Low expectations hold SEND pupils back in music education

Low expectations of what pupils with special educational needs and disability can achieve through music education are holding back their progress in the subject, according to a research project.

Low expectations of what pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND) can achieve through music education are holding back their progress in the subject, according to a research project which aims to improve music teaching and learning in SEND settings.

Led by Nottingham Trent University's School of Education, the project saw a team of six experienced music facilitators from community music group, soundLINCS, lead workshops with participating groups from eight different schools.

The groups represented a range of special needs contexts, including young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities, emotional and behavioural difficulties, specific learning difficulties and the full range of moderate learning difficulties teachers typically need to respond to.

Music is something that these pupils can really exceed expectations in if they are given the chance and the time.

Dr Tony Harris, School of Education

The sessions were designed to understand more about whole class ensemble teaching in the SEND context, as well as identifying the strengths and weaknesses of current practice and to find out what works best.

When carrying out the sessions, the musicians and teachers were regularly surprised by the children's involvement and their response to the activities. Playing instruments, or even being in the presence of instruments being played, changed some children's behaviour dramatically.

They responded best to musical extremes and contrasts, particularly dynamics and tempo, while multisensory activities, props, audio-visual and movement all helped to engage the children.

Dr Tony Harris, Project Leader and head of Secondary and Continuing Education at Nottingham Trent University, said: "Often the SEND label is not useful or meaningful when it comes to music education because it can lead to preconceptions and low expectations. For example, it could be presumed that a child who does not normally like loud noises would not want to take part in a music class, but we found that when they're making those noises themselves, they can have a completely different reaction. Or a child that would not normally engage with a group enjoys taking part in an ensemble activity when they have an instrument to play.

"Music is often undervalued in special needs settings. It is something that these pupils can really exceed expectations in if they are given the chance and the time.

"While repeating some of the same activities week after week is a good marker for progress, we found that responsiveness and spontaneity are crucial in these settings, rigid approaches don't work, and every adult in the room must be fully engaged in the activities."

Every pupil is very different and they all respond to different things. Seeing them make progress was very rewarding.

Teacher of 14-19 group

A teacher from one of the schools reported: "The class group were 14-19 years old, all with profound and multiple learning difficulties. Every pupil is very different and they all respond to different things. For example, some pupils thrive on loud up-tempo music; and others prefer more tranquil sounds. The soundLINCS music facilitator kept each session varied and changed activities often enough to keep everyone involved. This approach overcame musical barriers and contributed towards the class making progress, 12 weeks is just a 'click of the fingers' for this class so seeing them make progress was very rewarding."

The findings of the project, which received funding from Youth Music, are now being used to create a toolkit for teachers which can be used for a full day's training, as shorter units or as a basis for more informal discussions.

Tony Harris added: "Past research has suggested that teachers are generally unprepared to teach music in SEND settings, so it's important that they have access to flexible training which will support them in creating the right environment and getting the most out of the sessions for their pupils."

The School of Education will be continuing its work with soundLINCS as a research partner in a new three year programme of work with children in challenging circumstances, after the organisation was awarded a National Foundation for Youth Music Grant of almost £500,000 for 2015-18.

The project will work with children in five distinct sectors - looked after children, youth justice services, paediatric services, young parents with children, children with special education needs and those who are hearing impaired. Along with other universities in the region, Nottingham Trent University will provide guidance and ethical support, as well as editing and publishing research papers.

  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Helen Breese, Media Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8751, or via email; or Dave Rogers, Head of Communications, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8782, or via email.

    About soundLINCS
    soundLINCS is a not-for-profit community music organisation operating across the East Midlands. Working in partnership with local, regional and national organisations, soundLINCS provides and develops high quality and innovative music-making opportunities and training for all ages and communities. Home of soundEMission the e-information service for people involved in music development and education within the East Midlands. For more information, visit the soundLINCS website.

    About Youth Music
    Youth Music works with some of the UK's most disadvantaged young people, providing free access to high quality music making. Youth Music is an independent national children's charity and since 1999, have reached over two million children and young people, helping to transform their lives through the power of music. More information is available on the Youth Music website.

Low expectations hold SEND pupils back in music education

Published on 20 May 2015
  • Category: Press office; Research; Nottingham Institute of Education

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