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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [40] TRANSCRIPT: James Dickinson, head of Hull Music Service

AH: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. In this episode, I’m joined by James Dickinson, head of Hull Music Service, which is part of the local authority and also lead for the new music education hub covering Hull, East Riding, north and northeast Lincolnshire. I contacted James because he recently published two reports that I know will be of interest to people working in or with music services and hubs, and music education organisations in the UK. The first report is a collaboration with a local authority to look at pupil data to explore the impact of music on attainment. The second is an annual impact report showing the impact to the work of the service. So two reports that we don’t often see produced by music services and hubs. But hopefully this might inspire people to look into this for themselves. So welcome, James, I’m really looking forward to finding out more about how you’ve been collecting and analysing data to evidence your impact.

JD: Thanks for having me.

AH: Now, the first report really is gold dust for a music service, I’d say, comparing attainment between all pupils in the city with that of pupils that the music service supports. And then within that you’ve been pulling out data about those identified as what local authority terms disadvantaged or as having special educational needs. So firstly, can you tell me how this demography and standards report came about?

JD: Yes, well, we first looked at this before COVID. And it was thanks to the data team within the local authority within learning and skills, which is the team in which the music service sits, and they run a huge number of reports, many of them for statutory reasons. And obviously, like most local authorities, there’s always an emphasis and a priority on those children and young people who are disadvantaged, children looked after, SEN, etc. And the head of the data team, really, as an experiment ran this first report for us. So that was 2019, I think, 2019/2020. And it came about because we are able to have access to the [unique pupil reference] UPN numbers, and we liaise with the data team in the authority to get those numbers. And by having the unique pupil reference numbers that enables you to extract, anonymously, data relating to those children and young people. And because they’ve done that exercise, they then decided to take that block of UPNs, and run it against the city attainment data. And it revealed this pattern, which essentially meant that if you receive a musical instrument lesson or indeed a singing lesson on a weekly basis, in either a small group or individual lesson, so this doesn’t include whole class work, then every cohort either matched or outperformed the city averages for that cohort. And it was really striking that in fact, when one was looking at some of the more vulnerable groups, SEN in particular, that the difference in attainment was significant. And because the report is based on a reasonably large sample, so we teach over 2000 children and young people in small group and individual lessons across the city’s 100 schools, it really points to there being clear evidence that engaging in regular music making delivers a direct contribution to improved attainment.

AH: That’s fantastic. And I’ve got quite a few questions bouncing around in my mind. So first of all, when you talk about disadvantage, is that based on Pupil Premium? Is that the criteria that’s used?

JD: Yes, you can look at the data in a number of ways. So for example, there are formal headings that come with the UPN data. So it covers things like children who have qualified for free school meals, Pupil Premium, English as an additional language, black and minority ethnic pupils and looked after children and children in care and under the corporate parenting of the local authority. So you can drill down to those individual disadvantages, or one can collate them and measure impact that way. So for the purposes of this report, there was a specific look at SEN because this was forming part of a wider data trawl because of SEN being a particular priority for the authority. And this report enabled the music service to be contributing to that wider strategic look at SEN. But it could have looked at any of those disadvantaged measures.

AH: And so did you have to kind of make the case, or have you been making the case – I guess you have over a number of years – for the music service to be part of those analysis and those strategic decision makings? Basically the music service and music being part of policy and the outcomes to the local authority, because I know, a lot of music services, sort of find that hard to make the case. It’s almost as though a music service is seen as separate to the local authority that it belongs to, which seems crazy, because why would you have a music service if it wasn’t contributing overall to your outcomes? But sometimes there seems to be a disconnect. The question I want to ask is, How did you build a relationship with that team who are crunching the data? How did you get included in that data crunch?

JD: Partly, it’s structural. So the music service sits under learning and skills. So I report directly to the assistant director who is Head of Learning and Skills, and I attend their senior leadership team meetings with other heads of service, which means that I get a regular opportunity to share and understand the wider pressures and challenges of education within the authority. And conversely, it means that music is seen as a valued component of that learning and skills team. So it’s partly because of where I sit within the leadership structure of the authority. That enables us to have a strong relationship with the strategy that links the authority to schools, but also we are involved in the discussion of data on a range of issues. So in a sense, it’s come as a consequence of the authority placing value on retaining the music service as part of that strategic leadership team.

