AH: So hello, it’s Anita here, and welcome to this month’s podcast. In this episode I’m talking with Simon Glenister, who is director of Noise Solution which is a social enterprise based in Bury-St-Edmunds and it provides one-to-one music mentoring programmes using music technology for young people in challenging circumstances. Why I thought you’d be interested in this is, for a number of reasons really. Firstly, the business model in unusual for the music education and wellbeing sector. Noise Solution isn’t a charity, it’s never fund-raised or received music or education funding. All of its income comes from commissioning. Secondly, their practice is also unique in that digital storytelling is a central part of both the evaluation and the success of the programme. And then, I think thirdly, they’ve developed a really robust evaluation model that’s proving that their model really works. And they’ve also won stacks of awards and big commissions from the public sector. So welcome Simon, and thank you for agreeing to chat today, it’s really great to be talking to you on the podcast.
SG: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here.
AH: Great. So before we get into talking about Noise Solution, can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up doing what you do today, and why it’s so important to you personally?
SG: Yes, of course. So my background is I think maybe slightly unusual for the sector in that I came into working with young people, not from a musical education perspective. I started off maybe about 10 or 15 years ago working for a youth offending team, or volunteering for a youth offending team in east London, and that led to a career of working with young people across a wide variety of challenging circumstances. So it was very local-authority based, but it was also all predominantly one-to-one work, solving problems for those young people around housing, addiction and education. So that side of it was maybe not the normal route to traditional community music work, but at the same time, musically, I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been a professional musician since I was 18 when I moved to London to join a band with a record deal, and I’ve been really lucky in that respect as well, and had multiple record deals and travelled around the world, and had a lot of fun doing that work. Some major festival appearances, and albums and all the things you dream about as a kid when you want to be in bands, and I’ve been lucky enough to do all that. And Noise Solution was a kind of culmination of those two worlds.
AH: And that’s brilliant for the young people that you work with isn’t it. That you’ve got all this youth work experience and all this industry experience so that authenticity of what you do really comes through the whole business model and the way you work with young people. So moving on to your organisation, can you tell me what it is you do and why it works? Those are two really big questions, so I’ll come back to the why it works perhaps.
SG: I think they’re inextricably linked, actually. So what’s developed is a one-to-one mentoring programme that is a mixture of music technology and these digital stories that I’ll talk a bit more about. But it’s an approach, as you mentioned, that’s been independently proven to be highly statistically significant in impacting on the wellbeing. We tend to work with young people who are referred to us from statutory services like mental health, education, social services, youth justice. They tend to be the young people that those services are really, really struggling to engage with. So we pair them with a music producer, somebody generally with music tech skills but also instrumental skills as well.
And we work with them for two hours a week over ten weeks in the community, so we go to where that young person is initially to establish a relationship. That might be in the home, it might be in the local centre, and we create a space where they can feel successful at something quickly and something they’re already interested in. We do music with the kids, not at kids. We start off from the position of asking them what they want to do. I think what we do which is slightly different is that it doesn’t just end there as a mentoring programme where something good happens in a room somewhere else. What we’ve also done is to build our own, bespoke social media platform that captures the successes, the highlights, the good things that happen in those sessions as the young person realises that they can throw some beats together or create a piece of music that’s theirs, that is aligned to the music that they’re interested in listening to themselves. So those successes are captured, and they’re captured via photos, captured via video reflection of how the young person feels about it. And then this platform that reflects people’s everyday social media experiences, it presents as if it were a Facebook platform or a Tumblr platform or whatever it might be.
At the end of each session, after the musician and the participant have built their narrative for how that session’s gone, a link goes out to whoever that young person identifies as important in their lives. So that might be parent, carer, foster carer, youth offending worker, mental health worker, head of school – whoever they feel is important in their lives. So what we’re doing is capturing the young person being successful, often against a backdrop where people’s reactions to the young person are so often focused on the deficits of what’s going on in their life and the problems. Create a space where they’re actually good at something, and project that outwards to the people that are important in their lives, and because it presents in a social media format, the people that are important to their lives are able to comment and interact with that positive narrative as well. And I’ll talk a bit about why we think that works in a minute. But the nub of it is, making someone feel good at something quickly, capturing it and sharing it with the people that are important to that young person you’re working with.
AH: That’s brilliant. I Iove the idea of bringing digital storytelling into this because then those young people kind of own the way their story is told, and their, or your work is evaluated. So that’s really empowering isn’t it?
SG: I think it’s a genuine case of ‘user voice’ absolutely being at the centre. So it’s the young person’s story told by them, with the co-production of whoever the significant people are around them.
AH: And do you ever get any resistance from young people? I mean how do you introduce digital storytelling to them?
