For Kris Halpin, a disabled musician who delivers music lessons in schools, the thought of being in front of a room full of students used to be terrifying. But he knew what it would have meant to him at 14 to see a disabled person teaching his class.
“My experience in education [in the 1980s] was not immensely positive,” Halpin says. “I was bullied a lot at school because of my disability. Not by my peers but by the staff … When I had to flag an access [problem], I was told I was only disabled when it suited me. It was not a supportive place to be. Music education was my one salvation.”
Disabled teachers and education staff can help young disabled people realise the work opportunities available to them, as well as bringing more diverse perspectives to the classroom. Yet the number of disabled staff in education is incredibly low. Department for Education (DfE) figures suggest that 0.5% of teachers identify as disabled [pdf], although this is an incomplete picture because only 50% of schools provided disability information. Disabled people make up 16% of the working age population, but the Disabled Living Foundation estimates that only half of disabled people of working age are in work in the UK.
Representation in the arts
At charity Drake Music, we wanted to look at the representation of disabled people in music education. But finding the data was problematic. Figures from Arts Council England [pdf] show that only 4% of the wider arts workforce identify as disabled. UK Music’s diversity research did not include disability in its survey.
In an attempt to improve knowledge in this area, we spoke to 36 music education hubs [pdf] about their workforce. Music hubs are groups of organisations – such as local authorities, schools, art organisations and voluntary organisations – working together to provide music education. They are so varied that making direct comparisons between them is difficult, but it gave us some idea about disability representation.
A third of the hubs said they had at least one paid member of staff who self reported as disabled. One in five (22%) were paid music leaders. There was a wide range of understanding and experience of disability, and each hub was at a different stage in providing truly inclusive music education services. But we were heartened to see that many recognised the importance of the topic. One respondent told us: “You are opening up a discussion we need to have.”
Opening up education
Diverse populations need teachers from a range of ages, backgrounds, experiences and communities. A more balanced and representative workforce creates relatable role models and opens the door to new possibilities for young people. It makes space for positive, constructive debate about the best teaching methods and approaches for working with young disabled people, and it combats negative perceptions and misunderstandings.
We know that music is a powerful force for many of the disabled people we work with. If made accessible, it can be a space for self-expression and offer a way in to a world of creative opportunities. That doesn’t happen enough.
Change cannot be affected by one organisation, or by a single policy, but will take many small movements across music education. There is increasing recognition that making music education more inclusive is important. This month, Youth Music launched the Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England, promoting diversity and cultural democracy in music education. Accessible practice is taking centre stage at conferences such as Music Mark. And there is recognition of the problem of declining music provision in schools more broadly.But we need more people to join the movement at all levels of music education. As well as fighting for the importance of the arts, we need schools, music education hubs and other organisations to make recruitment processes welcoming to disabled candidates; for teachers to have high aspirations for what their disabled students can achieve; for funders to support budgets for access requirements; and for examining bodies to create accessible qualifications. For policymakers, the priority should be ensuring that music and creative subjects are supported as part of the curriculum.With every step, we break down barriers to music education and open up more of the sector for young disabled artists.