Safeguarding and youth voice in music education – event overview

The third meeting of our emerging network on safeguarding in classical music education was held on Friday 25th November at The Purcell School (with very many thanks to deputy head James Harding for arranging this and to the Purcell School for providing the venue as well as refreshments and lunch). Having an organisation which is at the heart of training elite classical musicians in the UK – and indeed internationally – offering to host this event is an important symbolic gesture about the sector taking a lead on this issue. Not only that, but our meeting was held in the Liszt Room, with portraits of 19th century pianist and composer Franz Liszt all over the walls as well as one of his original manuscripts on display.

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The questions that we had carried forward from the previous event were as follows:

  • 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?
  • What could cross-sector governance around safeguarding look like in music education?
  • How can young people’s voices be consistently heard within music education institutions?

This event was designed to examine the first and third of these questions, but in this post I will focus in particular on the talks on youth voice and safeguarding as these were the most exciting and urgent developments to come out of the day.

The day opened with a talk from Ben Parry, director of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (NYCGB). He took over as director in 2013 around the time that their founding musical director, Michael Brewer, was convicted of sexual offences. While this conviction was in no way related to Brewer’s time at the NYCGB, the organisation nevertheless undertook a comprehensive review of their safeguarding procedures, bringing in the NSPCC to carry out a review. 16 key recommendations were made, all of which have now been implemented.

Ben discussed frankly and self-critically some of the issues they have addressed during the review and since in their ongoing reflections. It was notable that issues that came up in relation to safeguarding were not narrowly related to questions of touch, reporting, and lines of referral, but instead the organisation is taking seriously issues around wellbeing of the young people in the group. For example, Ben discussed the work and leisure balance on courses, noting that there is a danger of working young people very hard on intensive residential courses. One of the changes they have brought in is that this is now carefully monitored, with breaks built in rather than constantly rehearsing all day. Time for exam revision is also built into the day during courses leading up to exams.

In relation to the main theme of the day, youth voice, the NYCGB had various mechanisms for hearing from young people, including surveys at the end of each course, and a shout-out box has been introduced. If any student feels uncomfortable or is worried about something they can put any comments in the box, and the head of safeguarding deals with it. More holistically, young people are being trained as choral leaders and musical staff are supporting and encouraging young people to take ownership of their music-making. Rather than upholding the traditional model of the conductor being the all-powerful leader, they are introducing critical discussion of this authority, along the lines of themes of authority in classical music that I have written about.

The theme of youth voice was addressed in detail by Jenn Raven and Sian Dicker-Thorne from Sound Connections who discussed embedding youth voice within an organisation. Sound Connections run a programme called Wired4Music where young people work together to produce music events. Unlike the other speakers in this series of events, Sound Connections are not a classical music organisation but work across genres. Programme manager Jenn Raven described how they work across six categories of youth participation:

  • Governance – eg having young people on boards/committees/as trustees
  • Producers – eg programmers
  • Youth enterprise – setting selves up as a business or musician
  • Peer leadership – young people taking the lead on music-making and passing on knowledge to peers, mentoring others
  • Youth consultation – young people engaging with organisations in decision-making
  • Youth voice – eg having a young people on a panel discussion/debate or focus group

One of the key things I gathered from Jenn’s presentation was the importance of scaffolding youth voice and youth participation. So, for example, rather than simply adding a young people to the governing body of an organisation, the young person needs to be mentored and supported into this role so they can carry it out effectively and build skills doing so. This would also need to work alongside an approach where young people’s voices are included across different levels of the organisation.

Wired4Music participant Sian Dicker-Thorne described a project she was involved with, the Rising Futures festival at the Roundhouse, which has run for the last three years. She emphasised that embedding youth voice has taken this amount of time and it is still progressing towards a more youth-led decision-making process. Youth voice therefore has to be something that is woven into the fabric of an organisation, rather than an add-on. This can happen through getting organisational buy-in and staff training; building facilitation skills among staff; consulting with young people as to what they want; and equipping young people with leadership skills. It is at this stage that it would be appropriate to involve young people at governance level, such as on a board of trustees or sitting on interviews for new staff members.

Sian is also a postgraduate student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, so it was interesting to hear about her perspective across both the classical music world and being a Wired4Music participant. The key challenge for classical music institutions, she suggested, is the hierarchical nature of classical music education which makes it particularly difficult to embed youth voice. When teachers have so much power it becomes highly risky for young people to speak up if they have concerns.

The connection with safeguarding is very simple, and very important. One of the major problems with dealing with institutional abuse is getting people to speak up and report abuse; most people do not report abuse at the time it is occurring, and sometimes they do not report it for decades, or they never report. If young people believe that they’ll be listened to when they speak up about other issues, then they are more likely to believe they will be listened to about abuse. This is about trust in institutions: trusting that they will be listened to and believed – a concern that is so key for survivors of abuse that Rape Crisis’ slogan is ‘we listen and believe’. This approach can also work as prevention, in that smaller incidents will be more likely to be reported and preventative action can be taken earlier. Similarly, if young people know and understand their rights and feel confident to assert them, abuse is less likely to happen in the first place.

The discussions that came out of these talks and continued throughout the day demonstrated how inspired attendees were by these ideas. The connection between youth voice and safeguarding seems obvious once it is pointed out, but it is a potential challenge for classical music education organisations. This seems like an exciting outcome from the day and a promising direction for research and practice.

In terms of the network itself, I had invited young people from conservatoire students’ unions to attend the events but had not succeeded in getting any to attend. However, for our next event I will work harder to bring youth voice into the discussion. This event will be on Friday May 12th from 11-4.30pm, also at the Purcell School. Email me on anna.bull@port.ac.uk for further details or if you would be interested to attend.

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(See here for an overview of the first event, and here for an overview of the second event here, and here for my introductory comments to this event).

Safeguarding and youth voice in music education – event overview

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