Following last monthâ€™s Channel 4 documentary Donâ€™t Stop the Music, we have noticed some myths building up around the â€˜First Accessâ€™ whole class instrumental teaching programme provided throughout England by Music Education Hubs. This is a real shame as actually the First Access programme is something that England should be really proud of. We frequently communicate with Welsh and Irish music educators who bemoan the fact that they donâ€™t get funding to run this kind of programme, and last year alone we heard from consultants who have been invited to Australia, China, New Zealand and Scandinavia to help them implement similar programmes. England’s First Access programmes are rightly becoming the envy of music educators across the world, so letâ€™s help everyone celebrate that, with four myth-busting First Access Facts!
1. Itâ€™s not â€œa postcode lotteryâ€
Some hubs call it First Access, some still call it Wider Opps, some call it Whole Class Instrumental Teaching (WCIT), and some have their own local branding. The terminology may be what is confusing the picture, but rest assured that every child in England has an entitlement to receive this type of programme over the life of the National Plan for Music Education, and in every area there will be a local version of the programme provided by the music education hub.
2. Itâ€™s not â€œa ten week programmeâ€
Ever since the first days of this method of teaching, it has been made clear that any First Access programme should be ideally a year long, but an absolute minimum of one term. There are many reasons – largely of the funding and capacity variety â€“ why some Hubs are not currently able to offer full year programmes, but the aim is that these programmes should be a year where possible. Arts Council England doubtless has official up-to-date figures on the proportion of Hubs offering year-long programmes, but we can say that the majority of the hubs our company works with offer a full year, and some offer even longer programmes.
3. Itâ€™s not about â€œkids banging drumsâ€
There are plenty of fantastic World Music and Percussion First Access programmes out there (led by tutors who would argue that they donâ€™t actually teach kids to â€˜bangâ€™ drums at all!), but there is no specific list of instruments that are â€˜allowedâ€™ to be taught at First Access. It has been left up to individual Hubs (and before them Local Authority Music Services) to decide what instruments best suit the pupils in their care (bearing in mind the cost implications, with limited funding available for instrument purchase), and therefore all over the country these programmes differ. We know of programmes comprising: mixed strings; mixed brass; mini orchestra; B-flat instruments; recorder; ukulele; classical guitar; flute; fife; samba; trumpet; violinâ€¦. We could go on, but you get the idea!
4. Itâ€™s not about learning an instrument
First Access is not and never has been about learning an instrument. It is about learning music through an instrument. A number of our company consultancy team were previously leaders of the DCSF (now DfE) funded â€˜KS2 Music CPD Programmeâ€™ (the national CPD scheme for all teachers involved in what was then called Wider Opportunities) and this was the number one misconception we battled against on a daily basis. First Access programmes at their best are music lessons that happen to use a particular instrument as the carrier for musical knowledge, skills and understanding. Even now, over a decade into this type of teaching, we come across teachers who â€œdonâ€™t rateâ€ First Access because children â€œcanâ€™t play as wellâ€ as those having individual lessons do in the same amount of time. Now, a) thatâ€™s not always the case and b) even when it is the case, they can also sing, compose, critically appreciate music, improvise, play tunes by ear, read basic notation, follow a conductor, play as an ensembleâ€¦. Again we could go on, but how much of that is realistically achievable in a twenty or thirty minute one-to-one lesson over the same time period?
Elizabeth Stafford is Director of Music Education Solutions Ltd