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Creating lasting change

We seem to be in an extended period of perpetual change as a sector with lots of good intentions, facilitated discussions, multiple plans, strategies and expert groups. And yet, how many of us who have been in the sector for a long time feel that we are still dealing with fundamental issues which we were discussing 10, 20 years ago – or even longer? Why is it that we struggle to make meaningful lasting change happen and take root? Wouldn’t it be great if we could see tangible, measurable progress, from which foundation we could continue to build, grow and develop?

Of course, that’s not to say there have been no changes and improvements in music education in the past 20 years. Just from my own professional path through the sector I remember many positive changes happening. When I worked at Trinity College of Music (prior to its change to Trinity Laban), I remember the first degree courses being introduced in conservatoires and the clear intentions to make these accredited degrees fit for a portfolio career in the music profession, with a strong focus on music education pedagogy alongside performance skills.

Then at ABRSM, when the first Jazz Piano Syllabus was launched – a moment I remember as being one where new genres were becoming recognised and respected as valid progression routes through musical learning alongside Western Classical.

When I worked at Youth Music, I remember profound changes which came about through a newly-formed lottery funder having a strong focus on musical learning in non-formal settings, across all genres of music with the explicit intention to reach those children and young people with least opportunity.

And then latterly, the last 15 or so years with Sing Up, making change happen within schools – both with central government funding and without – has been a long-term experimental learning environment… inventing, trying out, testing, evaluating, tweaking, revising and relaunching as we go.

This has been my path and is the lens through which I see the sector. Each of us has our own path and our own viewing lens of course. Through all these learning opportunities there are a handful of requirements that I think are necessary for positive lasting change to happen. It occurs to me that they are quite often missing from our work – whether that’s on a small scale, writing our own organisational strategies, or on a large scale at national policy level.

1. Identifying what problem we’re trying to solve.

How often do we embark on a new plan or strategy with goodish-sounding headlines, objectives, goals, what-have-you, without really questioning what problem or problems we are trying to solve?

And I mean, really digging into the minute detail of the identified problem. Understanding it deeply, all the nuances of why it exists, what the contributary factors have been, how the problem may have evolved over time, who is affected by it, who or what contributes to it. Because it is only through a deep understanding of the problem that we’ll be able to develop really effective solutions.

A particular bug-bear of mine is national policy that doesn’t start with a clearly identified problem. So often the focus is on the headline-grabbing policy, and the detailed analysis of the precise nature of the problem is lacking. Or, and this happens often too – the problem is identified but the actual solution to that problem is deemed too difficult or is dismissed because it conflicts with some other policy that’s already underway. So an alternative policy is created which half-addresses some other issues and the problem that really needs addressing is left unchallenged.

We’ve had many years of this happening, as a result of which, there are stubborn, fundamental problems in the sector which have never really been addressed in a meaningful way. We could probably write a disappointingly long list of these, but top of my list would be issues around workforce training & CPD, genuine, real inclusion and equity, social justice, progression routes, diversity within the workforce – especially in leadership roles, patchiness of provision and a universal quality of experience for children and young people etc… Feel free to add your own!

2. Planning for and acting on a long-term vision

Because of the nature of public funding, we tend towards relatively short-term projects and programmes. Anything with a timeframe shorter than 3-5 years is less likely to achieve lasting change, ideally we need a vision and guaranteed finance for the next decade or more. This isn’t just about needing a longer time-frame to achieve significant goals, it is also about how we devise programmes of work. We could be more ambitious and confident with our goals if we knew we had 10 years to achieve them, and we would spend our time on different activities in year 1 of a 5 year plan, than we would if we only had 18 months to achieve our aims. Most successful businesses have a clear strategy for at least 5 years, with a pretty clear outline vision for 10.

Within our existing funding frameworks, how do we wean ourselves off snacking on short-term projects and onto a healthy, balanced diet with long-term outcomes?

3. Remembering that change relies on people

There are 3 parts to this:

i) Achieving co-ordinated yet devolved networks

Devolved networks can always achieve more, and more quickly, than a top-down controlled approach will. The trick is to find a common goal, with mutual benefit for all and then support and enable the developed networks to get on with it. This is what Hubs should be able to achieve if they are allowed sufficient freedom of operation and security of funding.

ii) Achieving attitude and behaviour change in individuals

There are some improvements we can make through policy and through funding conditions, but there are changes to practice and approach – particularly in relation to genuine inclusion, social justice and equity of opportunity which require individuals to go on a learning and change journey. This is hard, harder than any sales process. A sales process leads to a one-off decision, whereas what we’re trying to achieve is persuading lots of individuals to change attitudes and behaviours permanently. We want people to live and work in a remade version of their previous professional world. This takes commitment and hard work and means we need long-term support on the journey.

iii) Using the wisdom of the sector (including young people), as well as adding to it by expanding and bringing new people in

We’ve already got great people with a wealth of experience and wisdom within the sector. We’ve also got access to young people who organisations are increasingly consulting and co-creating with as a regular part of their work. Organisations like MEC, Music Mark, ISM and the Music Teachers’ Association do a great job of gathering and sharing that sector knowledge. All of that wisdom is there for us to build on and learn from.

We also need to bring in new voices and new expertise from those with different perspectives on our work – MEC is particular interested in bringing in voices from more diverse communities and from those within connected sectors like health & wellbeing, civic regeneration, education & the economy, place & identity, audience & development as well as public policy and funding. There’s much we can learn from these wider networks, and new partnerships and collaborations to be developed.

4. Learning from and understanding what’s gone before

The very first national music education policy discussion I attended was probably in around 1997 or 1998, and I clearly recall hearing the phrase “let’s not re-invent the wheel”. I wonder how many times I’ve heard that in almost identical contexts over the years since then! Not everything we do has to be presented as a brand-new idea. Let’s have the confidence and maturity as a sector to say “this isn’t a new idea, it is a reworking of an old idea for today’s context”. Old ideas are always worth revisiting. If they were successful before, chances are they could be successful again if updated for contemporary needs. Equally, sometimes good ideas need to find their time in order to succeed – so things which have been tried in the past with mixed results may be worth trying again in the future. Good ideas will generally find their moment.

5. Systematically removing barriers to success

Whether they be barriers to individual participation, barriers to effective partnership working or barriers to achieving learning outcomes – identifying what those barriers are and systematically dismantling them is a huge step towards equity of opportunity. Barriers might include a lack of time or of money, a mis-match of priorities, competition for limited resources or an over-stretched workforce. Whatever the barriers are, identifying them with clarity and honesty and then finding ways to remove or overcome them is my final requirement for success in making lasting change happen.

MEC is an ideal place in which we can discuss and challenge these ideas and each bring our own set of professional experiences to the conversation.

Get in touch and let’s combine our collective experience for better change-making for future generations of young musicians.

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