AH: That’s great. And there were two really clear questions that framed this report weren’t there. And it’s always helpful to have clear questions to frame any sort of analysis, and they were how representative of the broader city school population is the music services pupil base, and what evidence is there to suggest that the service adds value to the attainment and progress of supported pupils. The results are really brilliant. They’re kind of results that maybe those of us working in music education wouldn’t be surprised to see. But we so rarely have that really strong data, because we often don’t get access to those UPN numbers. So do you want to talk to me a bit about, you know, delve a bit deeper into those fantastic results. For example, in reading, writing, and maths, the progress scores for all pupils supported by the music service were either equal to or higher than the city cohort, and sometimes a lot higher. And then I think there was an example in writing for pupils with SEN. Just sort of tell me a little bit more about those.

JD: Sure. Yes, I mean, the first question about how it’s representative of the broader city school population is an interesting one. And I guess as a question, it links some of the information in this report, and also into the annual report, which we’ll come to later. So in other words, we’re trying to contextualise the music provision, which in a city like Hull, where you have, as I say, 100 schools, roughly 90 primary schools and 10 secondaries. Are we relying on high numbers in more affluent parts of the city? And are we being truly representative? So we’ve tried to understand our data in two ways. Well, more than two ways, but two primary ways, I guess. One is to be able to drill down postcode wise to understand that the provision doesn’t have any significant gap. So irrespective of where you are in the city, is there a reasonable chance that you will be able to access some high quality music making. And then the other is profiling against the vulnerabilities and the other reasons why certain groups might be excluded. So for example, if you look at progress as a city, in Key Stage Two, if we take the disadvantaged Key Stage Two cohort, there’s a minus point four score across reading, which is actually very similar, well it’s exactly the same as the music service ones, minus 0.4. But when you look at writing, the city’s disadvantaged score is naught point three. And the music service cohort is 1.2. And that’s significantly higher. It’s not marginal. And increasingly in this data, we see a trend where the most vulnerable groups tend to outperform the city cohort. And the main example which essentially summarises the report is the attainment and progress in general. So if you look at attainment eight, the average score for pupils with special educational needs supported by the music service was 43.6 compared to a 25.2 score for the city wide cohort. Now in a sense, that then creates as many questions as it answers. Because obviously, there are very, very challenging circumstances in Hull, it’s one of the poorest local authority areas in the country. And there are a significant number of families and young people living under really very challenging circumstances, either economically or with additional needs. So the results are localised in that sense. But the power of this report is that when you can present it to bodies like the Standards Committee, or the Learning Partnership, which is where all the chief executives of all the multi Academy trusts come together, you’re talking about data, for their patch, you’re not talking about a national trend, or reports where we may feel one step removed. Living in Hull, we’re actually talking about Hull data and that can be drilled down to a ward level or school level, or however, the stakeholders want to view it. And I think that’s the power of it. And it might look different in different areas. But having that local narrative, whatever the narrative is, enables a music service to have a more detailed discussion about both the strengths and the weaknesses of its current provision. And I think enabled stakeholders feel that we are able to contextualise what we do in a coherent way, which I think is really valuable.

AH: And so what will you do next, in terms of evaluation and monitoring? For example, do you have any plans to do the same sort of analysis for pupils involved in whole class?

JD: That’s a good question. I mean, there are a number of gaps, and it’s the way that the attainment data is actually received by the authority. But one of the big gaps is understanding what happens at Key Stage Three, because we need to be talking to schools directly about that data, to get a more complete picture, because there isn’t a requirement for schools to share that data in the same way. So there are ways that we could build more on the report as it stands. The whole class is interesting, because it possibly moves one step away from being an individual pupil report. We don’t necessarily retain the individual pupil information in a whole class programme, as we do with a small group. So it would need a different type of report. I think one of the things, and we were working on this with the University of Hull, is to look at the impact of transitions. So if we’re looking at those pupils who have reached a higher level of attainment, and they’re in year six, and then maybe they stop in year seven, does that higher level of attainment remain? Or does it go back to where it was before being engaged in music? So in other words, is this a short term impact? Or is there another reason for secondary schools to look at the importance of sustaining learning from year six into seven? Not because it’s just a good thing to do, but also because in fact, it could be impacting on the attainment scores for new cohorts of year sevens. So there are various strands that we could look at. I mean, I have to say, as well, the caveat of this is also to say that the main purpose for schools to deliver a high quality music curriculum and opportunities in music is because that should be the case in its own right. So that’s why it should be done. But in this world of increasing budget pressures, if this contextual information enables schools to understand in more detail why they should and could be making this investment and why they’re getting return on that investment, that I think adds value to that whole narrative between music services and schools.

