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Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Making Music Make a Difference

An extended programme to ensure those engaging in music education fully reflect the local community

Robin Hood Youth Orchestra cellists. Credit: Nottingham Music Service

This case study celebrates twenty years of the Nottingham Music Service, devoted to providing inclusive music education to the city’s children and young people. Written by Ian Burton CEO, Nottingham Music Service, leading the Nottingham Music Hub.

This is one of 25 case studies highlighting the value of arts in schools and education settings, curated by arts education researcher Sarah B Davies. The suite of case studies illustrates the research The Arts In Schools: Foundations for the Future, by Pauline Tambling and Sally Bacon, due to be published in 2023.

About the project

Nottingham City is the 11th most deprived English region, with the lowest disposable income in the UK.

Nottingham Music Service (NMS) was created in 2002, part of Nottingham City Council, to improve equity, diversity and inclusion in music education. Data analysis showed only 650 young people – just 1.6% of the school population – were learning a musical instrument, with 88% of schools offering no opportunities to learn. Moreover, music ensembles at that time were not representative of the city demographics: almost all players in more advanced groups were from outside the city, with little to no representation from diverse backgrounds.

In the last two decades, NMS – now an independent charity leading Nottingham Music Hub – has developed initiatives to meet city pupils’ needs, making a significant difference.

By 2022:

  • 9,270 young people (19% of the school population) learn a musical instrument – 80% of these directly with the music hub.
  • 64% of participants in local area bands and 41% in more advanced ensembles live in Nottingham wards that are in the country’s most deprived 20%.
  • Ensembles are now reflective of Nottingham City’s diverse demographic, an example being our Robin Hood Youth Orchestra, half of whom belong to global majority groups.

What worked well

The initiatives that have had the biggest impact are:

  • The belief in the inclusive power of whole-class ensemble and In Harmony programmes, and their widespread adoption in year 4 in most city primary schools. This normalises playing an instrument, with all children learning together in regular class time: a partnership between classroom and music specialists that enables all children to achieve musically.
  • The partnership with OHMI/Creative United, providing adapted instruments to enable physically disabled children to access these programmes fully.
  • Putting in place inclusive progression routes beyond this initial experience, enabling young people to continue playing without the costs of 1-1/small group tuition, both in and beyond school, through initiatives such as:
  • Music Camp – a residential for year 5 students (using outdoor education to develop music learning) that fast tracks them into developing skills needed to hold their own in a band and cope with notated music.
  • The Area Band network, designed for young people continuing after the initial whole-class ensemble year, making it as easy as possible to play in an ensemble from an early stage. Bespoke arrangements build on pre-existing skills and knowledge, with backing from a staff rhythm section, enabling high expectations in terms of performance skills and the excitement of being part of a large ensemble. The ‘quick win’ – one that parents can come to see – is of great importance.
  • Developing ways that secondary-age young people can continue developing skills purely through being in ensembles with linked support sessions – accepting the reality that many young people and families are unable to access or afford traditional instrumental lessons.
  • Developing events such as the Great Orchestra Experiment, where younger musicians see and play alongside more experienced role models from their own schools and communities.
  • Giving young people at all levels of ability the opportunity and responsibility of performing well at events and venues that have status and value in the city; but also taking musical performances out into the community, where families already are, rather than them always having to travel.
  • Young leaders acting as role models: selecting repertoire, leading rehearsals and performances, organising student-led ensembles and arranging music for these.

What was challenging

Transforming provision to become diverse and inclusive takes time and constant attention – there is a gravity that tends to pull things back to the way they used to be.

Change will only come when we are prepared to do things differently and tackle the pre-conceptions and ‘conventional wisdom’ that can mitigate against inclusion: 

  • Assumptions about which children are likely to succeed, and that parental/home financial support/transport will be available.
  • Over-reliance on musical notation as the essential starting point, leading to a limited range of learning styles.
  • Over-emphasis on 1-1 or small group teaching at early levels, often excluding many whose families can’t afford this.
  • Assuming young people will stick through ‘boring’ patches in expectation of ‘jam tomorrow’.

Teachers need training in effective techniques for working more inclusively – it would help for this to be more of a feature of musical training in schools and Higher Education – and in having high expectations for those from less advantaged backgrounds.

Those from more disadvantaged sectors of society are rarely the first to come forward, to be aware of opportunities or comfortable putting themselves forward. ‘First come, first served’ is not a suitable approach to inclusion; we need to be proactive and give time, space and multiple ways-in for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – and make sure ‘entry requirements’ don’t disadvantage young people who have come through non-traditional routes.

In an area with low disposable income, with many families unable to afford lessons, funding is a major challenge, not only because of the greater need, but also because the traditional income stream for music services is much reduced.

Tackling inequality means that those previously enjoying an unfair share of resources/time and attention will feel aggrieved. Diversifying traditional ways of learning music (which can advantage a particular type of student) through different musical cultures and aural-based ways of learning can also cause fear and resentment. Sometimes those struggling with broader ways of working can have a more powerful voice, and it is essential to try and bring them on board, through a shared commitment to inclusion and diversity.

What can others learn?

  • Build plans on what ‘is’, not what we (or others) think ‘should be’.
  • Avoid offering too much choice as to what instruments are available to learn at early stages – too much choice inevitably fragments learners into smaller groups which raise barriers both for school and learners (cost, timetabling, rooming), and weakens the powerful and valuable ‘we are all doing this together’ mindset.
  • Carry out data analysis and take time to understand the reality on the ground. For example, in 2018, 94% of young people learning instruments in England were grade 3 or below, and that is where we need to focus efforts to make a difference, rather than over-concentrating on the 6% above grade 3.
  • Plan ensembles around the instruments young people are actually playing; adapting and arranging music to fit the students, rather than letting published ‘standard instrumental combinations’ decide which students are able to get involved. Make the music fit the students, not the students fit the music.
  • Help students to engage with music from different genres and cultures, via a variety of different learning styles – from notation, by ear, internalising rhythms through movement – to maximise the chances of young people from different backgrounds being able to thrive and succeed (and to make sure all experience a broad musical education essential for today’s musicians).
  • Plan for key ensembles to play music across different genres (rather than always having a separate classical orchestra; jazz band; gospel choir etc). Students tell us that they value this diversity, and are choosing not to engage with ensembles that don’t offer this:

“…all I can find are orchestras that just play classical music or jazz bands that don’t want a cellist…” (Grade 8 student)

  • Enable student voice to help with diversifying and finding new repertoire. For example, recent requests from members of our senior orchestra to play include classicaljazzBulgarian folkJapanese anime, games scores, Indian music/MTV-Coca-Cola studios, Samba, contemporary Turkish folk, filmTV and more.
  • Celebrate how embracing equity, diversity and inclusion makes for a fairer society; contributes to community cohesion; dissolves barriers; promotes discovery and sharing of musics from different cultures; and enables young musicians to make enduring friendships with kindred spirits from different backgrounds.

“I’d never met anyone like Zidane or Mary before” (Student aged 18 years, on why his music experiences had been so special)