SG: It’s interesting. We do, but I think before we talk about that, I think I want to talk about why it works because that actually plays into that question specifically. So all this work is predicated on a theoretical understanding of how we impact on wellbeing. It’s about being able to intentionally improve wellbeing, and we do that, or Noise Solution does that through basing its work on something called Self Determination theory which is a theory developed by a couple of psychologists called Deci and Ryan, American psychologists. And ten years ago they started with a question: ‘How do we impact on intrinsic motivation?’. How people feel about themselves, because we know that if we do that, any choices they make are likely to be more sustainable. So basically it’s coming at it from the opposite end of the spectrum from carrot and stick approaches where you’re trying to control behaviour. It’s trying to create a space where the young person is making their own decisions because they want to.
My background in youth offending and other local authority organisations showed me quite clearly there was lots of wonderful work, but there was also a lot of work that wasn’t so great. And it comes back to this deficit focus that’s often there, when the young person’s behaviours start throwing up flags is, as a subtext, nobody’s doing this intentionally, but the subtext is often that a professional will come into that young person’s life and say, ‘Well you’re rubbish at this, and you’re not doing that properly, and I’m the expert and if you listen to me we can fix you’. And that’s not great. It’s certainly not great in terms of engagement and you’re often focussing on the deficits, the problems or whatever is going on in that young person’s life, and by focussing on them you’re often amplifying them as well.
So, what Deci and Ryan are saying is, if you want to impact on that sense of intrinsic motivation, wellbeing is absolutely at the core of that. Wellbeing is a very misunderstood, misused word I think across the whole third sector. People tend to use it like currency, you know, slapping it on applications for grants, and it’s used as a general term. We actually have quite a good understanding of what constitutes wellbeing academically, theoretically. People do this research to find this stuff out, and it’s really helpful as a lens with which to look at how we work, or why what we do works, and how best we intentionally impact on wellbeing. So what they’re saying is, if you want to do that, there are three psychological needs that need to be addressed. The first one is creating a sense of the person that you’re working with being in control of what they’re doing, a sense of the person you’re working with being in control of what they’re doing, a sense of autonomy is the word they use. So that reaction that we often see within local authority, statutory education services, is when that kid’s behaviour starts throwing up flags, what we do as a knee-jerk reaction is take their autonomy away. That happens almost across the board, when what we actually need to be doing is the opposite and giving them a space where they actually feel in control of what’s going on around them. So that point you were saying around whether they want to engage with the digital narrative or not, we ask them. ‘Do you want to?’. And if they do, fantastic, and if they don’t, that’s also fantastic. What tends to actually happen is that the young people start off being fairly suspicious of it, a few of them, not all of them, lots of people just jump straight in and they love it because they’re used to it. But some are slightly suspicious, but as you create a space where they feel more competent, being good at something, then they’re more ready to capture that and share that. And it tends to grow. It’s often quite a linear curve of not engaging fully, and then really, really engaging with it as the process goes on.
So coming back to the psychological needs that Deci and Ryan identified, autonomy is the first of three. The second one is a sense of competency – feeling that we are good at something. So for Noise Solution, if we look at how we map this onto what we’re doing, that’s about making people feel good about whatever the music they want to make really, really quickly, and for us, music technology is absolutely key to that. We can use music technology to create really quick wins – quick wins which are culturally responsible. If you ask the child, because you’re interested in their sense of autonomy, what do you want to make, and they say they want to make hip-hop, grime or drum ‘n’ bass, or whatever it might be, we can very, very quickly use music technology to grab some loops together and throw something that sounds authentic, like the stuff they listen to, that they feel that they’ve invested in, that they’ve created really, really quickly. You’re sidestepping all of those issues around the more traditional approaches to music education around notation and musical theory, and creating a space where the kid is good at something quickly. So, those are the first two elements. And also coming back to that competency point, I’ve spent ten years developing ways of creating spaces where a young person feels good at something quickly. So one of the other things we do for instance, which I think is really interesting, is we have a technique for teaching the piano that uses shapes rather than notation and scales, and we can teach 48 chords in about 25 minutes to half-an-hour. And you’re taking something that societally is seen as being very, very, complex, that only clever kids do. Because I think of the way our music education system is set up with this focus on one specific way of creating music. I’m not making a judgement about one being better or the other, I’m just saying that tends to be the way our music education system is set up. And if you can make a kid who’s been outside of the education system for a couple of years, just come out of jail, or just come out of a mental health, acute situation, and you say I’m going to teach you to play the piano in half-an-hour, and their perception is that it’s not something that’s possible, and you create a space where they do that really, really quickly, that’s a really, really great way to engender trust which is another really, really important element of the work that we do – engaging people and getting them interested in and to trust the person that they’re working with. So those quick wins are really, really important. So that’s all about the competency piece. The autonomy piece is about what do you want to do and how do you want to do it. And the competency piece is about making them good at creating the music they want to create.
The third psychological need that Deci and Ryan identify is relatedness, which is a sense of connectedness to other people, how we function in circles around us, and that for us is where the digital story steps in because lots of the people that we work with are very marginalised, isolated, outside of mainstream education, and are struggling with anxiety or depression or any number of issues. So the digital story allows us to create a space where that young person is proud of what they’re doing, and it enables them to tell their story and connect with the people who are important in their life, to demonstrate that they’re being good at something. And create that sense of relatedness with those people around something that’s positive-based rather than deficit-based.