AH: Yes definitely. Are you planning the same exercise again, annually? Or are you expanding that exercise?

JD: Well, it’ll either be annual or every other year, we’ve established between the two reports that we’ve done, the first one 2018 and the second one for last academic year, that the first report wasn’t a one off, they’re very, very similar. And the percentages involved seem remarkably unaffected by the fact we’ve had COVID in between. So it would suggest that this wasn’t an anomaly of one year, that in fact there’s a longer lasting case for it happening on an ongoing basis. So I think an annual report would enable us to say, ‘Yes, this is now this is a pattern’, but I think as you’ve suggested, it’s more what we could do from here, and maybe drill down into individual components of it, whether that’s by vulnerability, or by postcode, and just try and understand how to use that data in a more effective way. I mean, I don’t think we should over labour it and be entirely directed by what the data says. I see reports like this, reinforcing the principles of this is why you need a high quality workforce committed to doing high quality music provision in schools. Rather than trying to gauge a strategic strategy from the data, if that makes sense? The data should reinforce that you’re doing the right thing. If we were having no impact at all, or indeed a negative impact, or people who were learning music were somehow falling behind, then obviously that would tell its own story. And of course, there has always been an implication over the years that certain schools have, you know, they’ve been reticent about pupils coming out of lessons because they’d be, quote, unquote, you know, missing something. Well, actually, this report demonstrates that the exact opposite is true. Let them out for their instrumental lesson, and in fact that there will be no negative impact on their learning. In fact, it will improve. So things like that giving schools confidence to say actually, this type of provision is part of what we do and isn’t interrupting the learning of pupils whilst they’re at school.

AH: Absolutely. You mentioned that the University of Hull is working with you. I’m really interested in partnerships between arts and music organisations and universities, because I think they can add a lot of value to each other’s work. So how did that come about? And how is that research, I guess, being funded, actually? That’s fascinating. That’s going to be really sort of significant for the sector, I think, to have that type of research. Have you got a timescale for releasing the information?

JD: So it came about, the initial discussions came out after the first data report before COVID. And we agreed some formal research with the University which has been funded as part of their PhD strategy. And it’s looking at the impact of transition on musical learning. So they’ve been following a cohort of young people, both in Hull and in the East Riding. And the idea is to track the learning, understand why families have made the decision to stop learning, change instruments to take exams, and then report back on those findings. So that’s in progress at the moment, and it’s involved, you know, questionnaires with families, with staff, with pupils. So we’re hoping that that will add another strand to our research programme. We chose transition because of the obvious flashpoint of it being a drop off in musical learning and to understand what’s actually going on there. Well, in a sense, we’re now waiting for the new year sevens to appear in September. So I would have thought we’d be looking midway through the next academic year for some interim findings. And also, we need to reassess how long a timescale we’re actually looking at this? Yeah, nothing, nothing imminent, but I would have thought in the next six months or so.

AH: Fantastic. We’ll keep a lookout for that. So you’ve also produced an annual report, which summarises a lot of the sorts of data you have to report to Arts Council [England], but it’s made in a format that’s palatable for stakeholders and the general public. Now charities often do this, but I’ve not seen many music services or hubs do this. So it’s great to see you taking that initiative, I think I only know of one off the top of my head, which is Wiltshire. And I’m sure there are others. Would you like to just explain a little bit more about how you’re using it and what impact it’s had so far, or what feedback you’ve had about it?

