by Author Natalia Buckler

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Learning from Fund C evaluation: How effective partnership working can help create a more inclusive music education offer

As external evaluators of Fund C, we are delighted to share some initial research findings and observations about what needs to be put in place for partnership-working to be effective and about its role in embedding inclusive music-making strategically and at scale.  

Every year, Youth Music funds hundreds of projects, each of which attempts to place music-making at the heart of young people's lives whatever their background or circumstances. Fund C grants are the largest. They focus on direct delivery of musical learning for children and young people in challenging circumstances and on strategic work to embed inclusive music-making in areas around the country. As external evaluators, we were asked to assess whether Fund C organisations helped make practice in music education hubs they worked with more musically inclusive and if so, how this was achieved.

What we’ve done so far

Our first step was to perform an analysis of the self-evaluation reports produced by Fund C organisations at the end of the first year of their activity. We used this to create an interim summary of achievements and challenges across the programme.

Next, we interviewed senior staff from 18 music education hub lead organisations across the country, to discuss how they have been working with the grant holder organisations and the nature of the initial impact of such work.

What we’ve learned

During the first year of their Fund C work, grant holders delivered an impressive volume of inclusive music-making opportunities, reaching some of the most vulnerable children and young people nationwide. Grant holders’ self-evaluation reports contained plenty of evidence illustrating positive outcomes for children and young people, for example showing how high-quality musical learning can transform the lives of children with special needs, by helping them to find their own ‘voice’, to independently express themselves, to experience a feeling of success and achievement, leading to greater motivation and a boost in confidence. Some were able to develop cognitive and communication skills that helped them in other aspects of their lives and their learning, Similarly, grant-holder reports illustrated how playing music together can become a bridge between young people from communities that never speak to each other, and how music can encourage disengaged and disillusioned teens back into learning.

Importantly, Fund C grant holders did not achieve these outcomes for vulnerable children and young people on their own. They did so through partnerships: in their first year, Fund C grant holders worked with almost 550 partner organisations (music education hubs, other music organisations and charities, mainstream and special schools and early years settings, colleges, pupil referral units, hospitals, businesses and their partnerships) as well as sharing their values, approaches, practice and resources with nearly 1,500 other organisations.

Music education hubs are of particular interest in this list of partners. They have a remit to work strategically and at scale, so embedding inclusive practices within hubs presents a unique opportunity to create sustainable systems, where large numbers of children and young people in challenging circumstances can access and progress in their music education.

An essential part of our evaluation was therefore to speak directly to music education hubs’ lead organisations which the Fund C grant-holders hoped to or did work with. Three of the thirteen Fund C organisations are hub leads themselves, and all three work with other hub lead organisations or other music services as part of their partnership.

Inclusion as a real priority

What we’ve found through our interviews is that many music education hubs view inclusion as a real priority and recognise that offering free or subsidised tuition alone will not overcome barriers to access and engagement. There is recognition that engaging children and young people who are experiencing challenging circumstances in sustained music-making requires a special kind of knowledge and expertise. According to the music education hub lead organisations involved in our research, a number of them do not have such expertise themselves or, like their capacity, it has considerably diminished due to staff reductions and other changes in the system. This expertise is something that they, as music education hubs, are keen to develop or draw on through partnership working.

And that’s where Fund C fits in. It is intended to promote high-quality music education practice with a particular emphasis on ensuring that young people in challenging circumstances can participate in, influence and progress through their musical learning. Fund C organisations have specialist expertise in musical inclusion alongside practical knowledge, and provide a range of workforce development activities. A strong focus on self-evaluation combined with funding for direct delivery enables Fund C partnerships to try out different inclusive approaches and evaluate their efficacy.

Unsurprisingly, partnership working emerged as one of the key themes in our research because it can support music making that is inclusive, sustained and facilitates progression. But the partnership needs to be effective in order to do this, and during the course of our interviews we heard many examples about the successes and challenges of partnership working.

Characteristics of effective partnership working

It might seem obvious that for a partnership to be effective each party must have a role to play and bring something to the table, yet it can be easily forgotten when working under the pressure of tight application timescales. Staff in music education hubs have a lot of knowledge and expertise to offer, about specific children and their needs, working with schools and other educational establishments and reaching and engaging particular groups of young people. Many of them want to shape and co-deliver projects with their Fund C lead organisation.  We were told it was more effective to design projects for an area after involving local partners in planning and considering in depth the local context, priorities and even logistics. We found that failure to invest time in joint planning at the grant application stage and then neglecting ongoing dialogue can lead to superficial partnerships, damage relationships and also prevent joint projects from fully achieving their potential.

Flexibility, transparency and openness were essential features of successful partnership working. The first meant willingness to adapt plans in response to partner inputs and feedback, being willing to listen and respond. Transparency and openness meant that all partners share information about their activity and evidence of its impact with others, as well as how the funding is spent. In part, this was to do with multiple instances of matched funding but was also reflective of partners having an equal status.

The final feature was challenge: partners that questioned the status quo, brought fresh perspectives and ideas were genuinely valued. Music education hubs acknowledged how healthy it was to be challenged, encouraging them to break out from comfort zones and critically reflect on how inclusive their offer is. Equally, in the best and most effective partnerships, music education hubs offered challenge to their partners too, for example by prompting them to ‘think long-term’ and connect successful practice and projects. In fact, there was a certain dislike of ‘projects’ amongst some music education hubs. Even when very successful, they tend to be a one-off activity. In effective partnerships, music education hubs challenged their partners to pay greater attention to connecting projects and initiatives, following them through, to create a strategic and joined-up approach.

These principles – meaningful roles for all involved from the outset; respect for each other’s expertise, accompanied by challenge; flexibility, transparency and openness – helped Fund C organisations and their local partners to develop effective working approaches. The latter, in turn, enabled them to create music-making opportunities for children and young people in challenging circumstances which are inclusive, sustained and facilitate progression.