Safeguarding and youth voice in music education

Last Friday saw the third in a series of events on music education and abuse that I have been organising for/with the classical music education sector. The first event, last September, was organised by myself, Ian Pace (City University) and Lucy Delap (University of Cambridge) for academics to present our research around music education and abuse to the sector. At this event it was clear that the issues we raised required further discussion. As a result, I have organised two further events, partnering with Francesca Christmas at Trinity College London, James Harding from The Purcell School, and Ben Sandbrook, a music education consultant.

I have extensive notes from both of the last two events and will blog about the themes and issues that came up in later posts, but for the moment I have simply posted my introductory comments from Friday’s session, to introduce the events and subsequent blog posts on this topic.


I want to begin by drawing our attention to a scandal that has broken in the football world recently about coach Barry Bennell who abused children in the 1980s and 1990s. Like many scandals around sexual abuse, this is an historic one, and therefore it would be easy for the sector to argue that this couldn’t happen today. In this light it’s interesting to read a recent comment piece by Peter Wanless, head of the NSPCC, discussing this. The challenges he describes in the sporting community overlap with ones that the music education sector also faces. These challenges, he notes, are firstly its size and variety, and the fact that some sports have no national governing body, with thousands of coaches and volunteers operating independently.

Peter Wanless’ comments are helpful in putting in perspective where the music education sector is at. His comments reflect some of the discussions we’ve had at our previous two events for this network. The first event, held in September last year, was an opportunity to take stock of where the sector was at, and to hear about relevant research. It was clear in organising this event that there is actually no research specifically into abuse in music education. We heard instead about related research from historical, social work, legal, music education, and sociological perspectives. At the end of this event, attendees were clear that they needed more time for discussion. I therefore organised a full day workshop in May this year which was held at Trinity College London. We heard from Anne Tiivas, head of the Child Protection in Sport Unit, as well as from Louise Exton from the NSPCC. Anne filled us in on the journey that sport education has been on since the 1990s in working together to improve safeguarding, not only setting up the dedicated Child Protection in Sport unit in 2001 which has to date trained 400,000 volunteer coaches throughout the UK in safeguarding, but also building up an extensive body of research evidence and engaging in continual reflection on their practice through conferences and long-term strategic thinking. For me, this comparison between the music education and the sport education sector was very helpful, even if it highlighted how far the music education sector has to go.

There are extensive notes available from this day, but three key questions emerged from our discussions:

  • What does best practice in safeguarding look like in music education? In what ways is it similar to other sectors, and in what ways do specific best practice guidelines need to be developed and shared specifically for music education?
  • How can young people’s voices be consistently heard within music education institutions?
  • What could cross-sector governance around safeguarding look like in music education?

Today we’ll be exploring the first and second questions in particular. The question around young people’s voices will be addressed in the first session where we’ll be hearing from two organisations who are doing innovative work in this area, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and Sound Connections. To address the issue of the specificities of safeguarding for music education, we have a workshop-based discussion looking at the types of scenarios that might come up in this area. The third issue, that of governance of the sector and how to work together to bring about change, is possibly the most difficult and to be honest, we’re not sure yet what the best way forward on this is. But our final session today will involve some time to discuss ways forward, and what we might need for future events or collaborations in this area.

Finally, I wanted to reflect on the process of putting together today’s event. I’m here in the capacity of an ex-musician – having trained and worked as a pianist in NZ and the UK – and also as a sexual violence activist, having been involved for several years with Rape Crisis, but mainly as a researcher. I was looking into doing research in this area when it became apparent that not only was there no research, but there didn’t seem to be as many conversations happening as one might have expected following the sexual abuse scandals that hit the sector in 2013. There were a few events that have happened since, including one focusing on appropriate touch in music education, but I feel that an ongoing discussion is required examining what went on and whether it could happen again. I know that those of us who are here in the room are the people who want to have that discussion, and who want to make sure that we are reflecting on our practice and working towards making it better. I can imagine, though, that there are many people whose position would be that safeguarding has changed hugely in the last 20 years and the abuse that occurred in the past couldn’t happen now.

My response to that argument is that we don’t know that. Quite simply, we don’t have any robust evidence either way. It’s likely that in many of the sites that classical music education takes place it would be much harder for abuse to occur in the sector now than in the past, but unless we’re talking about it and reflecting on our practice, and gathering evidence to make the case, we don’t know. What we do know is that classical music is a very powerful tradition of practice where charismatic teachers and conductors have a lot of power and institutions are sometimes afraid to challenge them. What we also know, from my research into young people playing classical music, is that young people are still experiencing bullying from teachers but do not speak out about it, and that sexualised comments from adults in positions of power are still considered acceptable. What we also know is that most people who experience sexual violence or sexual harassment, in general, do not report it either to their organisation or to the police.

So while things may have changed, we need to keep discussing these questions. Furthermore, following the evidence from my PhD research, the issue that still hasn’t been addressed is bullying and emotional abuse from teachers towards their students. And, as with the sports sector, even if things have changed, we still need to be keep talking and reflecting, sharing best practice, and gathering evidence towards an even better way of doing music education.

Safeguarding and youth voice in music education

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