Exchanging Notes: Balancing Formal and Non-formal Outcomes, Delivery and Assessment


vennConflict, difference of opinion, is the very essence of music: in the balance, in the dynamic, in the way that the music is written… Music teaches us our capacity to bring all the different elements together in a sense of proportion so that they lead to a sense of a whole, and this is what I feel in my own subjective way is one of the main lessons that I have learned from music” – Daniel Barenboim

This quote offers a nice angle on how to approach the introduction of non-formal music teaching into formal settings(1): As I reflect on the first term of our ‘Rhapsody in Ealing’ project, I see that the various ways different practitioners and organisations work, with their contrasting dynamics, phrasing, intent and movement, have easy comparisons in music. Finding a strong, sustainable balance between them is key to our success.

This project, part of the Youth Music’s Exchanging Notes program, has everything going for it. Over four years, a combination of in-class curriculum support and one-to-one instrumental teaching aims to ‘support a culture of innovation and excellence in music making’ by ‘developing new approaches … using different languages and different techniques’. I am working with Steven, the school music co-ordinator at Belvue School in Ealing, and two groups of KS3/4 students with moderate to severe learning difficulties, to create great music, develop musicianship, and in some cases work towards formal qualifications. We have plenty of time to plan, develop resources and document our work. Belvue is a vibrant, happy institution with a headteacher who fully supports the project, and a team from Birmingham University is tasked with evaluating the project as part of the wider Exchanging Notes program.

I want to discuss three areas that expose the lack of synergy between formal and non-formal methods, and outline some possible solutions.


As might be expected on a project that involves five organisations (Youth Music, Drake Music, Ealing Music Service, Belvue School, and Birmingham University) there are a multitude of projected outcomes, beyond the obvious goal of making great music and developing participants’ musicianship. The school has Key Stage 4 students working towards an entry level 2/3 WJEC Performing Arts qualification, which has a formal, but fairly loose, assessment criteria. However, the demands on Steven to demonstrate continuous improvement for every student necessitates that specific targets, (e.g. ‘pupil will play three contrasting rhythms’) must be set down before the session, and all activities must fit clearly into this framework. As someone with a background in non-formal settings, my outcomes are more broad (e.g. ‘participant will play appropriate rhythms as part of an ensemble’) and flexible. Whilst both have their strengths, I would argue that the latter allows the participants more ownership over his/her learning journey, and allows the teacher to build on each students’ strengths.

 Another issue is around risk-taking. Pressure to deliver quantifiable learning can stop a teacher allowing the possibility of failure, something I would argue is an important part of both innovation and music-making in general (as evidenced in Victor Wooten’s great book, ‘The Music Lesson’).

 Both of these differences stem from the nature of the relationship between the pupil/participant and the teacher/facilitator. As a Community Musician, I see all staff and participants as equal, with an equal voice in the development of proceedings. The very nature of compulsory, in-class education means that Steven takes the role of leader of the class, with a responsibility to get the students from A to B. The pros and cons of these positions are too complex to discuss here, but you can see that each one has ‘dynamics, phrasing and intent’ that are potentially in conflict.

Leading styles

These fundamental differences between formal and non-formal settings were also evident in our respective leading styles. My focus was on creating a good ‘flow’ and following the lead of participants where possible. Steven, meanwhile, gave priority to self-evaluation at various points in the session, with a more fixed structure that allowed the learning outcomes to be both achieved and acknowledged. After taking turns leading for the first few weeks, we tried to co-lead a session, based on a lesson plan written together. The result was underwhelming. Although we were both responding to the needs and abilities of the pupils, continuously assessing the pupil’s concentration and interest levels and grasp of the musical material, we had different ideas about the overall arc of the session. Both of us half took control of what we thought was this arc but, unsurprisingly, landed somewhere that was neither here nor there.


This aspect contrasts formal and non-formal approaches most starkly. I need not outline the challenges facing classroom teachers (performance-related pay being only the most recent unholy alliance between education and neo-liberalism), suffice to say that Steven is in his second year as a classroom teacher, and is still subject to regular assessment of his planning, delivery, evaluation, and pupil progress, WITH THE and his criteria for success is fairly black and white. In contrast, the Youth Music evaluation framework fosters self-reflection, designed to ‘explore and celebrate’ as well as assess; there are no boxes to tick.

 A third dimension is added by Birmingham University’s assessment criteria of the project’s success,, which uses indices such as levels of truancy, enjoyment of music and school in general, and ability to make friends. My own assessment, beyond pupil-engagement and the quality of the music, is likely to be based around how useful the resources and examples of best practice are to other schools.

Striking the balance

At the heart of the project are 20 young people, and if they are engaged and excited about the music most of the time, we will be most of the way to achieving all the various outcomes. However, there are some keys skills we need to develop as the project continues:

a) Double-check the formal requirements – Not having a background in formal SEN teaching, I need to take the time to understand exactly what is required in terms of individual learning outcomes and differentiation

b) Plan like a venn diagram – Each musical activity will result in multiple outcomes – we need to find the ones in which the formal and non-formal outcomes overlap.

c) Plan for perfection, accept imperfection – This project is too good an opportunity not to take some risks and try out new methods. Steven and I both have a tendency to beat ourselves up when things don’t work. We need to accept that temporary failure is sometimes part of the process of innovation.

d) Have a designated driver – I have learned that leadership and hierarchy are not the same thing. Deciding who is ‘bottom lining’ a session- the person who has the masterplan in their head and is given the opportunity to see it to the end- is, in most cases, a Really Good Idea, and allows the partner space to sit back and provide targeted support to individuals.

The final learning point goes back to the initial Barenboim quote – the inherent conflict between formal and non-formal styles must be seen as a yin and yang style polarity to be balanced, creating a whole that is meaningful, and musical, for everyone involved.

Comments and ideas most welcome. Stay tuned for updates…

1. ‘Formal’ I define as curriculum based, teacher-led, and compulsory. Non-formal usually has broader goals, is optional, and embedded in a societal context. A great research paper on the subject by Peter Mak is available here.

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