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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [38] TRANSCRIPT: James McPherson, Managing Director of Music Leaders UK

AH: Hello, and welcome back to the podcast. We’ve paused the podcast since last year, but we’re back up and running and looking forward to more great conversations with people doing interesting work in music for education and wellbeing. In this episode, I’m talking with James McPherson, who is leading a brilliant initiative to help young people to develop their music and leadership skills, whether they’re in school, or in other settings. It’s a new music certificate for Key Stage 3 pupils called Music Leaders UK, and it’s been developed with young people, teachers, and the music industry by a community music charity called The Music Works. So welcome, James. And thank you so much for coming to talk with me today.

JM: Thank you for having me.

AH: Firstly, can you tell me a bit about how this all came about?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. The certificates come from a charity called The Music Works who are based in Gloucestershire. And they’ve been running for 20 years with the remit to engage young people from diverse backgrounds in music. And to that end, they run programmes in schools, they have a bricks and mortar Hub, soon to be two, where young people can rehearse, record, and be exposed to music technology. And they also have with them, a group of music leaders, subject matter experts in genre and music tech, who work with them in order to build their experience and exposure to music. And the charity started thinking about what it was that they might be able to do nationally, to cast their net wider and to walk the walk in terms of engaging people from diverse backgrounds, and underserved communities and demographics in music. And so they struck on the idea of launching a certificate that has become Music Leaders Level 1. It’s aimed at Key Stage 3, and I think the gap that The Music Works noted was that 90% of young people will give up their music education before GCSE, and that that number is growing. So the question was, well, what can we do to engage young learners in music and to give them a passion for the topic, so that they might then choose to continue studying music at a higher level?

AH: Absolutely, James. And I think that it’s something that’s recognised in music education, in fact with anybody working with young people is that music is one of the most popular pastimes, young people are passionate about it. A lot of people, young people, make music in their own time and love making music, but actually, we’re not seeing that passion, reflected in them deciding to take a music qualification. And musical qualifications don’t necessarily mean that you have to want to pursue a career in music, do they? So I guess that’s part of what The Music Works was aiming at, is to just recognise young people’s interest and skills in music.

JM: I think you’re absolutely right. And I think one of the things that’s unique about the music leaders certificate is that it does engage young people in something that they care about. And it imparts those foundational, essential transferable leadership skills in the context of music. And what’s more, and where the certificate goes a little further, is it enables learners to not only gain leadership skills in the context of music, but to gain it in the context of the music that they’re passionate about. So we’re tapping into something that our Key Stage 3 pupil already cares about, and really allowing them to run with it.

AH: And so this idea of this certificate was formed and then The Music Works trialled it with their own learners?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. So the aspiration is there will be a Level 2 award that’s already been trialled in schools. The trial of the Level 1 award is actually going on now. So we have a school that’s signed up and they’re delivering it over the course of a term in an after-school setting. The nice thing about the certificate is that it’s really flexible, and it can be delivered as part of the curriculum. There’s a 50% overlap with the music curriculum. But it can be delivered in other contexts as well.

AH: Oh, that’s brilliant. And I just want to be clear for listeners, what this is, and what this isn’t. So it isn’t an accreditation yet, but it has the same outcomes. Is that right? So it acknowledges and rewards learners’ own music making inside and outside of school?

JM: That’s exactly right. It’s not accredited, but it does have the same outcomes and approach. It’s been designed to be ready for the accreditation process. But what we found from going to schools is that what they’re asking for now is something that’s flexible and that’s quick to deliver. So the idea with Music Leaders Level 1 is it can be delivered in any school, and it doesn’t even have to be a school. But no matter what access to resources, whether that be instruments, or music software, or specialist staff, you can still deliver Music Leaders Level 1. I think I mentioned earlier, it’s already got a 50% overlap with the current music curriculum, so it can be delivered within music classes or without. Yeah, we’re hoping that that means that a critical mass of young people will get involved and study for their Music Leaders Level 1 with a view to encourage them to uptake music education at the next level, or simply to enjoy themselves.