AH: That’s amazing because the people who are around them who have seen all that negativity see a different person there, but they will also probably see the youth workers or support workers in a different way because of the different types of feedback they’re getting.
SG: I did nine hours of thematically analysed interviews with participants and their professional key workers, and their family, and the one thing that stood out the most was a conversation I had with a mum who said, ‘You’re only ever as happy as your saddest child’. Which is so obvious, and I may have cried. But if you think about that, what’s actually happening there, if we go back to that often deficit-focussed approach, all the messaging around that young person is about problems, which informs all the conversations that happen around that person as well – both at home and professionally. If you create a space where you’re demonstrating that this kid has potential, is doing really interesting, great things, especially things around the piano thing, as I say most people perceive it to be really complicated. So if you’re creating that narrative, that is because of the ability of social media to reach into people’s homes, and the empathetic power of video to connect with people, if this kid’s coming in and he starts talking to someone about how he feels about suddenly being able to play the piano or some banging drum ‘n’ bass track that he’s just made that he’s really, really proud of, or she’s proud of, and the parents are seeing that, that absolutely changes the dynamic of the conversations, allowing a bridge in around a positive focus and the ripples of that occasion are a very significant part of the work.
AH: And that’s quite striking that you’ve got a way to involve the family in that way. Talking not only with the young person but also with the professionals. It’s almost like the ‘team around the child’ thing that used to be part of this type of work, and in the music education community music kind of often say, ‘Oh, if only we had a connection with the family’, and it’s a case of grabbing people at the beginning or at the end of the sessions, and sometimes that isn’t possible, so this way makes it so possible doesn’t it?
SG: It does that, but it also serves so many other purposes as well. So again, from a theoretical perspective from the research that I’ve done, what we believe is also going on is you’re creating and recording this place where the young person’s been successful at something. What that means is, you are literally extracting that from their head and creating an externalised record of them being good that they can see. You’re scaffolding their ability to process the fact that they’re being good at something. A lot of these young people have assimilated masses of negative labels that they have either attributed to themselves or other people have attributed to them. If you create a space, or scaffold their ability to process an experience or a set of experiences where they are being successful and good at something, that starts to challenge those labels because they can see it. If you then reinforce those messages with positive commentary from the people that they autonomously they decided to share with – the people important in their life saying, ‘That’s amazing that you’ve done this’ or ‘I really enjoyed this track that you made’ or ‘Isn’t it fantastic that you’ve learned to play the piano like that so quickly’. That reinforces that messaging as well, and you can almost start to see the process of the person internalising that shift, that change and their perception of themselves.
AH: And they get to choose the people that see that do they?
SG: Yes. They have complete autonomy over what’s captured, who it’s shared with, and they can change that at any point, if they want to remove somebody from the group that they share with. I need to stress that it’s not a social media platform in the traditional sense, it’s a social media platform specifically designed to work with young people in challenging circumstances, and their family and their key workers. We invite people in, in a targeted group to be part of that young person’s feed or digital story. But they can choose who’s added to it, who’s removed from it at any point, or what’s on that blog, or not to engage with it. That overriding lens of autonomy and competency and relatedness, that element of autonomy of being able to choose is absolutely fundamental and overrides everything.
AH: And a technical question – it’s a kind of private Tumblr block or something like that – is that right?
SG: No, it’s a platform we built ourselves, so we’ve invested considerable sums in building this platform. When I first started I was using open-source platforms like Tumblr. The work hasn’t changed, but in the last two years we’ve invested all the research work that I’ve done, and significant amounts of money from the social enterprise sector in the form of grants to build this platform that performs this function for us. It performs a whole host of other functions as well, which I think we’re going to talk about in a minute, or of the statistical analysis of the national benchmark for wellbeing matrix. All that work is hosted within the platform as well, but the digital stories for everyone we create are also an integral part of that platform as well.
AH: OK, so I just wanted to go back to this thing you were saying about using music technology, and also using a kind of really quick way of young people being able to master playing the piano. So, I wonder if you can tell me a little bit more about the kind of choices you give young people in terms of the music they can make?
SG: Normally we’ll meet a young person – it’s not just me delivering this, I’ve got 15 musicians over the whole of the east of England delivering this work at the moment – and the first conversation has to be, ‘What do you want to create? What do you like listening to? Would you like to make that? What are your interests?’. And it’s been really surprising what the answers to those questions are. Yes, we do a lot of hip-hop and grime and drill, drum ‘n’ bass, dubstep, whatever, but we also occasionally work with a young person and you’ll have some kind of preconception about what they’re probably going to say, but they’ll really surprise you. I mention this example quite a lot, I had one lad who was really into ‘Brony’ music’, I don’t know if you’ve come across ‘Brony music’? Have I had that conversation with you?
