Abuse in music education: institutional perspectives – event overview

Following the event on abuse in music education in September 2015 at the Institute of Musical Research, on 6th May 2016 I lead an event on abuse in music education for organisations from the sector, generously hosted by Trinity College London. This was attended by around 20 representatives from classical music education organisations from across the country, with four speakers: Anne Tiivas, Director of the Child Protection in Sport Unit at the NSPCC, Louise Exton, who runs a helpline for whistleblowers in sport for the NSPCC, Dr Liz Haddon from the University of York, and Professor Pamela Burnard from the University of Cambridge.. It was a very rewarding and thought-provoking day thanks to some excellent presentations as well as a high quality of discussion among attendees.

There were three key themes that emerged from the day. The first theme was around what is particular to classical music education in relation to abuse. Does music education and/or classical music education lend itself to sexual, emotional or physical abuse in different ways to other types of settings or activities? If particular patterns are identified, then safeguarding, training, reporting, cultural change and whistleblowing practices can be formulated that address the specific circumstances of music education. Particular aspects of classical music education that are relevant to consider in relation to abuse include one-to-one teaching, the powerful tradition and hierarchy of classical music, the emotional content of studying music (which makes it different to, for example, sport), and the ways in which gender performed in classical music and in its institutions. Whether music education has a higher prevalence of abuse than other types of education may be an impossible question to answer, given the huge difficulties in carrying out prevalence studies into abuse (Hartill, 2016). However, understanding the culture and modes of organisation and governance in the music education sector is crucial to working towards preventing abuse and implementing effective reporting procedures.

A second theme of the day was around young people’s voices. As Louise Exton from the NSPCC described, organisations should have a culture of listening to children and taking account of their wishes and feelings, both in individual decisions and in the development of services. This is crucial for safeguarding because it is very difficult for those experiencing abuse to report it but having an organisational culture of listening to young people means that they will be more likely to report abuse when it does occur. Therefore, prevention work in sport education includes a focus on youth voice, as a way of allowing young people to be heard within institutions. The culture of classical music education with its strong tradition of authority, hierarchy and control (Baker 2014; Bull, 2016; Gaunt 2011; Kingsbury 1988; Perkins 2011) makes this work especially important. As a result, our third event in November 2016 focused on this issue.

The third theme was around governance across the music education sector. Cross-sector governance in sport began in 1996 and the Child Protection in Sport Unit at the NSPCC was established in 2001. This involved different sports organisations coming together under the umbrella of Sport England (as it is now called) to establish a consistent approach across the sector, including shared benchmarking standards. This is a huge challenge for the music education sector. Different pockets – choir schools, specialist music secondary schools, conservatoires and junior conservatoires, National Youth Music Organisations, Hubs (previously local authority music services), commercial organisations, and private instrumental teachers (to map just some of the territory) – each meet and share knowledge separately. Many private music teachers operate independently, and may therefore entirely unregulated or unmonitored for safeguarding concerns (although the Musicians’ Union and the Incorporated Society of Musicians are both doing excellent work in this area). A major challenge, which we discussed during the day, was therefore whether and how the sector could should come together to formulate and share best practice, and if a shared benchmarking for the sector was something we should aim for. The experts from sport education who were present emphasised that a unified approach to safeguarding across the sector is crucial. If we are to learn from sport education, then, this seems like an important discussion to continue.

For me, the most important and challenging aspect of the day was in hearing from the sport education sector how much work they have done around abuse over the past 25-30 years. We were very lucky to have Anne Tiivas, head of the Child Protection in Sport Unit for the NSPCC, as a speaker. She gave an overview of the experience of the sports education sector since the 1990s in working together on child protection. This was something of a wake-up call for the music education sector, in that Anne demonstrated that sport education are 20 years ahead of music education on these issues. The recent abuse scandals in football belie the excellent work that has gone on since they occurred, which has put the UK in an internationally leading position in safeguarding in sport.

