Making sense of sustainability in the NPME

“Ensure the strategic, financial, and operational sustainability of the Music Hub by: (i) supporting a dynamic and well-trained workforce, (ii) leveraging DfE funding to develop wider investment into young people’s music from a range of sources and revenue streams; (iii) Being accountable and transparent by publishing plans, needs analysis and impact data; and (iv) considering and acting on the Hub’s environmental responsibilities” (Number 5 of the Strategic Functions for Music Hubs, from The National Plan for Music Education, DfE 2022)

The more I read this statement, the more it reminds me of the BBC programme Twenty Twelve, where a group of stressed-out project managers were trying to deliver the London Olympics. One of the recurring plot points revolves around a power struggle between the leaders of the ‘sustainability’ and ‘legacy’ teams. Neither of them can define these terms, and therefore no-one can decide who should take responsibility for what!

Sustainability and the Environment

When your average woman on the street thinks about sustainability, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the environment. The fourth item of this particular NPME strategic function “considering and acting on the Hub’s environmental responsibilities” definitely falls into this category. In the 21st century it is obviously right and proper that all businesses consider their environmental impact, but whether that classes as a ‘strategic function’ is up for debate! For some businesses environmental impact planning is ‘strategic’ in that it will add value to their products and services amongst environmentally conscious customers, driving up sales. But for music hubs, as the ‘controlling’ provider in their area, this kind of work is not really going to serve much of a strategic function. This particular statement does seem like a bit of an afterthought; popped into the plan because they felt it was important, even though they didn’t really have anywhere sensible to put it. In the guidance for prospective Hub Leadership Organisations (HLOs) the Arts Council states that: “HLOs are expected to lead the way in their approach to environmental responsibility and considering the Hub’s environmental impact. You should consider the DfE’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy and how you will contribute to this strategy’s aims. HLO’s will be responsible for ensuring their Music Hub has appropriate plans and strategies in place.” (ACE 2023). It will be interesting to see how this extrapolates out into accountability measures in the future.

Sustainability and the Workforce

Of course, it makes absolute sense for any organisation to have a focus on “supporting a dynamic and well-trained workforce.” Workforce development should lead to the expansion of available services and workforce retention, and therefore contribute to the sustainability of hubs’ work over time. The Arts Council elaborate on this further stating that, “any CPD offer should be made available for both specialist and non-specialist school-based workforce, as well as other non-school based educators, artists and practitioners,” so clearly the focus is on making the entire music education ecosystem in each area more robust in terms of quality and sustainable in terms of the number of educators available to carry out this work. (As an aside, it’s also great to see ACE signposting the Certificate for Music Educators as a mechanism for this, after it failed to get a mention in the NPME despite having been a key component of plan number 1 and an ideal way to address many of the issues highlighted in plan number 2!).

All of this is right, proper and worthy, however… The main workforce sustainability issue facing hubs currently is not lack of access to training, but lack of access to teachers! We know that schools are already struggling to recruit and retain music teachers, due to a whole swathe of issues caused, let’s face it, almost entirely by government policy over the last few years. The reintroduction of a bursary for secondary music ITE next year may solve some of the schools’ issues, however this may actually end up causing additional problems for hubs in retaining their instrumental teaching teams. Since the dawn of centralised hub funding in 2012 gave many opportunistic councils an excuse to jettison their music services, there has been a real shift in the way instrumental teachers are employed and paid. In addition, a real-terms decrease in funding has caused restructure after restructure, minimising the opportunities for career progression into an instrumental manager type role. Add to that the uncertainty around music hub funding year-on-year meaning instrumental teachers are often not entirely certain of their job security, it is not surprising that we often lose instrumental teachers to classroom teaching roles. The reintroduction of the ITE bursary could well be a catalyst for more of this sideways movement. Of course, many music hubs do not have a music service at all, and rely on signposting schools and families to other providers. A large proportion of the music education workforce (including many music service teachers, as it happens) are self-employed, and often work for very low rates of pay. How long they will continue to be able to do so in the current economic climate is anyone’s guess.

Ensuring sustainability of the workforce, therefore, is a much bigger job than a music hub can tackle alone. It needs intervention at government level in terms of economic and education policy to make it happen.

Sustainability and Accountability

Earlier we considered whether environmental sustainability was truly a ‘strategic’ function for hubs. I would suggest that point iii “being accountable and transparent by publishing plans, needs analysis and impact data” is also nothing to do with strategy, and all about accountability. The more you read this particular strategic function, the more it sounds like all the things that the DfE wants hubs to do so they can measure them, especially when you compare it to the other four functions, which are all delivery-focused. The Arts Council explainer document bears this opinion out by covering this section of the function under the title ‘Impact Framework.’ I can’t help thinking there could have been a better way of organising this in the plan. Four strategic functions and a set of accountability measures perhaps? I worry that hubs are going to end up feeling they have to spend a lot of time and energy on a strategic function that doesn’t actually do very much to practically improve things for children and young people, beyond the workforce development actions (which actually would have made more sense contained within the Partnership strategic function anyway).

Financial sustainability

Elsewhere in the NPME we find this statement: “the DfE’s funding for Hubs is only intended to be a proportion of total income, and we would like to see all Hubs leveraging this contribution to draw in ever more funding from wider sources (as is already the case with many excellent Hubs across the country).” All of a sudden this inclusion of sustainability as a ‘strategic function’ makes total sense. They want music education, but they don’t want to pay for it; like every other public service in our country. Money can’t solve all our problems, but I would argue that if hubs were - or had ever been - put on an actually sustainable financial footing, then a lot of these problems would be much easier to find solutions for. Why on earth should it be up to hubs to find match-funding to deliver 50% of their public education service? How much are our government devaluing music education if they don’t think they ought to pay for it in its entirety?

As if this attitude wasn’t bad enough, that particular part of the document (p58) goes on to advise hubs that they should be applying for “other revenue streams such as grant-making programmes.” Hang on! Haven’t they just applied to a ‘grant-making programme’? So, the plan is ‘here is some funding which will not be adequate to deliver the work we want you to do, so you’ll need to apply for more funding.’ Make it make sense! Hubs are also warned (rightly) to keep charging to a minimum, which is an obvious attempt to promote the underpinning inclusion and accessibility themes of the plan; but clearly just providing the funding to pay for the service in its entirety would be more inclusive! Once again we will see hubs in wealthier areas able to provide more services than those in areas that are economically challenged, and that really is the opposite of inclusion.

Sustainability and stability

I don’t see how it is possible for any organisation to have sustainability without stability. The NPME is funded unsustainably both in terms of the amount awarded, and the longevity (is shortgevity a word?!) of the funding. The position of HLOs is unstable, both in the fact that we don't know who they are yet, and in that they will be treated differently by the government regarding funding for the Teachers' Pension uplift depending on whether they are local authority controlled or not. Teacher retention and recruitment is at its most unstable point in living memory. The place of music in the curriculum is unstable thanks to both these issues but also to government policy – EBacc, Progress 8, academisation – allowing or forcing schools to downgrade music’s importance. It’s not up to hubs to prove they can be sustainable, it’s up to the government to create the stable conditions required for sustainability to be achieved. Otherwise the opportunity offered by this new national plan to change things for the better, for everyone, will be squandered.

Dr Elizabeth Stafford, January 2024. Copyright © 2024 Music Education Solutions Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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