SG: ‘Brothers of My Little Pony’? No? It’s fascinating. So they tend to be, and I don’t want to generalise too much, young men, often on the autistic spectrum. It seems to be a form of, a continuation on from things like Thomas the Tank Engine but a more sort of teenage version with a sense of irony throw-in and it seems to be being used within that youth community, it’s almost a sub-genre, and being used as a road map. Everything’s very clear about what’s right and wrong. That seems to be what’s going on with it. But the music is predominantly American pop-punk stuff, but about unicorns. But just as an example though, that young man wasn’t coming out of his bedroom at all. Wasn’t engaging and hadn’t been for months and months and months. And we engaged him through first connecting with him through the digital platform. Before we’d even met him, showing him some videos of the stuff we were doing around music tech. At that time we were quite interested in music sensors and using movement sensors to create music as another quick bridge to creating stuff. So I sent him some videos about that stuff that we doing and that piqued his interest because he was quite techy as well. And then he told us about the Brony stuff and then we started giving him production knowledge around creating using this software which he then used to create podcasts and radio broadcasts for Brony organisations all over the world. But within three or four weeks he was coming out to the recording studio and he did a Level 1 qualification, then a Level 2 qualification. We see that transformative stuff happen all the time. It doesn’t happen for everyone. I don’t want to say that this it the one and only way to work with kids, it obviously isn’t, but paraphrasing a colleague of mine, ‘It’s ‘a’ way, not ‘the’ way’.
AH: So, picking up on that. Music tech is obviously the main tool you use. Music tech isn’t just one instrument is it? I think often people don’t realise that music tech opens up a whole world of music and genres and instruments, but just wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about why music tech is important?, and why, although you’re saying about mastery and fast mastery, why also music tech is important as a quality method of making music?
SG: Yeah, I struggle to understand why people have issues with music technology, I know they do. But anyone who’s saying in some form they’re suspicious of music technology, almost every part of their musical experience has been touched by music technology. It’s an integral part of their lives, it’s fundamental, and it’s not given the credence that it should be given. When we talk about music technology, often within the music education context, music technology is often talked about as something that improves accessibility. But that’s not really where we’re coming at it from. We’re talking about using the tools that are used in recording studios but are equally used by kids in their bedrooms, up and down the country, constantly.
The recent Youth Music report about the plummeting uptake for music within schools, equally balances that with the huge uptake of music technology by young people, self-directed. The move towards self-directed learning and access that YouTube gives these young people is phenomenal. We literally have the world at our fingertips, or these young people do. What we fail to teach, I think, are the critical skills to evaluate what’s placed in front of them. Music technology runs through our whole lives. The thing that really makes it work for me is the cultural responsiveness of it. So I could be working with a young person and immediately become a conduit for them to create the music that they want to create, whatever that is. And that’s massively powerful, and I think a lot of the criticism often comes from fear, or a lack of understanding. I’ve been in a lot of conversations where people have, not intentionally, but they have music-shamed me for the fact that I am not, in any way shape or form, interested in opera or western classical music. I’ve tried, but it’s just not my thing.
But what I find often is that when I have those conversations with people they start talking about quality, and that irritates me because it’s a lack of understanding of the depth with which you have to immerse yourself to gain any mastery over music technology. You have to put an equal amount of work into understanding how a recording studio works, how parallel compression works, how EQ works, how the music studio is a clash of physics and art in equal measure. And yes we can get quick results really, really quickly, that are very basic, in the same way that I could if I was just going to learn D, C, G, on a guitar or a 4-4 on a drum kit. But to get mastery, that’s a life-long journey, in the same way that being able to play classical music is a 20-year exercise in perfection. They’re equally demanding of people’s time, energy and intellect.
AH: Interesting, yes I think often the judgement with music technology are about musicality and then also, as you said, the critical judgement and the reflection. I guess because you’re creating a trusting relationship with that young person you’re able to have all sorts of conversations about musicality and reflecting on what they’re playing and what they’re listening to, and I know that Youth Music on their podcast recently were talking about hip-hop music education and the challenge of working with young people who want to create music which might not be very positive, and the balance they have to have between encouraging that young person to express what they feel and express what their lives are about without glorifying certain attitudes.
SG: Absolutely, and we have those situations as well, often. But because the work is predicated on that idea of autonomy, we will always start from the position of you can create whatever music you want, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to challenge you about what you’re saying, you need to be able to justify it, but you can’t start a relationship of trust with somebody facing a whole host of challenges where behaviours are an issue, by starting by taking their autonomy away. It just doesn’t work. What we consistently see, is when we give kids that sense of autonomy, and put them through a process where they start to feel competent and reflect on that, the subject matter of what they’re talking about changes over time. And that happens all the time. You know, the sense of ‘I’m making this because it’s what my mates listen to’, or ‘I’m making this so I can see how far I can push your boundaries’. But once you’ve established a relationship and start having conversations from a place of trust, they you can say, ‘Well let’s start writing something about what you’re experiences were’ or ‘what your experiences are now’ or ‘what you wish your experiences to be in the future’. And then it becomes a really powerful vehicle for self-reflection.