Anne discussed how research shows that in sport education, for those in a talent stream, the higher they are the more at risk of abuse they are. This brings up similar questions for music education. It also points to the dearth of research around abuse in music education: should we act on the assumption that the same pattern occurs in music? Pioneering researcher into abuse in sport education Celia Brackenridge (who was due to speak at our event but is sadly very ill and could not attend) has founded a field which has built up 30 years of evidence on this issue. By contrast, there appears to be almost no research into abuse in music education, but Ian Pace and I are in discussion with other researchers towards setting an agenda for research.

Another fruitful discussion followed from Dr Liz Haddon’s presentation of her research into group teaching. Liz is leading new MA in music education at York University and has carried out research into students who choose to work with two teachers at the same time (usually with the second teacher not disclosed to the first teacher). Her work shows there are benefits to students as well as to teachers when students have more than one teacher. The discussion after her presentation ranged across learning in groups as well having multiple teachers, and the consensus from the discussion was that there are multiple models for music education between group and one-to-one teaching. This is not, therefore, a discussion of whether we should abolish one-to-one teaching or not, but rather widening the repertoire of possible teaching and learning structures to suit different ages and different learners. This discussion also drew on the presentation from Professor Pamela Burnard (University of Cambridge) on creative pedagogies. While attendees felt that there is a lot to learn in moving towards alternative and more creative pedagogies in classical music education, some also noted that it was important to remember that creative pedagogies may still be used by abusers and therefore are not in themselves a way of safeguarding against abuse.

Overall, the day provided very helpful discussions of ways forward for both research, teaching, and organisational practice and culture, as well as throwing up some challenging questions for the sector as a whole. Some of the organisations who attended have been making changes in their practice as result of these events, and attendees have found it helpful to have discussions that are informed by research, as well as drawing on a wide range of organisations from the sector.

Positioning this event in relation to what is going on in the sector more widely may also be illuminating. Following the high profile historical abuse issues at specialist music schools that became public in 2013, we are aware that there has been an event on abuse in music education at Chetham’s School of Music, as well as a public roundtable on one-to-one tuition organised by the Institute of Ideas, which Ian Pace has (rightly) criticised on his blog. In addition, the Incorporated Society of Musicians were involved in organising an event at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in October 2015 which focused specifically on the use of touch in music education. Other than these bespoke events, some groups within the sector are doing their own work in this area; for example, Conservatoires UK have recently agreed safeguarding guidelines to be shared across UK conservatoires.

I welcome these developments but the area that we are addressing in this emerging network is not, as far as I know, currently being examined. This area is cultural change across the sector as a whole, examining not just sexual abuse but emotional/psychological abuse as well. We are also trying to draw on research evidence where possible; the impetus for organising the first event was to share existing research and to find out what kinds of research might be helpful for the sector. However, as we have gone along it has become clear that the kind of network or forum that is emerging from these events is primarily helpful for organisations to hear new ideas and critically reflect on their safeguarding strategies. While it is really beyond my remit as a researcher to be organising events for the sector to discuss their practice, it is very much within my remit as an activist to be doing this work, and I hope that directions (and funding) for research (which is very much needed) will emerge in time.


Baker, Geoffrey. 2014. El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Oxford ; New York: OUP USA.

Bull, Anna. 2016. ‘Gendering the Middle Classes: The Construction of Conductors’ Authority in Youth Classical Music Groups’. The Sociological Review, October. doi:10.1111/1467-954X.12426.

Gaunt, Helena. 2008. ‘One-to-One Tuition in a Conservatoire: The Perceptions of Instrumental and Vocal Teachers’. Psychology of Music 36 (2): 215–45. doi:10.1177/0305735607080827.

Hartill, Mike. 2016. ‘How Prevalent Is Sexual Abuse in Sport?’ The Conversation. Accessed December 20. http://theconversation.com/how-prevalent-is-sexual-abuse-in-sport-69542.

Kingsbury, Henry. 1988. Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Perkins, Rosie. 2011. ‘The Construction of “Learning Cultures”: an Ethnographically-Informed Case Study of a UK Conservatoire’. Cambridge.


Abuse in music education: institutional perspectives – event overview

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