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  • David Stanley

Next steps for the SEND Music Curriculum in England

I was recently invited to deliver a Keynote Address at the Westminster Education Forum policy conference. The conference was entitled "Next steps for the Music Curriculum in England and implementation of the new National Plan". It was an opportunity to explain the rationale behind my work on the refreshed National Plan for Music Education.


My passion is accessible music education leading to large-scale performances in which musicians with Special Needs sing, play and entertain thousands of people at the world’s greatest performance venues. My students have performed in London’s West End and at the Royal Albert Hall, recorded with the Royal Marines, featured on TV and radio, performed to members of the Royal Family and they have even broken a Guinness World Record. Their appearance on a National Lottery TV advert reached millions. I’ve taken my service across the United Kingdom and around the world to South Africa, India, Nepal and the Philippines - countries where some disabled people remain highly stigmatised by their communities. I aim to connect this unique global community through music, country by country.



When empowered to express themselves freely through music, children with Special Needs gain confidence and a strong sense of identity and purpose. They learn patience, teamwork and how to support each other. They learn discipline and resilience through rehearsals, critical feedback and overcoming nerves. My students typically deliver a hundred public performances each year. The positive effect on their wellbeing is the subject of PhD research at the Royal College of Music which showed that learning-disabled musicians of any standard are happier and better equipped for the workplace and life in general than their peers. People with learning disabilities struggle to improve their prospects without advocacy or a platform for change. Only a few decades ago they were hidden away, but music can shine a bright light on this once-forgotten society. It showcases their passion, incredible energy and, most of all, their ability. It changes perceptions of disabled people, leading to a more inclusive and equal society. It also provides a unique platform for disabled people to become role models for future generations.



The National Disability Strategy states that disabled children should have the same opportunities to fulfil their potential as non-disabled children. It calls for a wide-ranging review of actions to improve outcomes for children with SEND, millions of pounds worth of investment into SEND education and extending continuing professional development in how to support pupils and students with SEND.


The Music Education Report on the Call for Evidence (published in August 2021) emphasised the need to ensure music opportunities are inclusive and accessible to all children, in particular to pupils with SEND and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Although respondents noted the benefits of lessons that are inclusive of pupils with SEND, the Call for Evidence revealed that children with SEND are currently underserved by many schools and Music Hubs:

  • 47% said Music Education is not available to all children and the quality could be better

  • Over two thirds (69.6%) said that those with disabilities were underrepresented in Music Education

  • SEND Music was not mentioned in any examples of good practice reported – other than for Music Technology

  • Respondents cited the need for Music Hubs to offer more support to pupils with SEN

While there is no doubt that music is deeply impactful for children with SEND, this group is still underserved in many parts of the country, and both underrepresentation and inequality remains a real problem. The National Disability Strategy reveals an intention to redress the issue across education and society as a whole, and the Call for Evidence reveals underperformance specifically within music education. The refreshed National Plan for Music was therefore a chance to ensure children and young people with SEND receive the same level of Music Education and opportunity as the mainstream – both integrated and SEND-specific lessons and ensembles.


I proposed improvements to plan under the follow aspects:

  • Professional Development

  • Distinction between Therapy and Education

  • SEND Champion on every Music Hub/Specialist working across schools

  • Ring-fenced funding for SEND Music Education

  • Ongoing long-term provision rather than one-off workshops

  • Adaptive Instruments

  • Live Music-making

  • Opportunities to Perform

  • A National Accessible Music Hub

  • Progression for Musicians with SEND

Professional Development

Music is a statutory subject within the national curriculum for maintained schools in key stages 1 to 3. Academies and free schools are not required to teach the national curriculum but are expected to have a school curriculum that is similar in breadth and ambition. These requirements therefore apply to all Special Schools which value Music Education, but they either employ special needs teachers with little musical expertise or music teachers with little Special Needs expertise. Teacher training should bridge this gap by addressing both groups. It should help non-musical SEND teachers AND trained musicians with limited SEND experience feel confident and equipped to teach effective music lessons to children with SEND in both Special Schools and mainstream settings. Opportunities to observe best practice, access bespoke repertoire and resources and attend training courses should be a feature of Professional Development in Music Education.