AH: And you also don’t stop at the end of the 10 weeks, do you? You’re looking with that young person about how they want to carry on afterwards aren’t you, so there’s a legacy there?
SG: Yes. Within every session the musician and the participant put together the digital story, and they create the music, and it’s all about creating a space where they’re having fun doing that. But it’s not always smooth sailing obviously. The digital story is a positive pro-biased narrative that we’re putting together. The musician at the end of the session also has additional time paid whereby they’re getting that digital story out to everybody, but they’re also writing a short report that goes back to the referring professional about what actually happened in the session. And parts of that are around this young person’s identified that maybe they want to do a Level 1 Maths. And it’s about making sure that that support is there from the professionals around the young person we’re working with so that when they finish working with us there’s a progression route for them, so we don’t just parachute in for 10 weeks.
We can’t do everything, we can’t provide the progression route as well, but what we’re trying to do is take often quite marginalised people, getting them to a point where they’re able to survive in a group environment. What tends to happen is we group all the kids with issues together, stick them in a room and watch the fireworks fly because it has a cost-saving element to it. Which is ridiculous. So you need to make those kids feel like they’re doing something and have some sense of self-worth and resilience first before you put them in that group-work environment. This is almost the reason for me doing this. When I was working for an organisation called Connections I was continually having young people put on to my caseload who had just come out of prison or youth offending institution and having people say ‘Right great, well we’ll stick you in a college’ for you to start doing a bunch of Level 1 qualifications and invariably it just wouldn’t work because their coping mechanisms won’t fit into that environment unless you address how they feel about themselves first. You need to make them feel that they’ve got something to offer. So yeah, I can’t understate how important it is to impact on how people feel about themselves first. It’s the number one thing to work on, and I think music is the perfect conduit for that.
AH: And picking up on that autonomy, competency and relatedness, it’s interesting that we don’t talk more about those three things in relation to wellbeing?
SG: You hear echoes of it across all sorts of different conversations, and it’s a psychological theory that’s remained fairly siloed I think, but it’s starting to break out. It’s being used within business organisations, it’s being used in education, sports sciences, it’s starting to spread out. I’ve just written a paper with Phil Mullen about self-determination theory and the history of that within community music and using Noise Solution as a self-determination informed intervention and we’re going to go and present it their international conference next week in Holland. So it is starting to happen, there hasn’t been a massive uptake within community music or formal music approaches or even informal music approaches, but the more people see the model and an end to what we’re doing, it just makes so much sense. When you start listening out for it and you start to talk to people about their organisations, whatever those organisations might be doing, you can pick out the elements.
AH: Interesting. So, that was leading on to me asking about your evaluation and I’m interested in knowing are those three things linked to your evaluation? Do you want to tell me a little bit more about how you evaluate? We need to mention that you’re a Master of Education now, looking at stakeholder perceptions of Noise Solution’s practices and give some really, really robust evidence of the impact you’ve made and also you’ve had a Cabinet Office Impact Readiness Fund report prior to that, so you’ve got some really strong reports and you’re ongoing evaluation process is really interesting, so yeah, tell me a bit about that?
SG: Yeah sure. Nobody’s more surprised that I’ve got a Masters in Education than my mother, so that’s the first thing to say. My own music education experiences were pretty negative in that I didn’t really go. So yeah, to end up with a Masters in Education has been an interesting personal journey.
AH: I was just going to pick up on that. So when I said ‘why is this work important to you’ at the very beginning I was kind of hoping you’d say something about that. You really get these young people because you’ve had slightly similar experiences is that right?
SG: Yeah, it wasn’t anywhere near as severe as these young people. I made personal choices not to engage with my school because they were a bit rubbish. But I did find myself in a post-industrial, Midlands town with no qualifications, and the only social capital I had, the only thing that gave me any sense of self-worth was the fact that in lunchtimes, in the music block, people told me I was good at hitting things, drums mainly. And so that was the thing that I clung to, and it gave me a sense of identity. So, that sense of being made within an education system to feel not valued, well just that, not just valued within that education system. But then to leverage that, what you were good at as a force for increasing your sense of social capital to the point now where I’ve traversed from that position to Education Masters at the other end. Yeah, that journey has been made possible because of music, but not in the traditional sense.
AH: So coming back to the evaluation. Those two reports have really strongly evidenced that the model that you have does make a difference, and the words ‘statistically significant’ are often bandied about. Somebody had actually asked about that, or if you want to start off by telling me about your evaluation model and then I’ll ask about that.
