A is for advocacy 

A is for advocacy.

Back in 2005 I was on a mission to improve the quality of school dinners. Children were being fed nutritionally poor junk food that was NOT as described on menus sent home to parents. The local authority was not holding the contractor responsible for supplying school meals to account and as a result the kids were getting substandard food. The meat was of a shamefully low quality, (the cheap reformed variety that was sprayed off the animal carcass) and there was often no fruit or vegetables on offer. As well as tasting bad the food was exceedingly unhealthy.

Some of the people who campaigned alongside me argued that we should advocate for better school dinners for children on the grounds that if the children ate healthier school dinners they would be smarter/better behaved/easier to manage. This line of arguing left me completely unmoved. Whilst all those points might be true they were not the reason I was campaigning against poor quality school meals. I wanted the council to reject poor quality school meals because it is unethical for a school to give shamefully poor quality food to kids in their care. The parents had a right to expect the local authority would ensure that the children got the school food as promised on the published menus. It seems ludicrous to only offer decent food if you can prove it has an ‘improving’ effect on the kids.

So why am I digging up old history? Well my last blogpost on primary school music provoked a discussion on ‘advocacy’. It’s a bit of a bug bear for me. There seems to be an endless stream of organisations, celebrities and politicians who wax lyrical about the ‘power’ of music education to make kids smarter/happier/better. Some of it borders on the offensive – along the lines of “think of the poor empty children who don’t know any better”, whilst the majority is very well meaning but has no impact. Don’t get me wrong – I strongly believe that EVERY child is entitled to a rich, diverse music education and that learning a musical instrument is incredibly beneficial with its impacts going far beyond just competency at technical playing skills. But frankly, who doesn’t? Seriously, is there a single Headteacher, parent or local authority that HASN’T heard the advocacy argument?

Does anyone seriously think that yet another statement from a celebrity musician or national organisation advocating better music education will change anything? Certainly the powers that be will not be moved by it.

I think that John Finney puts it brilliantly, “They are singing our tune to their words”. Read his blog here, as he explains it more effectively than me!

I think advocacy is a waste of precious resources and avoids facing the main issues. We need to hold this government to account and to tell the truth about music education. Obsession with exam results and league tables is squeezing the life out of school music. Failure to fund hubs so that they can provide free instrument hire and tuition to all children who can’t afford it will mean that orchestral instruments remain the preserve of the rich.

Our school dinner war ended in decisive victory. The old contractor was kicked out, the council committed to building a proper kitchen in every single primary school, we devised a set of minimum nutrition standards that predated the government ones and school food became good enough for adults to eat. That didn’t happen because we persuaded the council that academic standards would rise and playground behaviour would improve. That happened because enough parents and governors cared enough to take action. They collected evidence, wrote letters, demonstrated until they persuaded the council it was easier to do the right thing and improve school dinners than it was to deal with disgruntled parents and bad press. If you are interested you can read more here

So in place of advocacy how about we try some of the following:
– All music orgs demanding that ALL school teachers get decent music education seminars.
– All professional musicians who benefitted from free school music lessons/tuition to read out statements of support for school music education at any concert with a politician in the audience.
– A moratorium on any music education ‘event’ that does NOT consist of at least 75% of the participants being current active music teachers.
– Music education TeachMeets funded by national music education organisations. Cheap but extremely effective.

– “Play First” scheme that see’s musicians from publicly funded music groups twinning with state schools to support music education.

Meanwhile, I shall keep on keeping on. It’s possible to light a candle whilst still cursing the darkness.

2 thoughts on “A is for advocacy 

  1. Jackie I agree with lots of this but I have 2 points.

    1) At MF we are desperately trying reach out to teachers to offer professional development events but keep coming up against reasons why teachers can’t come out of school for subject specific events. Your target of 75% practitioners at any conference is brilliant but I don’t think on that basis that many would be able to run in the current climate. How can we address this? Organisations are already scaling down what they can offer simply because of a lack of interest. And nobody is trying to get rich here, just cover costs so that we can continue to offer quality support and resources for teachers to have the maximum benefit for the children that matter-that’s all of them. The comment on this post sums it up really well https://www.facebook.com/MusicalFuturesUK/posts/1713806362190232. My worry is if you don’t use it-you lose it. If teachers don’t support what’s on offer buy coming along or if it’s not what people want or need, if teachers don’t tell those who can provide it what would be better for their needs, then it won’t be there any more and that would be a great loss. I know this because as a teacher it was that subject specific development through Musical Futures that came from participating in practical, relevant training events that made such a difference to me and my department and most importantly to my students. I know it’s not just MF that has come across this problem and I know that organisations desperately want to resolve it. At MF we know we have resources and approaches that make a difference in many ways and we want to widen our reach to teachers in schools. But we can’t force teachers to come if the barriers are too restrictive. What is the answer?

    2) Sometimes advocacy is the only language those with the power to make change (or sign a release form to allow attendance at a conference) understand. The target and data driven culture we all exist in now looks for measurable impact. How/what do you measure in terms of whole school impact from a subject specific conference or music course? How do you evidence the boost in self confidence and self esteem or the even more unquantifiable and amazing outcomes that music has? If latching onto language and measurement scales that are quantifiable, that tick boxes that are high on government and school agendas is a way to justify the existence of music for everyone then until an alternative is found or the culture changes, I’m not sure where we have left to go. Saying it’s great just isn’t enough for funders or school leaders who demand robust evidence to justify the grants that sustain the sector and investment of scant CPD budgets.

    I LOVE your idea for professional musicians who benefited from school music or free tuition to get involved. Let’s start a hashtag!

    I desperately want to improve this situation and it would be so much more effective if the profession could work with the sector to do this as a united front. I just don’t think any advocacy is bad advocacy at the moment. If we need to speak the language or play the game for long term gains, isn’t that better than no gains at all?



    1. Thanks Anna. I know that you & MF team work incredibly hard to support teachers.

      Any organisation that gets government funding to train teachers should NOT be running events without teachers. They can either fund supply cover or move event to evening or weekend. We know that music teachers are desperate to meet up & share ideas. That’s why TeachMeets work so well.

      I suppose I worry so much about advocacy because of the harm that it does whilst I have yet to see any concrete victories it has brought us! It can devalue events/conferences so if teachers do get out of school to attend become preaching to the converted.

      I’d rather money spent on advocacy was channel led into teacher training & funding TeachMeets


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