encouragement and buy in from tutors of vulnerable students who have more barriers and fewer support systems.

Persistence and diplomatic advocacy is also required. Instrumental music tutors and managers can be resistant to change, and inclusion needs to permeate the multi-layered cultures of music services, informing priorities in recruitment, training, staffing allocation and pay spines. With music currently at threat of marginalisation by EBAC, those with incumbent interests can see diversification as an unhelpful distraction from what they consider their main business. But this is a mistake. The partner hubs have found that diversification has helped us engage new schools and re-engage some at risk of disengagement. Schools and centres have quickly identified pupil-centred music lessons as effective uses of Pupil Premium, and in one case have funded lessons for an entire year 7 cohort.

But this is not about developing a top down/’magic bullet’ approach to inclusion, and certainly not simply ‘contracting out’ inclusion to established specialist providers.  It’s more about music services broadening the types of tutors them employ and valuing how inclusive practice can grow out of their dialogue with the existing local workforce. Informal approaches in themselves are not necessarily inclusive.  A discussion suggesting this was bravely interrupted by a piano tutor’s comment that one autistic pupil most enjoyed simply working page by page through the tutor book.

Just as not all risk of exclusion pupils necessarily want to play in an orchestra, nor do they only want to learn to use music technology, write songs or to rap. Part of the benefit of learning music can also be that it enables us to manage, express and hear feelings which can be too difficult to put into words. For pupils with physical disabilities, inclusion may further require providing assistive technology to help them engage with lessons, but as significantly, considering and addressing their numerous structural barriers to getting to wider sessions. For instance, we’ve yet to see young people with physical disabilities progressing from individual sessions to song-writing workshops, perhaps our most accessible offer.  But musical inclusion requires provision of ongoing access to a range of diverse musical offers equally, beyond equality of access to one. This broadening of musical communities can embody the full value of instrumental music teaching in English schools at a time when we risk marginalisation.

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