Are pupils with special educational needs receiving the level of music provision they ought, as LAs and schools are getting more money for it than ever before?

Are we experiencing something of a musical renaissance in our schools? According to the government, yes! And there are some impressive spending figures to support this view. Twenty years ago the introduction of the Education Reform Act led to instrumental lessons and group musical activities being labelled ‘non-essential’. With the delegation of funding under LMS (local management of schools) schools could choose to buy back these services or spend the money elsewhere. The situation was exacerbated in 1993 when new legislation permitted LEAs to charge parents for instrumental lessons. According to the Federation of Music Services this resulted in considerable disparity in levels of provision and opportunity, depending to some extent on the ability and willingness of parents to pay.

When Labour came to power, attitudes to funding music provision changed. In 1999, the government introduced the Music Standards Fund to protect and expand local authority music services. In 2001, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) published the White Paper Schools: Achieving Success, within which the government pledged to ensure that over time, every primary school child who wanted to would have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. In the six years from 1999, local authorities received £487 million to support and expand music provision.

And the good times look set to continue. In November 2007, the government announced funding of £332m for 2008–11. This consists of £82m a year for local authorities to spend on music education, £40m to buy brand new musical instruments, £40m for the national Sing Up programme and £6m towards emulating ‘El Sistema’, the Venezuelan project that has made classical musicians of youngsters from some of the country’s most deprived areas. 

The £82m per annum that goes to local authorities will pay for free music tuition for every primary school child for a year in the early years of primary school. It will also fund choirs, orchestras and other ensembles. But according to the government’s own guidance this is about more than learning to play an instrument. Among the benefits they foresee are:

  • improved self-esteem
  • improved self-confidence
  • improved social skills
  • more positive attitudes to schooling
  • improved musicality.

And schools, parents and carers are expected to benefit, too. They should see:

  • a positive impact on all pupils, including those with challenging behaviour or special educational needs
  • improved standards in music
  • improved standards in the wider curriculum.

With budgets in place, local authorities are being urged to draw up a three-year plan for their area. Among the guidance given is that ‘Particular arrangements will need to have been made to ensure that those in need of special help, children in care, disabled, pupils with special educational needs or gifted and talented pupils, are supported appropriately.’

SEN pupils

Currently, evidence would suggest that children with SEN are not receiving the level of provision they ought. A key influence on government policy is the Music Manifesto developed by the DfES and DCMS in collaboration with music organisations, arts practitioners, the music industry, the Musicians’ Union, the TTA (now TDA), the Specialist Schools Trust, Arts Council England, QCA, Ofsted and Youth Music. Launched in July 2004, it states:  ‘As part of their statutory entitlement in schools, we believe that every child, including those with special needs, should have access to a wide range of high quality live music experiences and a sound foundation in general musicianship.’ Subsequent reports have highlighted the need for specific action to address a perceived deficit in provision for children with SEN:

‘Priority action is required to redress existing inequalities in provision for children and young people who are vulnerable or marginalised through social, economic or geographical disadvantage or through having special needs. Every child should be assured opportunities for transformative musical experiences that can help to raise attainment and self-esteem, lead to behavioural improvements and promote greater social cohesion. ‘We know that music has a particularly important role to play in the lives of vulnerable and at risk children, and those with special needs. However, organisations working with these children have raised concerns that they are particularly poorly served by existing music provision. There is little research on the state of that provision or on how children’s needs might best be met. This inevitably limits the objective for universality in music education.’

Live Music Now!

Among the recommendations made in a recent Music Manifesto report were that headteachers in primary and special schools should review the music provision available for children with SEN, and liaise with the emerging local music education hubs to guarantee suitable provision for these children and support for teachers and other music practitioners working with them.

Certainly there are some examples of good practice taking place but these vary from straightforward musical performances staged specifically for children with SEN to directly involving SEN children in music making. One organisation that combines both is Live Music Now! founded in 1977 by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Ian Stoutzker. With more than 320 young professional musicians on its books it involves children in extended workshop sessions with musicians, in which they compose, play, conduct, sing and dance, creating and performing their own music. In the past five years LMN has doubled its level of activity in this area, such that performances and workshops are now a regular feature of school life for thousands of children with special needs. Executive director, Sarah Derbyshire, says that the organisation works extensively with children in special education, usually through links with individual schools.

