Clare Edwards argues that commercial organisations can extend access to music education - without compromising on quality.
I’ve worked in music education for 25 years in the publicly funded arts sector, and more recently I’ve been working freelance for Young Voices (YV). We run the biggest school choir concerts in the world, in which over two million children have taken part. At each event, between five and eight thousand children perform as a single choir to an audience of family and friends.
I have loved the fact there are no more evaluation forms to fill in, but that doesn’t mean our evaluations are any less rigorous
When talking to people from funded projects, I can immediately feel how prickly they are about the idea of making money with these sorts of projects. It’s like it’s an automatic sign that quality must somehow be compromised. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Against a backdrop of school funding cuts, music no longer being recognised by Ofsted, the EBacc not including creative subjects, and music coordinators in many primary schools not being paid or trained, demand for YV concerts continues to grow year on year. We are bucking the trend and delivering more music education than ever before.
The key ingredients that excite me about any project I work on are musical quality, positive feedback from participants and audiences, retention (some of our teachers have come back every year for 20 years) and a culture of evaluation and improvement.
I love working with teachers as customers. The schools pay a small set fee, so our relationship with the teachers is instigated by them as customers - and that leads to an honest and constructive dialogue.
The YV Foundation runs our popular continuing professional development (CPD) workshops for teachers, and the income from those workshops directly funds a grant scheme that enables disadvantaged schools to take part in our concerts each year.
The question of quality
Needless to say, whether a project is commercial, funded or a bit of both, there will always be good and bad projects – and those in between. As a freelancer, I’m lucky to work with a wide range of projects, some publicly funded and some not, but in the current climate I prefer to work outside the funded system.
For a start, YV can truly be led by our artistic team, together with feedback from participants and our professional instincts. I don’t have to sit over the table from an officer of a funding body, who has a lot less experience than me, telling me how I should consider wedging some unrelated element (which goes against my better instincts) into the project to help them justify funding it. I’d love to say we’re all too strong to ever chase funding, but we know that’s not true.
No project is perfect, and YV always strives to be better. We never rest on our laurels, and constantly review our work. I have loved the fact that there are no more evaluation forms to fill in, but that doesn’t mean our evaluations are any less rigorous. We have thousands of teachers and children who simply won’t come back if the concerts are not musically exciting and the events are not safe and enjoyable.
I make these comparisons because as someone who has always worked collaboratively in the past, I think this is an area of development for us. We are keen for our work to be part of the music education sector ecosystem. We may not work in schools all year round, but we are in touch with hundreds of them every week. Our excellent music resources are used as inspiration for school concerts, and teachers use us as the carrot to entice those children who are harder to persuade to join the school choir all year.
The work of organisations like Sing Up and Youth Music (both of which I’ve worked for in the past) may be different in some ways, but what they do is complementary to what we do. There is competition between funded organisations, as they are all now vying for an ever-smaller pot of money. We’re proud that we don’t have to compete with these organisations for funding. And of course, arts organisations are being encouraged to take a more commercial approach to help cover their costs.
I think we’re all united in understanding the inherent benefits of high-quality participation in music, and we shouldn’t be apologising that it costs money to do it properly. If we are to make sure that music gets back on the national curriculum, that children have access to greater music-making opportunities and that the positive role music-making can have on all our lives is recognised, then we need to stand together – however we may be funded, and whatever approaches we are taking to achieve this.