Clear Distinction between Therapy and Education

Music Education is not Music Therapy. The refreshed plan should demand the same instrumental tuition, ensemble teaching, rehearsal and performance opportunities currently available to the mainstream. It must encourage traditional music-making with authentic musical instruments and treat SEND pupils as respected musicians in their own vocal and instrumental ensembles. Whilst one-to-one Music Therapy is often provided for those with the most complex disabilities, this discipline does not typically lead to public performance, does not serve the whole school and is more corrective in nature. Music Education, however, is an outlet for expression and an opportunity for audience interaction. I wanted the plan to set out a clear distinction between therapy and education so that Music Education is available to all and Therapy is available to those who specifically need this intervention.


SEND Champion on every Music Hub/Specialist working across schools

A “SEND Champion” on every Music Hub or a specialist teacher working across multiple schools would significantly help prioritise musical activities for children with SEND, both in terms of integrated and SEND-specific opportunities. The Champion could promote instrumental lessons, specialist performance opportunities and provide guidance for schools, tutors and families. They will have experience and an understanding of the specific challenges associated with providing effective accessible Music Education for children with SEND.


Ring-fenced funding for SEND Music Education

Music Hubs should be held more accountable for providing SEND-specific ensembles and performance opportunities. SEND ring-fenced funding which requires Music Hubs and Schools to specifically spend money on SEND Music Education would be a powerful tool to help ensure SEND children are not left behind. If they fail to spend their allocation then they would lose this protected income. Such a ring-fenced “Music Premium” budget for SEND pupils could replicate the success of Pupil Premium, but it would be even more targeted.


Ongoing long-term provision rather than one-off workshops

Under pressure to meet targets for pupils with SEND, providers too often offer one-off workshops which only show what these children can’t access on a regular basis. Worse still are the tokenistic appearances of children with special needs in an ensemble which is entirely inappropriate for them to learn and develop. Music for children and young people with SEND must be a long-term provision, sustained, rehearsed and nurtured carefully through effective personal interaction, trust and most of all, time. What the mainstream may achieve in a day, students with learning disabilities will achieve in a year.


Adaptive Instruments

The plan should continue to promote the use of adaptive instruments to help SEND musicians with the most complex needs to play the same authentic musical instruments as their peers. Music hubs and schools should source, purchase and supply adaptive musical instruments to individuals, their families and music teachers. I witnessed excellent use of adaptive instruments during my Churchill Fellowship to New York in 2019. I would like to make this more widespread in the UK.


Live Music-making

Positive progress in music technology for SEND should be matched by equally effective provision of live performance which places particular emphasis on singing, signing and playing of instruments which are accessible to all – such as hand percussion, ukuleles and drums. Live music-making in which the children with SEN can really feel the music through vibrations, touch, sight and sound plays a hugely important role in their learning and development. Children and young people are highly motivated by real-life, in-person intensive interaction with specialist teachers, bespoke repertoire and specialist learning resources which culminate in a public performance.


Opportunities to Perform (Slide 8-10 timed)

As per the Disability Strategy, we must focus on the enormous ability of disabled people and the potential to see it realised. Public musical performance in front of a live audience has the potential to help the SEND musician become a star of the family, a star of the school and even a star at the Royal Albert Hall. For parents, the chance to see and hear their children perform live on stage alongside fellow musicians with learning disabilities and supported by industry professionals holds incredible value. It gives them hope. I wanted the National Plan to promote SEND musical performance as the climax of SEND Music Education. In doing so, the SEND community will educate society by showing us all what they can do – their ability, rather than what they can’t do – their disability.


A National Accessible Music Hub

A central “Accessible Music Hub” would be an ideal portal for teachers, schools, children and families to access guidance, resources, accessible instruments, adaptive instruments, musical repertoire, training, SEND Music Champions and major SEND music performances. It would signpost visitors to examples of best practice, to local community services and to the best national providers in SEND Music Education. It would be an excellent way to connect this unique community of young people across the country. The UK is already a world leader in this field. This is therefore an opportunity to build an international Music SEND network which could connect the global disabled community through accessible Music Education. This supports the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s aim of raising the profile of disability internationally.


