Some thoughts about First Access


I’ve been thinking a lot about First Access recently, partly as a result of organising and attending the First Access Forum, and partly due to the launch this week of the Sefton & Knowsley WCET Best Practice Project.

Of all the many useful and interesting discussions at the First Access Forum, the thing that struck me most was the extent to which schools and school-based staff are in effect the key to success in a First Access programme. This interests me because I think it will come as a surprise to many schools that their input into the ‘specialist’ First Access provision is so vital.

At the launch of the WCET Best Practice Project this week, I talked to music coordinators about the surprising fact that hiring in a First Access programme could in effect be an inhibitor of progression. We talked about the fact that schools often see First Access as the pinnacle of their music offer, but don’t actually relate it to the main music curriculum, missing a key opportunity to drive forward musical progression. This is why it is so vital for instrumental tutors and class teachers to be given time to co-plan, to ensure that the fantastic opportunity presented by First Access programmes is not squandered.

Even with co-planning however, there may still be a clunk point between the specialist input of First Access and the generalist input of class teachers in following years. Class teachers may feel that they have been outstripped by their pupils, or that they have very little to offer compared to the specialist instrumental tutor leading First Access. It is important to get the message across to schools that this is not the case. The majority of the national curriculum for music revolves around creative work, listening and singing. Playing an instrument is only a very small part of the curriculum. If a whole school approach is taken to music, and if First Access lessons are firmly rooted in the development of musical skills, knowledge and understanding (rather than focusing solely on instrumental technique) then it should be possible to create progression routes which can be delivered by generalist teachers.

Another key area of concern for Music Education Hub colleagues at the First Access Forum was continuation. Several of the sessions looked at ways in which continuation routes can be made more accessible to pupils. It may be tempting to immediately focus on financial concerns, and it is of course important to make sure that continuation routes are affordable for all pupils, not just those with well-off parents. However, there are also pedagogical and motivational issues to consider. If a pupil has enjoyed their First Access lessons enough to want to continue, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will enjoy learning in a small group. This is particularly the case when the style of teaching may be different from First Access, and/or the group is led by a different teacher. But perhaps the most crucial aspect of encouraging continuation is to allow pupils to play their instrument in the original environment in which they learnt – the classroom. And this of course strengthens the kind of integration that we have already identified as a crucial driver of progression. If pupils have enjoyed playing their instrument so much that they have elected to continue, why prevent them from continuing to access the music curriculum through their instrument? The class teacher does not need to be an instrumental specialist to allow pupils to use their instruments for creative work, they just need to provide an opportunity for pupils to experiment.

This leads on to what for me was the most interesting and surprising realisation of the First Access Forum event. The spirit of music-making fostered in First Access is that of experimenting creatively, experiencing music of different traditions, and ‘having a go’ at things. Once pupils get more ‘serious’ about their instrument, the learning journey tends to become narrower, more focused on technique, on particular repertoire and the particular skill set required for the instrument in question. No surprise there, one might think. Except that we learned from Paul Bambrough, Assistant Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, that one of the main things conservatoires look for in auditionees is open-mindedness; a willingness to try new things and to experiment. When you take that into consideration, maybe First Access takes on even more significance in a musician’s journey of progression?

Elizabeth Stafford, Director, Music Education Solutions Ltd

The First Access Forum is an annual event for music education hub and service instrumental teams. It next takes place on 30th June 2016 in Birmingham.

The Sefton and Knowsley WCET Best Practice Project is funded and commissioned by Sefton and Knowsley Music Education Hubs. The outcomes of the project will include a comprehensive research round-up, video case-studies, and a toolkit for schools and tutors to use to plan for integration, progression and continuation. The project also provides regular training sessions for instrumental tutors and school staff over the course of the 2015-16 academic year.