SG: Sure. So the first thing to say is that there are no perfect ways to measure this stuff. Anybody that tells you that there is, is selling snake oil. Having said that, the self-determination theory states that if we create a space where we focus on autonomy, competency and relatedness, we should impact on wellbeing. So what we then need to look for is a tool that measures wellbeing but does it in a trusted, validated way. So I did quite a lot of searching around, and the tool that we decided to settle on was a tool called the Edinburgh and Warwick Wellbeing Scale (EWWS) which is fairly well used and becoming more well-used. And there’s a number of reasons why, I think, this tool is really applicable. The first is that the way it’s phrased is quite positive. A whole bunch of scales are medicalised and problematised and actually make you feel worse just from doing them, which I’m sure isn’t the intention. But these questions are very, very positive. They’re questions which are designed to elicit a subjective reflection on two aspects of wellbeing. The first one of those is hedonic wellbeing which is that piece about being satisfied in the moment, immediate gratification. So the kid who’s just learned to play the piano is feeling really, really great because he’s achieved that thing really, really quickly. But the second element is eudaimonic wellbeing. Eudaimonia is Greek for life-satisfaction, so it plays back to that piece around wellbeing of how we exist within our communities and how we perceive ourselves to be functioning. So those are the two elements from academic, theoretical backgrounds that we know make up wellbeing, and the questions within the EWWS are designed to elicit responses around those. The questionnaire uses a Likert scale response, so there are four answers for every question, none of the time, rarely, some of the time, often, all of the time, and what we can do is attribute a value to each of those answers. So at the end of the questionnaire we’ve got a subjective reflection that we can sum the score of, that gives us a concrete number.
Because this scale was developed by the NHS and developed by Edinburgh and Warwick universities there’s been a lot of peer-reviewed work on the accuracy of it, and also there’s been a lot of use of reviews. And what that means is, the sample size at which we’re looking at this questionnaire being used is something like 60,000+ people. So it’s been used by the NHS, Ipsos Mori, UK Government, so if we’ve got a sample size of 60,000 people we can then test the accuracy of the answers by statistically analysing it. So all of that work has been done and the scale is validated as being reasonably, very accurate, depending upon what you read, but the fact that it’s done at that scale of 60,000 people means that there’s an average wellbeing score that John or Jane, UK citizen, place themselves at. And if we’ve got an average UK wellbeing score, then we’ve got something we can compare what we’re doing against, rather than making up our own scale. So that’s a really useful thing to have. I see lots of organisations making up their own scales and I find that quite frustrating because it doesn’t build an evidence base. What we’ve done, is build the collection of these questionnaires and the analysis into the platform that we’ve built, so it’s all recorded and analysed live, and that’s done within sessions. It’s done at the first session, and the end session – the journey travelled. What it isn’t – and I think this is really important to stress – is it’s not an individual diagnostic tool for measuring somebody’s changing wellbeing. What it is, is a population-level steer on how the organisation is doing. It needs to be used at scale, rather than being able to say, John has increased three points.
AH: Ah, that’s interesting. Sorry, Simon, I’m just thinking how does that play out with commissioner’s of service?
SG: I think there’s a couple of things here. Different people react differently to different types of evidence that you present them with. The point of the platform is that we’ve got equal amounts of this quantitative data and because we’ve collected a lot of it we can look at how the organisation is performing say demographically. So we can look at 13-16-year-olds from a certain contract and say these are the impacts over that population where we saw a meaningful impact on wellbeing. That’s interesting to have that information at your fingertips, and some commissioners will respond really, really positively to that. But other commissioners will respond really, really well to the story data, so we say, ‘Here’s this population data saying that we are statistically significant’ – which I’ll explain in a minute – ‘in impacting on wellbeing. If we dive in to some of the data points, and those data points are otherwise known as people, and actually show you the story that they have told from their perspective with the co-production of their family and their professional key workers, that as a broad evidence base is much more convincing than just singularly, quantitative data or singularly, qualitative data.
AH: I really like that. I think that makes so much sense that you’ve got the organisational, large-scale data that’s giving evidence that your approach works, and then for the rest of it you just use qualitative data.
SG: One of the things that’s unusual about that is that 99% of organisations I look at are trying to retrospectively fit digital impact solutions onto existing work, which doesn’t work very well. This has always been designed to be digital. So the digital story isn’t built by us, it’s built by the participant and their family with the musician in the session. The collection of the impact data is built into the first session and the last session. The only thing that the young person we’re working with is aware of, is seven questions about wellbeing at the beginning and seven questions at the end. Everything else, equal amounts of qualitative and quantitative data they build themselves, and from the research Masters that I did we’ve built in all the statistical analysis so we can make an informed presentation of the data in the language that commissioners understand around statistical significance or range of change.
So a really quick precis of ‘statistical significance’, it’s just a really posh way of saying, ‘If I feed somebody into this process, what’s the confidence level, the probability, that when they come out the other end, that there’s going to an improvement’. That’s it. That’s quite a simple description, but that’s what we’re looking at. What having all the data at our fingertips enables us to do is to drill down about where the organisation is most successful. We’re moving from a position of impact capture to impact management. We can say, for instance, if I’m in a meeting with a commissioner who has a finite amount of resources, I can very confidently say, ‘If you want to invest those resources in the most targeted way, our data tells us that we’re most impactful with 16-24-year-olds, actually we’re twice as impactful on the wellbeing of young women than we are on young men. So our sweet spot is 16-24-year-old young women, that’s where you should be placing any resources you want to give us.’
