Inclusion in Music Education

The new National Plans for Music Education in both England and Wales rightly place strong emphasis on ‘inclusion.’ Both the National Music Service in Wales and the new Music Hubs in England have a mandate to ensure a music education offer that is inclusive, with schools also encouraged to play their part. But what do we really mean by the term ‘inclusion’ in relation to music education?

At its most basic it’s about fulfilling our obligations around equality, diversity and inclusion legislation, ensuring that we do not discriminate against protected characteristics such as race, disability, or religion. To this end the Welsh NPME pledges to provide professional learning opportunities to ‘prevent bias, inequality, bullying, prejudice or stereotyping based on protected characteristics.’ But in an educational context we also need to go beyond these characteristics, to ensure that our musical offer is truly inclusive. For example, there is no protected characteristic relating to socio-economic status, but for music teachers, the cost of activities is often the first thing we consider when seeking to make our music offer more equitable. Both country’s plans recognise this with the Welsh plan requiring its partners to ‘support access for children and young people from low-income households’ and the English NPME charging the new Music Hubs to ‘work together to understand and respond to the financial barriers which children and young people in their area may face.’ At a time of shrinking educational budgets coupled with terrible financial hardship for many families, making music financially accessible to all seems a distant dream. Nevertheless, we all recognise the importance of removing financial barriers to music-making, and through our new national plans we have a chance to work together to leverage collective resource to make this dream a reality; although it should be noted that, as Scotland has recently discovered, this will be a much more complex task than simply removing fees for instrumental lessons!

Clearly one of the most important facets of inclusive practice in music education is ensuring that we meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs and disability. When planning for this, educators will find it useful to consider the social model of disability over the medical model. The social model makes a distinction between physical impairment and disability – having an impairment doesn’t make you ‘disabled’, society causes disability in that it is set up almost exclusively for the enjoyment and success of able-bodied people. Under this model, rather than looking at the person with a disability as a ‘problem to be solved’, we aim to remove the barriers we as society place in a disabled person’s way. An example of this in music might be “Yes of course you can play the violin the opposite way around, we’ll seat you where there is space for you to do that” (social model) versus “Let’s find you a different instrument, because in an orchestra all the bows need to be moving in the same direction” (medical model). As the Welsh NPME states, ‘We must support all children and young people to ensure that disadvantage, discrimination or disability does not impact on their opportunities to progress and realise their ambitions and potential.’

Once SEND and socio-economic factors are accounted for, that can often be far as inclusion strategies go, but there are many other factors to consider in becoming truly inclusive in our practice. The Welsh NPME recognises this stating that ‘opportunities to engage in music experiences that are relevant to and representative of different cultural experiences of children and young people across Wales, in particular, ethnicity and disability is a key part of diversity and inclusivity.’ The importance of embracing and promoting cultural diversity in education cannot be overstated, both as a mechanism to represent and celebrate the cultures of our local communities, and to extend young people’s understanding and respect for other cultures with which they have not yet come into contact. Music is a fantastic tool for this, and on the simplest level, just ensuring that we cover a range of musical styles and traditions within our musical activities can go a long way towards achieving this. As the English NPME states, schools should aim to ‘embrace the cultural diversity of their pupils and encourage them to bring their own individual experiences to their musical learning, whilst also shining a light on the many musical possibilities that exist in the wider world.’

Inclusion really does boil down to just ‘including’ everyone, and that means as educators going beyond statutory requirements to ensure that all children are catered for. The new trend of ‘Adaptive Teaching’ (or what some might call the old trend of just… teaching!) promoted by Ofsted approaches the idea of inclusion as having the same high expectations for all, but making adaptations as necessary to help them get there. For those of us used to a Differentiation approach, we might have had three different objectives or learning intentions to cover pupils working above, below, and at expectations, with different tasks, resources or support provided for each ability group. Under Adaptive Teaching we would now have just one objective / intention, and provide each child with an individual bespoke system of support to help them achieve it, taking into account their specific needs. Luckily for music educators, this is actually much closer to the way we naturally work than the old-school differentiated approach. Often everyone is learning the same piece or song, and we provide support and teacher intervention, and perhaps adapt resources such as writing the letter names under notation, for those who are experiencing difficulties. We instinctively intervene at individual pupil level if there are wrong notes or other errors, and in general music teaching often provides a naturally good example of the adaptive strategies that should be at the heart of inclusive teaching practice.

In England, a National Hub Centre of Excellence in Inclusion will be established as part of the NPME in Autumn 2024, and will be tasked with supporting the music hub network through ‘modelling best practice, disseminating resources and providing training in inclusive music-making.’ In Wales the National Music Service will fulfil a similar function. With the issue of inclusion being given such strategic importance at national level, we can be hopeful that music education will continue to become more inclusive as time goes on.

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

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