Making the music curriculum more accessible in Gloucestershire Special Schools

In the summer term 2010, I was given the opportunity to visit every special school in Gloucestershire on behalf of Gloucestershire Music Service (GMS). I was tasked with assessing each school’s needs in terms of accessible music resources and training, in order to improve access to the music curriculum in each school. GMS also set aside Wider Opportunities funding to buy new instruments and music resources for each special school in the county.

This was an exciting challenge. It’s one thing visiting a school for a term, but visiting 12 schools for the first time in one term, doing a one off day of music in each is quite another!

I was really pleased to be working on singing expert Liz Terry. Liz was Sing Up area leader for Gloucestershire, Wiltshire & Swindon at the time, and was an invaluable colleague on the singing days.  My core expertise with Drake Music lies with providing access to music making and singing through technology, whereas Liz’s primary tool is the voice, so our skills complemented each other well.

Over the summer term we visited 12 schools. The needs of the students varied massively from school to school, within schools and sometimes within classes. We worked with PMLD students, many of whom had additional sensory impairments, SLD students many of whom faced communication barriers to music making, students who are on the Autistic spectrum, MLD students and those with BESD which present a barrier to learning about music and taking part in music making. At most of these schools, students are assessed against P-Levels in music and other subjects.

Throughout the 6 weeks or so that the project went on, we used a combination of assistive music technology and age appropriate songs to engage the students and enthuse the staff. The aim was not just to deliver high quality, accessible sessions, but to show the school staff (most of whom were not music specialists) that they could do it too, to improve access to the music curriculum without support from Drake Music!

The assistive music technology that we used included Clicker 5 software and VOCAs which had theDrake Music accessible singing resources  loaded onto them (to find out more about these, click here),1-step-switches, vibrating resonance cushions (which enable someone to feel sound) and microphones combined with effects (like delay and reverb).

We also used Sony Acid, a low-cost, effective piece of software which enables the user to combine pre-made loops and also record their own audio over the top. This was really great when working with the BESD students; it gave them the chance to create their own music very quickly. In fact, we found that in a 40 minute session it was possible to do a warm-up, teach the group a chant, record the chant over some beats chosen by the students and in some cases add improvisations – instrumentation, beat-boxing and even whole verses of lyrics! This was a significant improvement on how the music curriculum had previously been delivered with these students. It was an accessible and engaging activity which allowed students to take ownership of the music.

What struck me was the broad appeal of the Drake Music accessible singing resources.  Students who were very able but who would not engage in traditional singing could be drawn into pressing a switch or touch-screen to make the music happen, which could be a great first step in their involvement in the music curriculum at school.

It wasn’t all easy though! One of the toughest aspects of the project was contacting the schools in the first place. Staff are so pushed for time that correspondence was sometimes very difficult. Also, the day that my car decided to blow a gasket outside the Air Balloon pub in the beautiful village of Birdlip was not a highlight. At least the pub staff let me push the car into their carpark before Liz picked me up! I thought my car had died that day, but my little Skoda is still going strong(ish).

We visited 12 of the 13 special schools in the county. Each visit finished with after-school staff training in accessible approaches to the music curriculum. This was attended by lots of people in some schools (around 50 people attended one session) and by a few at others (sometimes 3 key staff attended). There was a palpable demand for the skills and equipment to deliver quality accessible music lessons, but a general consensus that there was not enough time to do the necessary planning and not enough reusable, accessible resources to go around.

During every visit we also checked through the music cupboards and discussed each school’s needs with staff. When I got back to the office I drew up a list of music resources costing a total of around £1000 for each school. After they had seen how useful they were for music, many schools opted to getClicker 5 and a Crick switch interface. Many others wanted more switches or different types of switch to the ones they already had. Microphones and amps that could apply effects to the voice were popular. We also purchased angle arms (for positioning switches) resonance cushions and lots of copies of Sony Acid.  

We had a great day the following term at Gloucestershire Music Service HQ, where we dished out the new accessible resources and equipment to the staff. Another brilliant outcome was that a Gloucestershire special school music cluster was set up by the schools themselves; to share best practise and support each other in delivering the music curriculum, and to work towards performing together. I have also been back to several of the schools for follow-up / technical support visits and in some cases where we managed to get funding, to deliver much longer music projects to further enhance their music curricula.