AH: And so it can be delivered in schools or it could be delivered in sort of youth work settings or pupil referral units or education out of school settings.

JM: Absolutely.

AH: And you don’t need to be a sort of qualified musician, or music educator to deliver that. Is that right?

JM: No, you don’t. I think what the curriculum team has been at pains to do at every step in putting the award together, has been thinking about accessibility. So we know that not every school has access to specialist music teachers. And we know that there are all sorts of differing levels of access to musical instruments and equipment in schools. So at every stage, we’ve tried to make sure that any school who has a group of learners for whom they can see value in the award is able to deliver. And to that end, the team has put together an absolutely fantastic breadth of resources for teachers, so that they can pick up the call and run with it.

AH: So just to get to the crux of it, what do students actually learn? Can you give me an overview of what’s in the certification?

JM: Sure, the certificate is split into three units. So the first covers leadership skills, self motivation, communication, organisation, problem solving, as well as soft skills, empathy, patience, and respect to help them to become reflective leaders. And the idea is that although this is a music leaders certificate, that actually those skills will be applicable in everyday life in other areas of their study. The second unit is about the foundational aspects of music, so pulse, melody, rhythm, expression, and dynamics. And they’re encouraged to go away and reflect on those foundational aspects of music in the context of the music that they love, whether that be hip hop, grime, heavy metal, or Edward Elgar. And then the third unit is about planning and delivering an effective music experience. So this is practical, this is the performance aspect of the certificate. And it could be about hosting an experience enhanced with music or leading a workshop, it could be delivering some sort of performance in or outside of a school setting, whether that be in an assembly, fate, or in an educational context perhaps. It doesn’t have to be a formal concert. The idea with unit three is that the primary aim is to engage and entertain.

AH: That sounds brilliant. So they could use this to become music educators or music leaders themselves, so people delivering workshops eventually, or they could use it to sort of help them to follow a more traditional music education path or simply for enjoyment.

JM: I guess that Music Leaders Level 1 is the first step on that stair, yeah. You can take it further and, as I’ve said, something that music leaders are really enthusiastic about is the idea that there will be some sort of benefit to learners continuing with their music education, so that they take it further. But even if that weren’t the case, they’ll still leave with practical skills in terms of those music fundamentals, soft skills in terms of those leadership essentials that we use at every stage of our lives, but also a sense of accomplishment, enjoyment, and a bonding experience with the rest of their cohort, their classmates.

AH: So it’s quite unique, isn’t it, and really innovative. One of the things that’s unique about it, I believe, is that it can be completed in quite a short time as that school’s demonstrating, and you can also start it at year seven. So potentially, as a young person going into a secondary school, you could have some kind of acknowledgement of your music skills by the end of your first year. Is that right?

JM: Absolutely. And I think one of the things that’s been really pleasing to the team, we’re talking to schools, and every educator that we speak to has a slightly different take on how the certificate would work for their learners. So some say, Look, this is absolutely ideal for you for year nine, which can be a slightly fallow year in terms of music education, others are saying this would be ideal to engage my year sevens, my year eights, we’ve got some schools that are really excited to deliver over the course of a year where the certificate will be really easy to integrate into the curriculum. So it’s 30 hours of study, 15 of those guided learning hours and 15 self-study. But equally, as the pilot programme that I mentioned demonstrates, it can be delivered very quickly across the term in and out of class context, also.

AH: And in terms of people delivering it, I’m just thinking about music education hubs as well. Have you had any contact with music education hubs? And how have they responded to it? Are there any, how would it work if a music education hub was keen to see that delivered in their area?

JM: Well, yes, we have been engaging with music education hubs, and I think the message is the same as that we’ve been getting from schools. It’s been uniformly positive, and a lot of the hubs have been kind enough to start reaching out to the schools in their network, to say, look at this new thing, this is innovative, and it does things at Key Stage 3 that perhaps haven’t been done before.

AH: You mentioned guidance and resources for people who might not be music specialists. Can you just tell me a little bit about those? What will people actually get for their money, I guess?