AH: Ah, OK. And then where does that ‘statistical significance’ come from? Sorry, if it sounds like a stupid question, but has that come from the fact that the Cabinet Office has looked into this?
SG: No. Statistical analysis is used across a whole range of sectors. It’s the analysis of figures which are very common mathematical tools which are used to get a steer on whether something’s working or not. We just happen to have applied them within the context of this start and end data supplied by this tool that the NHS has developed.
AH: Ah, right. And then a really quick, practical question, how do you ask the young people those questions? Is it verbally, is it on an app or something?
SG: So again it’s built within the platform and there’s a questionnaire on there and it’s just a tick box exercise so they can be left to do it on their own, or if they want some help with it, we can help with that. These things can all be picked apart really, really easily by people who get obsessed by statistical analysis and sociological approaches to collecting evidence. But all I’m trying to do is get a steer for the organisation as a whole on how well it’s performing. One of the things that was really interesting about the time I spent more immersed in the academic world was that I was finding myself in rooms with people who’d been there for 20 years arguing about the perfect way to do something and never actually doing anything. So I’m not saying that work’s not important – it is, obviously – but I’m a practitioner. I want practical answers to how I can solve problems for the work that we’re doing, and that’s how we applied that to our work.
AH: Absolutely. I should say that the ‘statistically significant’ question came from Plymouth Music Zone. Another question that was on social media is Nell Farrelly who’s an evaluation expert asks, ‘I’m interested in data collection implications, particularly data sharing arrangements, of working on NHS-commissioned work. Have you encountered issues which have been difficult to navigate?’.
SG: No, is the short answer. I think because we have such a good grasp and ability to present the data, and an understanding of why we think that data works, we’re able to control the narrative. I’ve been quite surprised by some of the conversations I’ve had with commissioners and the amount of times they said, ‘Well this is far more sophisticated than what we’re used to seeing. We’re used to just getting a few qualitative case studies’.
AH: And is that from the arts, or just generally from other interventions as well?
SG: Generally. Because we can control that narrative, and obviously this is with the full caveat that all of our policies are in place. We’ve thought really, really carefully about the impact and the ethics of what we do, and the platform is very, very specific about who it will let see files and only certain url addresses will enable you to play any videos that we create. There’s a whole bunch of stuff behind the scenes that we’ve done to reassure quite risk-averse organisations that the work is safe. So with all that in mind, we haven’t actually had any issues really because it hasn’t really come up. We get the consent of the commissioning organisation to do the work, and everytime a young person logs in there’s a small splash screen saying, ‘Are you happy for us to use this?’, the parents are aware of what’s going on, so it just hasn’t been an issue.
AH: OK, that’s really interesting. Moving on, I wanted to come on to commissioners in terms of communications and sales I guess. You’re not a charity, and you only work on commissions is that right?
SG: Well, yeah. We haven’t used any grant funding for any of the delivery work that we’ve done in the last ten years. It’s a social enterprise, and 100% of any surplus or profit goes back into the organisation.
AH: So you’re completely reliant on marketing to commissioners or having a good relationship, which is more important, with commissioners, and I suppose the question on some listeners’ minds is, ‘How did you begin to secure those commissions, particularly in the early days?’.
SG: You just have to find the right person to take a punt on you. In the early days I’d already spent a considerable number of years working within this environment, so I did have some contacts. That definitely helped, but what was more impactful was the ability to show what we were doing was working. And I had some very good advice, right at the beginning which was from somebody who’s been around social enterprises for years, and that piece of advice was, ‘Just start capturing something as soon as you can’. Because once you get that first person to take a punt and capture it, that gives you more leverage for the next person and it just builds. Yeah, it’s relationships and it’s also about solving somebody’s problem to an extent to which they’re prepared to pay you for it.
AH: Absolutely classic marketing and classic kind of advocacy as well. So I’m just interested in the scale of your organisation before I go on to the next question which is about scaling up, how many young people do you reach and what’s the average cost and in a sense the return on investment if you’re OK to answer that?
SG: Sure. I’m very keen on being quite transparent about stuff. People don’t share this stuff enough. So, we are currently delivering about 100 one-to-one targeted sessions a month. No, 120 actually this month – we’ve just had a chunk of funding from central government to work on attendance within the Ipswich Opportunity Area. Each of those places costs £1,827.50. It’s costed out at full recovery so that covers the musician’s time, the development of the platform, the upkeep of the platform, sometimes we’ll use those digital stories to collate evidence for arts awards, it covers all of that work. It’s a skinny model, and some people I say that to say that it’s incredibly expensive and other people I speak to say it’s incredibly cheap. Some of that money also includes hiring studios as well. So, I’m not sure if I said at the beginning that the first five weeks are at home and the second five weeks are in a recording studio. It’s about the same price as a plumber, right? We’ve just done an eight month piece of work with a Cambridge pharma data company who put a team of five people on a social return on investment project looking at the work. We gave them a very strict brief that we wanted it to be really, really tight and to only claim anything that we could actually prove. So we were very, very clear that it had to be attributable, and that the projection couldn’t be way into the future at all, I think it’s just based on a year.
