Farewell Cinderella: 2016 has been a good year for music and special needs


As 2016 draws to a close, many ‘end of year’ reviews in the media are already speaking of a difficult twelve months.

However – and the papers may not necessarily find us – in a small and historically overlooked corner of the music education landscape, this year has arguably been a transformative one.

Four years on from the publication of the National Plan for Music Education, I think we can cautiously say that the narrative around music and young people with Additional Support Needs (ASN) (or ‘SEN/D’ if you prefer) has shifted; we are no longer the Cinderella of the sector.

So, if you’ll indulge me here, I’ll take you on a review – a sleigh ride of sorts, if you will – of the influential moments in 2016. I realise it won’t be a complete list by any distance, so for all the fantastic work I may be about to omit, I apologise wholeheartedly.

So much positive activity happens day in/ day out from dedicated music teachers across the UK in special schools and beyond – please comment with any examples you think should’ve been included.

Apologies, also, to those of a nervous disposition when it comes to acronyms – it tends to go with the territory somewhat…

So, a personal pick of the year…

February: Music Ed Expo

In February, I did something I’ve done many times before in recent years for Drake Music, delivered a session around musical assessment and accreditation for disabled people at a national conference, in this case the Music Education Expo.

However, I was truly taken aback that over 80 people packed in to listen to myself and Jocelyn Watkins discuss what has traditionally been a pretty niche area. This was one event, admittedly – but a definite sign of progress.

Jocelyn Watkins (Treloar School) addresses the crowd at the Music Ed Expo 2016


March: Centre for Advanced Training

In March, Bristol Plays Music announced plans for the first ever, national, Centre for Advanced Training for young musicians with ASN which it claimed could benefit an estimated 2,500 talented ASN musicians nationwide and set a new national benchmark for music accessibility.

Although some cautioned that the proposed centre shouldn’t let regional providers ‘off the hook’ in terms of their responsibilities, this marked a significant ‘flag in the sand’ for future ambitions.

April: Orchestra-time

In April, we had two, big ‘firsts’; OpenUp Music launched the UK’s first ever disabled-led regional youth orchestra – the South West Open Youth Orchestra (SWOYO), playing their first full performance at Bristol Cathedral.

And north of the border, Drake Music Scotland premiered Scotland’s first Digital Orchestra.

Both ensembles feature electronic music instruments alongside conventional instruments and OpenUp Music plan to create the first National OYO by 2019.

The South West Open Youth Orchestra perform at Bristol Cathedral on April
The South West Open Youth Orchestra premiere at Bristol Cathedral in April


SWOYO was by no means the only disabled-led ensembles making a splash in 2016.

The Orchestra of Unlimited Potential or UP! Orchestra, Surrey’s first county orchestra for young people with ASN, performed at the 32nd World Conference of the International Society for Music Education (ISME) in Glasgow.

In July, Nottingham’s Able Orchestra took part in the BBC Ten Pieces II Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

These are just two examples, there are more out there, notably in Scotland via Drake Music Scotland’s work.

It seems likely this is a trend that is catching fire around the 121 music hubs in England – watch out for the nfer Key data on Music Education Hubs report for 2015/16 (published autumn 2017) when we will be able for the first time to see how many inclusive ensembles are out there.

We also saw some significant national and international conferences in 2016 with a single focus on music and ASN.

June: Fast Forward Festival

In June, Bristol Plays Music (BPM) hosted the second Fast Forward Festival showcasing the work of disabled-led ensembles in the city, including the British ParaOrchestra.

Absorbed by Sound perform at the Fast Forward Festival in June
Absorbed by Sound perform at the Fast Forward Festival in June


July: A Scottish Seminar

In July, Drake Music Scotland hosted ‘Imagine the Future’, an international seminar on special music education and music therapy in Edinburgh with participants from across the planet in attendance.

October: Breaking the Bubble

In October, three music hubs – Brighton and Hove, Kent Music and Surrey Music Hub – co-hosted the second ‘Breaking the Bubble’ conference investigating musical progression for children and young people with ASN.

It came the closest to being the single national conference looking at ASN in England and a lot was learnt on the day – see James Rose’s (disabled conductor) blog here.

Research & Resources

2016 also saw some welcome research and resources published, giving us valuable insights into music making in special settings.

In July, the second ‘Promise’ report (The Provision of Music in Special Education) was presented at the ISME conference in Glasgow. Following up the first report from 1999-2000 (which ultimately led to the creation of the Sounds of Intent framework) the results were broadly encouraging, suggesting:

‘a clear positive shift since the late 1990s, with more musically qualified staffing, a broader range of resources for the music curriculum, more external organisations available to support music, increased use of music technology and improved music therapy provision.’

 Less well publicised, but no less importantly, the talented Gary Day (Garden of Music) published his Research Into Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Music Education, Northern Ireland and we look forward to seeing how this research can support future work and policy in Northern Ireland around music and ASN.

Gary Day has done research into music and special needs in Northern Ireland in 2016
Gary Day has done research into music and special needs in Northern Ireland in 2016

November: Webinar & Website

In November, Drake Music and Youth Music co-hosted a webinar to promote the new ‘SEN/D’ version of ‘Do…Review…Improve…’ Quality Framework for Music Practitioners.

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, the existing framework – now a standard document across England – has been adapted to illuminate how certain criteria might present differently in special settings.

Good too, to see the inspire-music.org website up and running in November 2016 and featuring a distinct Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEN/D) strand.

MEC: ASN Focus Group

Finally, throughout 2016, a small group have been meeting to attempt to try and offer some overall strategic direction and energy for the whole ‘ASN/ SEN/D’ music sector in the UK.

The Music Education Council Additional Support Needs (ASN) Focus Group (I won’t even attempt to acronym that one…) met three times and, technically speaking, stuff is actually happening as a result. Look out in 2017 for announcements and opportunities for you to get involved with this group.

Know another great example of truly inclusive music education? Leave us a comment to share all the good work you’re doing.

So, just time to gather up my wand and pumpkin and wish you all a happy festive period. Here’s to 2017…

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