JM: Yeah, I think the curriculum team has gone further with supporting resources than you might get with other awards. So there’s a full suite of lesson plans with non-specialist educators, there’s curriculum guidance for each unit, there’s a fulsome and thorough manual, a full evaluation criteria, there’s a suite of useful videos, loads of support and resources. And I think that we are the sort of organisation that actually wants to engage and talk to educators, and we want to learn about how teachers in schools are delivering the programme, so that we can offer support and guidance on the one hand, but on the other so that we can learn what’s working really well and how schools are best capturing that engagement so that we can share success stories and start to build that picture of how we make the certificate as engaging and as impactful as we possibly can.

AH: So you’ve tested with your own learners, you’ve got a school working on it at the moment, and you’re in discussion with lots of schools, lots of hubs, lots of other settings at the moment. And the idea is I believe that this cohort begins in September or are there any schools or settings starting it before September?

JM: Yeah, the one school is starting as a pilot now. So before the summer break. Most schools that we’re speaking to we’re aiming to start delivery in September, but as we’ve said, it’s a really flexible award. And so we’re open to discussions from teachers who think that it might fit a niche that’s peculiar to them or their learners. As I said, we’ve got full assessment guidance and if there’s a way that those 15 hours of classroom time and 15 hours of self-study can work, we’re open to the certificate being delivered in any context.

AH: I’m sure that will be a relief to people who are curious about that, that it’s so flexible. So I’m trying to think about the people listening who might be part of an overstretched youth work team or an overstretched head of music in a school, and I guess that the questions on their minds might be, is it going to be a lot of hassle to get going and to deliver it? And also, obviously, the big question, is it expensive? So can you just sort of run me through, if somebody’s interested, what are the steps they need to take? And then what would it involve for them to actually get on and deliver this? And then obviously, what sort of costs should they be considering?

JM: Absolutely. If you’re interested to learn more, I think a good first point of call would be our website, which is Or you could email directly to It’s not designed to be anything other than light touch, and easy to incorporate into your delivery, whether that be within the curriculum or outside. All one would need to do is fill in a centre registration form, which says, ‘We are x and we would like to deliver music leaders level one’. In the future, there will be a fee associated with that, but we’re waiving that £350 fee until the end of May. And then in terms of cost, it would depend on the size of the cohorts, but it’s anything between £10 and £30 per learner. And as soon as you’ve filled in your centre approval form, we’re happy to give you access to your resources. When we start registering learners, I guess it will be in September now, but if before, that’s fine, too. I’m really happy to get on a call with anyone and take them through what we’ve got and show them how easy it would be to deliver it.

AH: Really interesting. To me, it doesn’t sound very costly, really, when you think about it, what people will get for their money and the transformation I guess it could potentially make to music in their school. And so that’s what I want to go on to ask about. It feels like it could potentially be quite disruptive, and it sounds like you feel it’s needed. And I know that this type of intervention is needed really, we all know that. What’s your long-term vision for this work? What is the impact? And what are the outcomes that you hope it’ll achieve in the long term?

JM: So we know, and music teachers know, and educators know that many young people who are passionate about music, and would love to have some kind of recognition of that, through no fault of their own, and through no fault of music teachers, are being left behind. So whilst what exists in music education currently is ideal, for some groups of learners, it isn’t perfect for everyone. So I talked earlier in the interview about this idea of critical mass. We’d like to get to the point where a big enough group of learners are engaged with Music Leaders Level 1, that it actually shifts the dial, and you’ve got more people going through to study music at that next level. And even for those who don’t, it’s a really good early way of developing leadership skills, confidence, and building shared experience and bonds among students as well as addressing their confidence, their self-esteem and their self-worth, all of which are issues which concern mental health challenges for young people. Looking forward to the future, we are in the process of developing our Level 2. So the work doesn’t stop here.

AH: This sounds so exciting, James, and I’m going to be really watching closely to see what happens and how this plays out in schools from September onwards. Really, really interesting. Thank you so much. It’s been fantastic to hear about this. And I’m sure there’ll be a lot of interest from listeners. So I’ll make sure that all links and contact details are in the show notes. Thank you so much for joining me today, James.

JM: Thank you for having me.

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