‘We do have some partnerships where we work with local authorities but in the majority of cases we would set up our relationship with the individual schools and in some parts of the country we will be working with every single special school or mainstream school with a special educational unit.’ Workshops and performances are usually funded by grants raised through trusts and foundations and from other funding sources, some of which might be publicly funded. She says that working with schools directly rather than through local authorities has largely evolved historically and reflects the fact that each programme of activity has to be tailored to reflect the abilities and interests of the pupils involved. She adds that local authorities vary enormously: ‘There are some that are very clued up about the role that music can play in the lives of children with special needs and there are others where it just isn’t yet very high on their agenda.’ She has yet to notice any significant changes as a result of increased government funding for music provision but believes it may have an impact over time: ‘I think it will galvanise organisations like ourselves to go and knock on the door of local authorities and say “Let’s not forget this very worthwhile sector.” And, if you are looking for people to work with, Live Music Now! musicians are ideal, because they have so much experience in this field. So I think that’s part of it. But also I do think that local authorities are beginning to see that they can play a greater part in music provision for children with special needs.’ LMN is also an enthusiastic supporter of Sing Up, the new national singing programme, which the government has thrown its weight behind. It is currently involved with others in helping to set up singing and signing choirs. Sarah says she can see the attraction of pumping funding into singing—‘We have a great cultural tradition in this country of singing and I think it has been lost to an extent, so that is pretty obvious’—and that for children with learning difficulties and disabilities it is a fantastic opportunity. She also believes it will boost confidence and spur participants into exploring other areas of music.

Certainly, some of those working with children with special educational needs have been quick to recognise the possibilities of Sing Up. Music and the Deaf, for example, has launched Sign Up to encourage deaf young people to not only sing but to sign and to create their own songs. According to a recent newsletter it is delivering workshops in Sunderland, Wakefield, Wolverhampton, St Albans and Margate, working with around 100 pupils, along with local singers and composers. MATD hopes that it will do a further project for Sing Up later this year, the aim of which will be to establish deaf singing and signing choirs and for them to perform with the Deaf Youth Orchestra in 2009.

Another organisation well known for its work with children with special educational needs is Jessie’s Fund. In 2006 it ran a nationwide project called Soundtracks in which children in 10 special schools worked with musicians to create their own unique soundtrack for a silent film about outer space. The second phase of the project comprised a national conference and residential training courses for staff. Jessie’s Fund is now offering this type of project to other schools for children with special needs.

Special Virtuosi

At the other end of the spectrum is the work of Manchester-based Special Virtuosi, a music group established in December 2006 to provide workshops and music tuition to people with special needs. Its director, Noriko Tsuzaki, who has a younger brother with Down’s syndrome, knows first hand how difficult it is to find music teachers willing to take on people with SEN. ‘The work of Special Virtuosi is fairly original in that it provides teachers for people with special needs who want to learn an instrument but who may not have had the opportunity to do so before or who have been turned down because of their SEN,’ she explains. The biggest challenge for the group at the moment is to increase awareness of the service they offer. Despite direct approaches to schools, most of their current students have been referred to them by organisations like the National Autistic Society or the Down’s Syndrome Association. One notable exception is a special school for children with moderate learning difficulties where Noriko teaches violin and a colleague teaches trumpet and trombone to 15 instrumentalists.

Linking up the provision

Examples like these point to the pockets of good practice that exist nationally but in many cases links between organisations like these and local authority music provision seem embryonic or non existent. Among the proposals contained in the Music Manifesto’s second report was that the government should convene a cross-sector working party to consider current, and commission new, research into the impact of music on the lives of children with special needs, with a focus on how to improve access to the range of music provision—including music therapy—and how such provision could be delivered and funded equitably. While this hasn’t been acted on as yet, organisations we spoke to said they thought it would be a very valuable initiative. As Sarah Derbyshire explained, those involved in working with children with SEN are firmly convinced of the benefits of music, but when it comes to really levering serious funding you need more than anecdotal examples to support your case.