Progression for SEND Musicians

There should be opportunities for children with SEND to continue their musical journey when they leave school. Progression through school and into post 16 education and employment should be carefully managed on an individual basis. At each transition, learning should be fully inclusive but without resorting to a one-size-fits-all approach. Each child will require a bespoke pathway with both equal access and targeted SEND-tailored activities to suit individual needs. As children with SEND move into secondary education, alternative qualifications to GCSE Music, such as practical vocational courses and Music Technology should be explored. Children with SEND should also access musical role models with learning disabilities. This could mean visits to schools by successful musicians with SEND, trips to concerts featuring SEND music-making, studying well-known artists who have learning disabilities or exploring the often-hidden disabilities of well-known composers and performers throughout history. Targeted careers advice, work experience and volunteering should also be provided, covering routes to higher education, employment and helping young people with SEND to transition from school to employment or care. Many young adults will require music-centred adult education, social care and leisure activities. As evidenced by new research from the Royal College of Music, music plays a key role in promoting well-being for adults with learning disabilities. Schools should identify these pupils and provide opportunities to ensure that the music doesn’t stop when young people with SEND leave school.


Progression Case Study: The Music Man Project

In Southend-on-Sea, specialist disability charity, The Music Man Project, delivers curriculum teaching and cocurricular activities in Special Schools and runs a Saturday morning music club for all children with SEND from the local community. The students begin learning Music Man Project songs in Early Years at their special school. When they reach the age of 7 they attend a Saturday music club with children from other special schools. They begin to perform alongside adults with learning disabilities in local concerts, music competitions and major performances in London concert halls. They are inspired by The Music Man Project Student Ambassadors who tour the UK giving workshops, perform at famous venues and appear on national TV. The children eventually join the adult Music Man Project classes when they leave school. Some also become Student Ambassadors like their idols and inspire the next generation of successful musicians with SEND. Effective progression from Early Years to adulthood for individuals with SEND can only occur with consistent, regular, repetitive and role-model-led provision. Many students at The Music Man Project have studied there for over 20 years and will continue to benefit from the service until the day they die.


Individual Case Study: Kira

Kira sustained a life-changing brain injury when she was 2 months old. She was left with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, epilepsy, severe learning difficulties and is cortically blind. Despite these unimaginable barriers, Kira has excelled in her musical education. Now 16 years old, Kira is a successful musician in her community. She receives classroom music teaching and attends orchestra practice at her Special School. She is also a member of a specialist SEND weekly music school where she learns new musical repertoire and performs in concerts alongside adult role models with disabilities and children from other local Special Schools. This combination of school and community-based music-making has enabled Kira to build her understanding and confidence over many years. Consistent, long-term provision with high expectations have enabled her to shine. Kira has performed to Royalty and broken a world record. She has performed twice at the London Palladium and most recently as a soloist at the Royal Albert Hall in front of 3000 people. She has won awards for her progress and when she leaves school she will transition to the adult Music Man Project service and become a role model for other children like her.



Kira’s mum said,

My daughter’s greatest passion in life is music. From a young age she has always enjoyed a variety of music and rhythms. She has developed a brilliant sense of rhythm, especially on African drums. Attending The Music Man Project is the highlight of our week. There are not many activities or places Kira can attend but taking her to Music School each week has become our special time together. The proudest moment of my life was when Kira closed her favourite song Music is Magic using her switch on stage at the London Palladium.”


I believe the new plan sends a powerful message about the importance of a high-quality music provision for all pupils, challenging schools and Music Hubs to realise the musical potential of children with SEND like never before. It requires schools and Music Hubs to deliver a bespoke and sustainable strategy capable of reaching every child with SEND. The ambitious plan includes expectations, guidance, specialist resources, case studies and examples of effective collaboration with external providers. Regional inclusion leaders and a new national Hub centre of excellence for Inclusion will provide further specialist support. Equipped with this new guidance, schools and Music Hubs are better placed to improve inclusivity and increase participation for children with SEND.


The National Plan will also help create future role models with SEND, attract more teachers of SEND music to the profession and encourage more ambitious SEND-led music performances. Providing visible and targeted platforms for children with SEND to learn music and showcase their talent marks a step-change in inclusive arts education. The upward cycle of progress will build momentum towards better employment prospects in the future and a more fundamental understanding of disability diversity in today’s society.



We all have a responsible to help schools and music hubs implement the plan, and this is particularly important in relation to those children with Special Needs. It is too easy to withdraw these children from the classroom, to only offer tokenistic activities or one-off workshops to tick a box. I understand that many non-specialist teachers are anxious about how to teach music and many music teachers are worried about how to teach a child with Special Needs - so we must help them. Special Needs Music Champions, specialist resources, exemplar schools, school leaders and specialist music SEND teachers will be vital in driving improvement and showing what can be achieved with patience, high expectation and flexibility from school leaders.

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