Scientifically speaking…..

Two really interesting papers have been published in the last couple of weeks which have really chimed with me, and they have happened to come at a time when my own work is evolving to encompass many of the issues raised, and will perhaps allow me to explore these issues further. Firstly, Counting What Counts, published by Nesta, and written by Anthony Lilley and Professor Paul Moore makes a convincing argument that the arts and cultural sector is neither properly collecting or making good use of data which could help us to understand and increase the social and cultural impact of our work – and importantly could enable us to to unarguably demonstrate the results achieved through the investment of not insignificant amounts of public money.

This I think is really important to all of us working in arts education and the participatory arts sector. Everyone involved in this sort of work has stories about how engaging with the arts has ‘changed lives’. This is sometimes presented in the rhetoric of the evangelist in efforts to get across just how important our work is – only last week I attended a presentation in which colleagues who deliver an inspirational arts education programme in the States talked of ‘rescuing people’ through music. I don’t doubt any of these stories, or the essence of the many evaluation reports I see which assert that arts programmes have had effects on people’s lives which extend way beyond developing their artistic skills. We use reports and evidence like this to make the case for funding and investment in our work, and we are often required to produce them by funders to show the return we are delivering on their investment. And of course it is vital that we do hold ourselves to account, when we are usually spending public funds or other people’s money. I may write another time about the way we do this, the sophisticated models that we do have in place, and we do have many – from extensive quantitative data collection and analysis, to those individual and often inspiring case studies.

However, amongst the issues raised by the Counting what Counts is the fact that this so often happens in isolation. We don’t have mechanisms or infrastructure in place to look at the really big picture – the ‘Big Data’ which has the potential to really change practice and influence at the highest level. The other primary issue is related to what we do collect and why, and the fact that it is, as mentioned above, so often seen as the way of justifying our work and existence, and not as a fundamental tool which we can use to inform and shape decision making.

In recent months a combination of things, some work related, have led to me paying more attention to science stories in the news. Another thought I had, whilst reading this paper was how many arts project evaluations are actually subjected to the rigorous standards that any scientific study would be before being published and accepted by the scientific community. I am sure it happens and that there are pockets of good practice, but there is a strong case to be made for an arts education resource and training provision which helps organisations with areas such as statistical analysis. How often has it been demonstrated that the effectiveness of an arts project in achieving social impact is statistically significant? – I’d be really interested in any examples of such evaluations. There is also a case to be made for a peer review system as is standard for publication of all scientific papers.

With the Counting What Counts report still very much on my mind, I was really excited to read that Dr Ben Goldacre had written a paper advocating for use of random controlled trials in educational contexts, and, again for the building of an infrastructure echoing the now well established mechanisms that exist in the medical world. The paper speaks for itself and can be read here. If the arts education world were to take some of these points on board we could really add weight to those inspirational case studies and be in a position to make scientifically proven arguments about the effectiveness of our work in schools, communities and other contexts in addressing social issues and genuinely making the world a better place.

This as ever will take time, but I’d urge anyone who has the opportunity to do research and evaluation around their work with the arts to think as scientifically as they can, and I hope that the Arts Council and other major bodies take both these pieces of work seriously and are able to help the sector build the infrastructure and develop the skills which will be required for the realisation of the potential impact of these pieces of work.

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Where’s our music service gone?

A bit of arts education news which doesn’t seem to have filtered through to local level yet, is that Waltham Forest Music Service is, to all intents and purposes, no more. Given some quite vocal protest when the music service was threatened during the borough council cuts, this may seem surprising. However, my opening sentence was deliberately flippant, and I, along with others working in this field am generally optimistic about the new landscape for music education.

Historically, music services have existed for most local authority areas. They have received government funding via local councils, and have provided services including local youth orchestras and ensembles, peripatetic music lessons in schools, and instrument loan services for children. London had one music service for each borough, ranging from the extraordinary to the sub standard. Waltham Forest was not among the best.

Last year the government commissioned Darren Henley, the Managing Director of Classic FM to undertake a national review of music educationof Music education. Henley consulted widely across the sector and produced a report which contained a survey of the state of music education, and a number of recommendations. He found a very diverse landscape, with pockets of good practice, and a number of serious gaps in provision. His primary recommendation was that the government produce a National Plan for music education, to set and ensure high standards of provision across the country. To their credit, after numerous delays, the National Plan for Music Education emerged last autumn, and was generally well received by the music education sector.

The Plan enshrined another of Henley’s key recommendations – that music education should be led by Hubs, each Hub serving a geographical area and being composed of a consortium of organisations working in partnership. Most hubs therefore would include music services, along with arts organisations and other service providers. It was widely envisaged that there would be many less hubs than there were music services, with organisations joining together and forming new partnerships. Generally speaking, when the hubs were announced a couple of weeks ago, that did not happen – there remains a hub, mostly led by the music service, in pretty much every London borough. Not Waltham Forest however – it was conspicuously absent from the listof organisations awarded funding.

Fortunately that does not mean there will be no music education provision for the young people of Waltham Forest – whether the existing music service put in a bid to continue existing I do not know, but in the event a new hub has been formed, led by Redbridge music service, to deliver across both boroughs. It is a shame this type of merger doesn’t seem to have happened more widely – maintaining over 30 organisations in London, all doing the same job for relatively small geographical areas must surely divert resources away from providing children with amazing musical opportunities and towards management, overheads and other running costs. It will be very interesting to see how this new North East London hub’s delivery compares to the single borough hubs going forward.

The other key change is that hubs are funded and monitored by the Arts Council of England unlike music services which received funding via local councils. This is definitely a good thing – the arts council will have an overview of the national picture, will help share good practice and make links between hubs and other arts organisations, and if it does it’s job properly will push for the highest standards and quickly challenge those which are not performing.

So, from September, Waltham Forest music service is no more, and I am looking forward to seeing how music education provision in the borough develops in this new landscape. Why is all this politics important to me? Simply because I do believe every child deserves access to quality music education and musical opportunities, that it can transform lives and impact on all areas of development and that access to, understanding of and participation in the arts makes all of us better individuals, and builds better communities. More on that later, maybe.