This year’s winner of the Music Education Council’s awards – presented in February during the Music & Drama Education Expo – is Birmingham Music Education Partnership. Alex Stevens heard from its head of service
Ciaran O’Donnell, head of music service at Services for Education, the lead organisation for the Birmingham Music Education Partnership – winner of this year’s Music Education Council Awards – speaks to MT during a break in a start-of-term development day for staff at Edgbaston cricket ground. While cricketers train on the pitch, his teachers are doing their own training; for one of the largest hubs in the country it’s hard to find a room big enough.
Music hubs were conceived with the intention that they would make the most of what was available to them in their local area, and so it’s an appropriate setting. The particular difficulties of music provision in an area as large and diverse as Birmingham – more than 200,000 primary and secondary school pupils, 35% of whom are on free school meals and 40% of whom have English as an additional language – mean that the challenge is not just to use the resources of local partners, but to use them efficiently.
‘The BMEP hub was conceived at a point in time when we were able to identify a number of significant strategic partners in the city, whilst leadership in Birmingham at the time only brought in players who added capacity or expertise,’ says O’Donnell. ‘For example, the music service had a history of working in schools, so we knew we could meet the core roles of whole-class instrumental teaching, and it had a history of leading ensembles in the city. However, it doesn’t have a building with a large venue, so we brought in Town Hall and Symphony Hall; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are on our doorstep so we brought them in as orchestral experts; and to have a large-scale singing strategy we also brought in Ex Cathedra, to support our existing vocal team. Composition is a vital element in musical learning and understanding and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) were, naturally, a key organisation to involve. We’ve further delegated, local arts centre, mac Birmingham, to lead on the hub’s inclusion work, alongside Quench Arts for community music and workforce development for the informal sector; and Birmingham City University acts as the hub’s schools music and validating academic partner, monitoring our activity and ensuring the projects we deliver keep to a consistently high standard. We’re not just setting out to do stuff, we’re setting out to do meaningful stuff.’
‘We are authentic in our approach – and are proud to see the effects of our values in all that we do. For example, in 2015 we decided that, once a year, every young musician in a music service central ensemble should get the opportunity to play in Symphony Hall – a world-renowned venue on our doorstep, which meant booking five consecutive nights of concerts. We committed to that and the task of generating an audience for those nights, but we’ve successfully managed it for the last 3 years. Every summer since, more than 10,000 seats are filled with supporters who help us celebrate Birmingham’s talented musicians.
‘We try to replicate the professional experience for our students. When we’re playing in ensembles we want them to rehearse in appropriate, high-quality, professional venues; we want them to go off, get dressed, play to a paying audience, receive their much-deserved applause and go home in just the same way as a professional musician – because we know the importance of such experiences.
‘We deliver authentic education, which involves excellent instrumental technique and posture, making music with others, enjoying and succeeding at every level but also learning how to fail, get back up again and try again. Through that, you see the intrinsic value of music alongside the authenticity. And I think the understanding of the impact of that authenticity is really secure throughout the hub and its partners.’
O’Donnell is also proud of the BMEP’s financial sustainability. ‘We’ve been able to create various opportunities for the children in Birmingham which, among a host of projects and initiatives, includes free instruments, free tickets to CBSO concerts, and the entire ensemble offer of over 70 bands, choirs and orchestras –which in part, responds to the levels of music deprivation prevalent in pockets across the city. We know that putting a price on this work will immediately put a barrier in play.
‘We believe schools are best-placed to make such decisions for their pupils and Birmingham schools are to be commended for their enduring support. We can see there is a need and want for music lessons for pupils, as an example – whether they are free or part-subsidised, but funding restrictions are proving challenging for both us and them. That is why the ensemble system is free.’
When Services For Education, supported by BMEP, appointed a full-time fundraiser in 2015 it was the first such position within a music education hub in the country, says O’Donnell, and a friends scheme, which parents who are able are encouraged to join, helps to fund the hub’s free activities. The administrative burden of running a charging system would negate any benefits in revenue, he says: ‘We are in a position where we’re asking for help – if you’re able to contribute to a system that provides high-quality, music education for all, then we need your support.’
Alongside this, Services for Education is branching out into early years provision, work with older people, and traded activity with other hubs – such as the ReelMusic online CPD resource. This bolsters the resources of the lead organisation and in turn the hub.
O’Donnell also believes that the hub is working more equitably, having established partnerships with the One- Handed Musical Instrument Trust – which has led to one-handed musicians playing in mainstream ensembles – and set up a PGCert with Roehampton University and charity Soundabout which has seen eight practitioners specialising in work with children with complex learning needs.
‘This diversity is necessary to replace standstill DfE funding and rising costs. Our efforts allow us to sustain a long-term offer at the most viable prices for schools, without compromising on the quality – which is key to the future of musical learning.’
However, the crucial element is the quality of the teaching, and the professional expectations placed on the hub’s teachers. ‘Our music service is our teachers,’ says O’Donnell, ‘and we’ve made sure that our teachers continue to see their role as part of the teaching profession.
‘We expect our teachers to deliver high-quality, innovative lessons, that respond to the changing nature of the school model, whilst representing our values. Our teachers understand this comes at a cost and expanding our focus to commercial ventures is very much a part of these values.’
What one thing would help him to do his job better? ‘It’s very easy to say money! But I think more needs to be done to incentivise teachers into the music teaching profession. I became an instrumental teacher at a time when music held its value in schools, and when schools had the funding to invest.
‘I don’t think more funding for music education hubs is actually the answer: it’s about properly funding schools. We know from experience that if schools have the funding they will always include music resources suitable for their needs. Unfortunately that isn’t always an option and I think ten years from now, some parts of the country will struggle to recruit good instrumental and vocal teachers – which will, no doubt, erode the work that’s being done now.’ MT