JD: Sure. So I moved to Hull, back to Hull in 2018. And I had the opportunity again, because of where I sit within the local authority, which was to present a report on music service activity to the oversight and scrutiny committee, which is an opportunity to go in front of elected members and discuss what we’re doing and where we’re doing it. And the report began because, whilst there’s lots of really good stuff in the Arts Council [England] data return, the format that it generates is quite an unwieldy PDF, which answers the questions that Arts Council [England] asks and therefore doesn’t necessarily have some of the local context that elected councillors would look for. So that’s why we created the annual report. And then whilst we were producing this one, which is the fifth one I’ve done, there was a request that it became more accessible in terms of images, photographs, streamline some of the narrative, so that it was more accessible, but retain the data, the appendices along the lines of the information that the elected members wanted to see. And by a combination of those things, it created what I was then able to post online, which is a celebration of what we do, but also an explanation of how and where we do it. And as we were talking earlier about the demographic data, a lot of this data is underpinned by postcode data, where we can actually present where we teach. And so you can visually see in the appendices, well  this is where we teach and therefore where we don’t teach. And this allows elected councillors to see what’s going on in their ward. So there was a request a few years ago for the data to be presented on ward level. And it means that an individual councillor can see the level of engagement in the schools within their ward. And also the data, the deprivation indices that go alongside that. And some of the summary headlines that we’re able to put in, are really powerful and add a lot of leverage to what we do and why we do it. So for example, we had 14.5% of school aged children in Hull receiving weekly instrumental lessons. That’s a fantastic celebration of the breadth of engagement we’re able to achieve.  Not just us as a music service, this is in partnership with schools and other stakeholders. And that 48% of our small group and individual learners live in the 10% most deprived wards nationally. That is a soundbite, but it’s a really powerful one and dispels the myth that as a music service in an economically challenging area we are not an ivory tower, simply teaching those that can afford to pay, we are trying to position our service to ensure that as many children as possible have an equitable access to music. So it’s an advocacy document. It allows the local authority and other stakeholders to understand our direction of travel, as well as being a celebration of what we do. And sometimes we’re so busy planning the next phase that we sometimes miss the opportunity to say, well actually, look, this was another really successful year. And I’m always keen to present what we do in a positive light, because I’ve got a team of really high quality teachers who are doing an extraordinary job in very difficult circumstances. And it’s nice to be able to point to a document and say, ‘Look, this is what you’ve achieved’, which is, which is a testament to them as well.

AH: Absolutely, and it’s really powerful that you’ve done that postcode mapping, as you mentioned, to advocate to councillors. Also, I mean, you’ve gone further than the Arts Council [England] data, it’s not simply putting the Arts Council [England] data in a palatable format is it? You’ve used the kind of other aspects of data gathering that you’re doing independently to bring into this report. I was also interested to see you’ve even gone into sort of segmentation into lifestyle groups, which is something that large arts organisations with big budgets and massive teams are quite used to doing for audience development, using their box office data to analyse against the mosaic classification system and things like that. But you’ve done a little bit of that already in here, which was really interesting to see.

JD: Yes that came about because when I arrived in 2017 that was of course when Hull was the city of culture. And in order to, well make the case to become the city of culture, but also to record and report the impact of that huge opportunity for the city, the data teams within the Council were really clued up and alert to different ways of presenting data. So again, because we had the postcode data, we were then able to run that report relatively easily because it was something that the council was doing on an ongoing basis. And I just took advantage of that, ‘All right, we’ll put that in the report’. And it really adds value to what we do. I suppose one of the things that I tried to move away from is the idea that the Arts Council [England] data is some kind of annual penance that we all serve. And then we have a huge sigh of relief when we hand it in. I tried the starting point to say actually, I want to know what’s going on, on my patch in as much detail as possible. Because actually, it’s only with that information that we can make things better and improve. And yes, some of that information is requested by the Arts Council [England]. But we need to make sure that we’re capturing the data that we need in order to make a case for our own business strategy. And one of the advantages and real strengths of being part of a local authority and being locked and linked into these processes is that we can draw on these other data sources without having to start again and create them from scratch ourselves. So again, the annual report is an opportunity to go to these different data sources and say, ‘Right, what what could we learn about music?’. And you touched on the venues thing. You know, that’s another thing that we could profile engagement in Hull venues with young musicians and we could say, well, how many of your audience goers are under 18, etc, etc. So you can go down as many of these strands as possible, but only really, if the dataset and the access to the dataset is there. Sometimes we’re required to find numbers on something that is actually really difficult to do and you made that link to saying, you know, a number of music services don’t have access to UPNs, that then creates a huge uphill struggle to get, for what other services, is relatively straightforward. So the data playing field in that sense is not flat. And you know, all of these magic bullets that we crave to improve music education, you know, one of them would be to enable all music hubs to have access to UPNs. You know that would make the data that we’re able to present both locally, regionally, nationally, much more informative, whether that will happen, I don’t know.

