A few generalisations about Music Hubs

Recently, on Twitter, I warned against making generalisations when discussing music hubs. However, as someone who has worked with 97% of England’s music hubs, if anyone is in a position to generalise with any degree of reliability, it’s probably me! So, today I’ve decided to break my own rule with some generalisations of my own.

Music hubs are not music services

Music hubs are groups of organisations working in partnership to oversee and deliver music education in their areas. A music service is an organisation which provides instrumental, vocal and curriculum teaching and ensemble provision. All hubs must have a lead organisation, and in many cases but not all, this lead organisation is a music service. It should be noted that some hubs have no music service partner at all.

Music hubs don’t just provide instrumental lessons

To represent all music hubs as simple instrumental tuition providers is reductive at best, and at worst entirely erroneous. For a start, some music hubs don’t do any direct teaching delivery! Music Hubs (currently) have a set of extremely clear core and extension roles developed from the first National Plan. Only one of these relates directly to instrumental tuition – the requirement to ensure access to whole class instrumental teaching. This can be achieved through a variety of different methods other than direct delivery: signposting to individual teachers and teaching providers; grants towards the cost; free or low cost instrument hire; training of in-school staff to deliver these programmes; provision of free or subsidised teaching resources; the list goes on. Aside from this role there are 6 other roles that music hubs have including access to ensembles, signposting to affordable progression routes, developing a singing strategy, offering CPD to school staff, providing instrumental loan service, and providing access to large scale musical experiences.

Whole class instrumental teaching is not…. oh where do I even start with this one?

A lot of the criticism around hubs really comes down to misunderstandings and dare I say in some cases snobbishness about whole class instrumental teaching. As a former member of the leadership team for the then government’s national training programme for Wider Opps (as was) let me tell you I have been howling into the wind about this particular issue since 2007! When people criticise WCET, 99% of the time it is because they do not understand what it is, and in fairness the way the DfE and latterly ACE has measured the success of these programmes has not helped either. So let me scream it (please God) one last time: whole class instrumental lessons are not about training up a new generation of instrumentalists, they are music lessons which happen to use a particular instrument (or family of instruments) as the carrier for general musical learning. WCET has more in common with curriculum music than it does with small group and 1-2-1 instrumental teaching. So if your beef with hubs is that ‘WCET doesn’t work’ because it hasn’t turned every child in your area into Nicola Benedetti, then I implore you to please just sit down!

Music hubs have not caused a ‘decline’ in young people learning an instrument

I’ve always found this a particularly bizarre take, given that there is no way we would be able to get reliable data on the number of children learning instruments without including it as a census question! If there are fewer children learning to play instruments, the causes are likely to be the cost of living crisis making it unaffordable for families (though of course there may be many children learning instruments informally without ever having to pay a teacher), the pandemic causing some children to ‘miss their chance’ at starting an instrument at the right time (although perhaps balanced out by the numbers of adults taking up a musical instrument during lockdown?), academic pressures such as the EBacc making music a less desirable study option, and the sheer amount of alternative pursuits available to today’s young people. In the 80’s all the alternatives we had were guides or scouts, football or ballet – even kids’ TV didn’t start until teatime! It would not surprise me (though I fail to see how you would prove it) if more of my generation learnt an instrument than the current generation, but this is not the fault of music hubs.

Music hubs don’t have to provide CPD, instruments, or events

The extension roles for music hubs are just that – extension roles. If your hub isn’t providing CPD, hire of instruments, or large-scale events, it is not because they are lazy or unambitious, it’s because the money has run out! Think of the core roles being the London to Birmingham HS2 line, and the extension roles being located somewhere near Crewe! The majority of hubs do provide these services anyway, however they actually have no obligation to do so. When money is tight we all have to make hard decisions, and music hubs are no exception.

Music Hubs are not responsible for music in schools

Despite the best efforts of Ofsted to pass the buck back in 2013, and the subsequent introduction of the SMEP process, music hubs have no statutory responsibility for the quality of music in schools. Guess who does? Yep, that’s right, schools do! That said, I have never met a music hub that didn’t want to support music in schools, and wasn’t making their best effort to improve the quality of music-making in their area. Ultimately though, the responsibility for the quality of their music provision lies (rightly) with each individual school. (And just for the record we have seen a massive upsurge in the last 5 years of schools wanting to develop their music now that Ofsted are finally interested in it again, but that’s a whole other blog…!)

Hubs are there to provide what is needed, not what you want

The relationship between schools and hubs is often complicated by the fact that one or more partners provide traded services, and this has been compounded by many councils seeing hub funding as their opportunity to jettison their music service into the private sector, causing costs to schools to rise. This sometimes causes a consumer mentality, where individuals feel that if they don’t get exactly what they want from their hub they are being short-changed. Hub funding is for the benefit of the whole hub area, and hubs take a strategic view of how to develop music across that area. This means that their initiatives and projects may not always exactly align with what every individual school wants at that particular time. This does not mean that your hub is ‘bad’ it just means that you and they have different views on what should be done at that particular moment in time. All hubs will be open to discussing their ideas with you, and your ideas with them, and that should be the first port of call before making judgment or public comment about hubs in general ‘not working.’

Music Hubs have for over 10 years now faced an uncertain funding future. Successive short-term funding deals, rising costs, and the delayed release of the new NPME have all compounded to make it incredibly difficult for hubs to form long-term strategic plans. Despite this, very few hub lead organisations have given up the ghost since 2012, which is a strong indication if one were needed that the hub system is indeed ‘working.’

Our hubs now face a new challenge, a rebidding process which has been handled in such an unfortunate way as to create a toxic environment for hubs to negotiate their way through over the next few months. I do not envy anyone leading a hub into such an uncertain future, but I know that despite the challenges every single one of the hubs I have worked with (and, since I’m generalising, I’m going to assume the other 3% too) will carry on doing the best they can for as long as they can for the children they serve.

Dr Elizabeth Stafford, February 2023. Copyright © 2023 Music Education Solutions Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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