So, what we found was that the social return on investment figure was £2.20 for every pound spent. So that’s not taking into account four, maybe five young people in the last three or four months who have been diverted from either admission to acute awards within CAHMS, where the NHS placed that cost at something like £60,000 a year. So we’re not counting that stuff. We could claim it, but we’re not because it’s something that didn’t happen. So yes, it doesn’t sound like a huge figure but it is a 120% return so it’s not too bad. And one of the things we actually want to do as well is within the platform we’re going to build that cost projection saving stuff into the platform as well so you’ve got these digital stories, population wellbeing level, and potential cost savings. Again, it’s not a perfect, exact science, but it’s there as a steer.
AH: Yes, and we’ve got to start somewhere. It’s such an interesting model, and a model I think other organisations would be really, really interested in. And that leads me on to a question from Lucy Stone, a fundraiser, who asks, ‘What are your plans for the future?’. I know you and I have talked about whether or not you have plans for scaling up?
SG: I think the current climate, for organisations that are predominantly funded either by education, or local authority or NHS, is incredibly difficult and getting harder. So that commissioning landscape is really, really tough. We’re OK because we’re able to control this narrative about the impact we’re doing, I think that places them in a strong position, but it’s still not plain sailing. So what we would like to do is to actually sidestep that whole commissioning process entirely. The intention is to use the platform as a licencable product so that we can create an independent income stream that anybody who’s working with people in any kind of mentoring, tutoring, teaching role where wellbeing is a useful metric for their commissioners, where it would be useful to capture those journeys and to leverage that digital story stuff to improve those outcomes, and who wants an ability to measure population level wellbeing scores and possible cost projections. Whenever I go to a meeting and start talking about the platform’s ability to do all this stuff, and report pretty much automatically on all of those outcomes, I think that’s quite a viable product. I think it hopefully has national, if not international traction, and the idea is to use that as an income stream. We’re also looking at quite a lot of dialogue with national organisations or departments around scaling that way as well. We have an intention to be national over the next four years, and we want to do that in a side-by-side programme whereby we maybe licence to some organisations, both the training and the platform, because I think they come hand in hand. You have to have an understanding of the theoretical underpinning to use the platform effectively, but at the same time we’re carrying on with organic growth. But yes it’s absolutely the intention to be national if not international.
AH: That’s really exciting to hear and so people should get in touch with you if they’re interested in potentially licencing your model?
SG: Especially if they’ve got some cash, yes!
AH: And finally, can you give us three practical pieces of advice or maybe three calls to action for others working in music education who are listening based on your experiences?
SG: The first one I’ve already mentioned is that if you’re not capturing anything, start. If you’re not measuring it then you’re not able to see where it’s not working and you’re not going to be able to effectively improve what you’re doing. So there’s that.
The other question that I think all organisations should be asking themselves is ‘why does what we do work?’. People don’t ask themselves that enough. All of the wellbeing work for us, and all of the methodologies, is about our audience. It’s not something that can just be retro-fitted onto another project. All of the wellbeing scale data is subjective reflections, so that’s not going to work within an Early Years setting or a dementia setting. So you need to think about who your audience is. It’s very, very helpful, especially in a grant environment to be able to control that narrative around impact because you’re able to push back against funders who don’t mind this happening when I’ve had conversations with them, saying, ‘No, our evidence collection is better than what you’re actually requiring us to do’, and they will trust you if you can set out the argument well. We’ve spent a lot of time pushing back against education organisations or local authority organisations who are making decisions about kids lives because of systems rather than what would be better for that young person. I would advise more pushing back.
The other thing is it doesn’t matter how good your theoretical model is, or your evidence base, unless you’ve got a business model that works. And that seems to stand us in good stead. We had some good news this week in that we were ranked in the top 100 social UK enterprises by performance by NatWest. Those are the kinds of things that are really, really nice in terms of providing social proof when you’re talking to those larger organisations.
AH: Congratulations on that. That’s a fantastic achievement. And thank you so much for talking to me. It’s always great to talk to you and I never have enough time to talk to you. So thanks for coming on the show and I’m sure you’ve sparked lots of ideas and further conversations among listeners to this show. So if you want to read more about Noise Solution I’ll share the link to their website and their evaluation studies in the show notes, and if you have any questions or anything you’d like to share, do comment online, on Twitter or LinkedIn, and of course do get in touch with Simon. Thank you very much.