Keynote Speech: Hackney Music Network


Dr Elizabeth Stafford was delighted to be invited to give the Keynote Speech at the Hackney Music Education Conference on 24th September 2021. A transcript of her speech is available below.

We had Zoom choirs, we had TikTok sea shanties, we had Over the Rainbow for the NHS, we had ‘that’ celebrity video of Imagine. Music saved us from the pandemic, right? NO! Of course it didn’t! Millions of people still died, the economy still tanked, people lost their jobs, a mental health crisis developed, and music did absolutely nothing to prevent any of that. For all that is said about ‘the power of music’, during a global pandemic of nightmarish proportions, music was powerless to save us.

  As educators, indeed as humans, none of us would make the choice to give a hungry child a violin lesson rather than a food parcel. In an ideal world we would never be faced with this decision, but thanks to the pandemic, education like all other sectors has been in survival mode, and music has not factored in the life-saving decisions that schools have had to make every day for the past 18 months.

NOW, before Xanthe starts to question why she invited me to speak today…! The point that I am getting at is that for all that we - myself included - as musicians and teachers bang on about the essential purpose of music, about the vital importance of music entitlement for all children, we do perhaps need to take a reality check. In a global pandemic, priorities shift and we have to acknowledge that words like ‘essential’ quite rightly return to their dictionary definitions.

I’m not saying that there wasn’t a place for music in our pandemic response. For keeping spirits up, for fighting boredom in lockdown, for stimulating our brains, for building a sense of community, for helping us focus on something positive for a change, for giving us some sense of normality, music was an important tool. But given the choice between an oboe and the vaccine, I’ll take the vaccine thank you very much!

As we - hopefully - leave the pandemic behind, we enter a healing and recovery phase. And this is where music absolutely comes into its own. Now that we are less about imminent threat to life, and more about catching up on what we’ve lost, music returns to its place as an essential component of our education, and indeed our health system. We know that there is a mental health crisis - particularly amongst young people - that if not caused by has certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic, and we also know that music is a powerful complementary therapy to encourage mental wellness.

First and foremost, music-making activities give young people an opportunity to express their feelings. Due to school closures and social distancing measures, many of our young people are feeling isolated, lonely, and some are presenting with anxiety disorder and depression. As someone who has suffered from both of those last two conditions, I cannot stress enough to you how difficult it is - even for someone as verbose and articulate as me - to express how you are feeling inside. Activities such as song-writing allow our young people to safely express their feelings through an artificial barrier - instead of it being ‘this is how I feel’ it becomes ‘this is a song about how someone might feel’ - making it easier to offload and deal with these feelings.

Music gives us opportunities for quiet reflection. Maybe we aren’t ready to share our feelings just yet, maybe we don’t know what our feelings are, but listening to music can give us the space to just sit, and think, and be, with no pressure from the outside world. For those with anxiety, the calming power of music cannot be understated.

Participating in music is a ‘flow activity’. This type of activity is one where you become so absorbed in what you’re doing that the outside world practically ceases to exist. Psychologists and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy practitioners have long championed the benefits of flow activities for mental wellbeing and happiness, and in a world of constant interruptions, giving your full attention to a musical activity can provide this state of flow.

What our young people, and indeed all of us have lacked recently, is human interaction. This has made them feel lonely and isolated, but has also impacted their social and communication skills, particularly amongst younger children who haven’t got to the stage where they only communicate via text anyway! Music provides a fantastic opportunity for interaction, and in particular in the case of extra-curricular activities and community groups, interaction across age ranges, allowing our young people to rebuild their communication skills and connect with likeminded others. It can give them somewhere to belong, and a community to be part of, ensuring that they have somewhere to turn if they ever feel lonely or isolated again.

It’s not often that you’ll hear the fat lady at the front extolling the virtues of movement! But unfortunately for those of us who prefer biscuits to running, physical activity is crucial for our mental wellness. Music and movement activities can provide an opportunity to engage in physical activity for those children who might self-identify as ‘unsporty’ and give a much needed boost to their mental wellbeing.

Recovery from the pandemic is not all about mental health, there is academic recovery to consider also. Everyone seems to think that children are ‘behind’ but given that all children are behind then perhaps it’s more logical to consider that the curriculum is ahead! Since it unfortunately doesn’t look likely that we are going to do the obvious thing and rewrite the curriculum to suit where our children are at now, schools are by necessity going to be focused on helping them catch-up. This might result in music becoming further sidelined in our schools this year. However, there are many studies that have ‘proven’ a link between music and academic achievement, and while there is some doubt over their veracity, now would be a good time to start playing the music advocacy card! Any music lesson could support maths or literacy learning, so we don’t have to cancel music for more maths or English. Pupils will need a break from all the additional work otherwise they will become disengaged and demotivated, and music can provide this. But fundamentally, music also has its own national curriculum and consequently needs to be caught up on too, particularly because it was one of the subjects most hampered by the DfE’s safety regulations last year.

Speaking of regulations, what music can we actually do in schools at the moment? Well, the answer is basically “all of it!” There shouldn’t be any restrictions on what you can do in school at all, unless there has been an outbreak in your community so severe that Public Health England have got involved, so you are fine to do choir and ensembles, and wind and brass, and anything else that tickles your fancy! And in fact it’s not just that you ‘can’ do these things its that you ‘should’ because…

Despite there being a global pandemic, the DfE and Ofsted haven’t half been meddling in music over the last 18 months!

Ofsted, of course, changed their inspection framework some time ago now, and introduced the concept of ‘Deep Dive’ subject inspections. Now a lot of schools probably think it is unlikely that they will be unlucky enough to be subjected to a music deep dive, but unfortunately there are two clear signs to the contrary. Number 1 - when all the inspectors were trained in delivering deep dives, they used music as the example of how to do it. Number 2 - Ofsted recently published a music research review, which is intended as a companion piece to a subject report which they will be publishing in 2022, that will be based on information they’ve collected about music during the deep dive process. Therefore, for both reasons it is now looking highly likely that if you are expecting Ofsted they will want to look at music!

The DfE have also been busy this year, and in the aftermath of the reshuffle it will be extremely interesting to see how much they continue to take an interest in music moving forward! We have been awaiting a new National Plan for Music Education since the old one expired in 2020, and over the summer a panel of experts was announced to steer the creation of this. At the same time a music education consultation report was released, which some of you may have responded to pre-pandemic, and the idea is that this should inform the content of the new national plan. According to a panel member who led a session on this earlier in the week, we can expect to see the plan announced in the Spring of 2022, but not implemented until September 2023 because there will need to be a full retendering process with all existing music education hubs and any new interested parties having to apply for the new roles and funding associated with the plan.

The other big announcement from the DfE was the release of the Model Music Curriculum, which has caused shall we say ‘some debate’ across the sector. This non-statutory framework is not compulsory for schools to adopt, and Ofsted have already said they will not be looking for it during inspections. In fact, Ofsted’s own music research review which I mentioned a few moments ago, adopts an entirely different approach to and attitude towards musical learning than that enshrined in the Model Music Curriculum, so it will be interesting to see which of these two different documents is paid most heed by schools. My prediction is that Ofsted will win the day, since they’re the ones who are actually going to check what you are doing…!

As educators, we are always learning, and therefore even the pandemic has provided food for thought. We know now that however important music is in ordinary times, there will be times when it has to take a back seat over more pressing priorities. The key is to make sure that music only makes way in times of dire need, and that it is the first thing to come back, at the earliest opportunity. We may have learned to live without it for a while, but our lives were all the poorer for it. The enrichment music can bring to our mental, physical and educational wellbeing is worth fighting for.