AH: Yes, I’d certainly hope so. It’d be good if there’s some sort of national work done around that. Another thing that occurs to me is, as well as the advocacy to your VIPs and major stakeholders, I guess the value of that report is also that it improves your team’s understanding of the kind of bigger picture, because I bet so few team members would scour that Arts Council [England] report PDF that’s generated from your submission. And it’s so important for team members to be able to understand the bigger picture and be able to advocate on your behalf.

JD: Yes, I mean, the position of the instrumental workforce in this is really interesting. I mean, I’ve run a large music service with over 500 staff in Hertfordshire. And I’ve run a smaller one here with 40, staff, 45 staff. And one would imagine that the level of communication is easier in a smaller service. And to a certain extent, that’s true, but the role is still, by its very nature, a very isolated role. So actually having ways that they can understand where their work fits within the whole is really, really important. You know, the most valuable resource a music service has is its workforce. It is essentially pretty much the only thing that we spend money on, certainly the biggest single line in the budget. Yes, we buy instruments, yes, we hire venues and so forth. But actually, the workforce is our asset. If they don’t understand the impact that they’re making and the value that you’re placing on their work, that’s a real missed opportunity. Because actually, with a remote workforce, with a peripatetic workforce, you have to work harder to make sure they are informed and linked. So I think the annual report is as much an internal document as it is an outward facing one.

AH: Well, that’s great to hear and a good point to end on with your team, because they’re just so important. It’s so important that they feel confident they understand your purpose, and how you’re achieving your outcomes. So finally, I wondered what would be your advice to other music services and hubs on how they might either use this data or develop their own case for support?

JD: Well, I mean, as music services we talk to each other a lot, either on an individual one to one basis or in groups, whether that’s regional or other other reasons why we might come together. I think, from time to time, it would be useful if some of those discussions were included, something on data over and above what the Arts Council [England] asks for, I think there are some questions we could ask ourselves. Because this is only an example. I’m sure that, you know, there’ll be other reports, other data run by other services that provide other insights. So understanding what’s out there would be really good. And then also to show this report and others to data people, either internally, or if you’re in a council within a council team and say, ‘Can we do this? How far away from being able to do this are we? What would we need?’. I’ll give you one example. The postcode data actually comes from the fact that we, anybody that learns a musical instrument with Hull music service gets a free instrument, if they want it. But in order to have that they have to sign a form to say that they’re going to look after it. And in that form, it’s their name and address. So the postcode data that we extract is actually driven by the instrument loan information, rather than it being anything to do with tuition. So it’s looking at your own data, perhaps a bit more laterally and saying, ‘Well, what data have we got, and why have we got it? And is any of that data usable for other reasons?’. Or does that route to data, could that be a way if we ask a couple more questions that we maybe need, then actually, does that enable us to access other data from other sources? So I think it’s trying to just take stock of everything that’s collated, the purpose, and how many tweaks and changes would you need to make in order for it to create a meaningful sample for you to run other data against it? And it is an incredible frustration for all of us that we’re all dealing and juggling with incomplete datasets or things that we’d really like to get that we can’t. But I think it’s just being able to begin to ask those questions and see. We look after north east Lincolnshire as well currently, and there is a different process there, a different set of discussions. And we are in discussions with the local authority there about the access to UPN numbers, because we currently can’t run the same data set for half of our hub. So that essentially looks very, very different in each local authority area. And we’ll need a different approach. And that’s where I think the sharing and discussions amongst heads of service etc, would be really valuable.

AH: That sounds fantastic. And it really is brilliant what you’re doing in Hull, James. Whenever I’ve been in meetings with you, I’ve always learned loads from you and learnt new perspectives and insights. So I’d urge anyone with an interest in music education to take a look at those two reports that are on your website. And just thank you so much for making the time to talk to me today.

JD: Oh, thank you for having me.

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