As the cultural sector continues to evolve rapidly, why is it that UK conservatoires are still struggling to enrol diverse students? Administration and Communications Assistant Tom Foster reflects on how current practice can adapt.
Over recent years, it has been refreshing to witness a push from conservatoires across the country to increase the diversity of their student bodies. That being said, the cultural sector is currently evolving faster than ever, and the methods currently being employed to encourage diversity are fast growing outdated. This can be seen in access and participation reviews conducted by conservatoires themselves. The Royal College of Music, for example, has consistently achieved high numbers of diverse students completing the progression from enrolment to graduation. This figure has been above the national benchmark each year since 2014. The concerning figures are those detailing enrolment statistics. The institution has never managed to meet national benchmarks for recruiting students from low socio-economic households, students of particular ethnicities, and disabled students.
My experience of conservatoires comes from not only attending one as a master’s student, but also from working at another in its junior department. This in combination with the understanding of the wider sector that I have gained through my work with Orchestras Live has provided me with a clear idea of how these institutions fit into the big picture.
Currently, drives to encourage diversity consist of two key methods. Most UK conservatoires have established specialist departments aimed at outreach and community engagement. These departments work with local schools and community groups to provide music activities for children who otherwise would not have access to music education. That being said, only approximately half of the participating students are from diverse groups as described above. If we break the group of diverse children down into the three separate identifiers being used to measure diversity (low income households, ethnic minorities, disabled children), this means that by far the largest group accessing these services are children who without the service would be able to afford music lessons and do not face the same hurdles in music as disabled children.
The reason for this is the fact that these schemes work exclusively in the localities of the hosting conservatoire. These city districts that are often extremely expensive. While these departments were an innovative initiative when they began, now is the time for conservatoires to fully integrate diverse students and to reach beyond their own postcodes. Children in comparatively poorer parts of the city are equally deserving of access to the conservatoire’s outreach schemes, as are children living in rural communities. Conservatoires should consider travelling further or using digital platforms to extend the reach of their community programmes.
The second method is an attempt to increase the diversity of the main student body by encouraging junior departments to recruit more diverse children. While this certainly can contribute to the desired outcome, the degree enrolment statistics demonstrate that simply funnelling students who are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, disabled, or of an underrepresented ethnicity into the bottom end of the system does not mean that they will automatically make their way through to training for a career in music.
If we take this second method as a starting point, what else could conservatoires be doing to support a diverse student body as they make their way through music education? We have established that once students are enrolled at degree level, an impressive proportion of them have the support and motivation to make it through to graduation. So how can conservatoires adapt practice in order to enrol more of these students onto their courses? It’s time to look at the big picture and for conservatoires to understand the individual behind the statistic.
Support at home
Support at home is integral to an enthusiastic student’s advancement. A child’s passion for music is not going to grow if it isn’t appreciated and nurtured by their parents. Staff at junior departments should build relationships with the parents of their students to make sure that the support and interest in the child’s musical journey is continued at home. While it is a daunting prospect for many families, particularly those with lower-incomes, a child needs to be nurtured to pursue their passions and to be able to see a fruitful future for themselves on that path.
Support at school
Schools need to share the conservatoire’s belief in music’s importance as a subject. Children spend a great portion of their lives in the classroom and being surrounded in a system that continually drives in the significance of maths and sciences but sees music as a side subject. Music is not easy and a student in these circumstances with a non-musical background is rarely going to understand it as anything beyond a source of amusement. Music should always be enjoyable, but the drive and determination to reach higher levels of musical skill come from a respect for music on a more profound level.
How is this of concern to conservatoires? Conservatoires should be using their position at the centre of music-education to be voicing its importance far and wide. Their voice is strong. They should also be encouraging other music organisations to join the call for music’s place on the national curriculum. Furthermore, conservatoires should be working to make sure that schools and their students are aware of their existence and role. Many students choosing to study music do not understand the difference between university and conservatoire until they are researching further study opportunities. For some, this is already too late to meet the specialist standard required for audition. The same goes for junior conservatoire departments. Many primary school teachers are not aware that these departments exist, and as a result, a great number of gifted children are missing the wealth of opportunities on offer.
Establishing role models
Presenting diverse performers and composers serves to inspire all students. In this instance diversity goes beyond background and also describes musicians who are creating new and unique music experiences. These figures not only provide reassurance of a career path beyond music education, but also demonstrate to diverse students that music is open to everyone. Role models need not be limited to the classical cannon. UK conservatoires have produced a number of commercially successful artists working in musical theatre (Andrew Lloyd Webber) and pop music (Elton John). More commercial forms of music should not be overlooked, even if these styles are not what conservatoires exist to teach, they are every bit an important output.
On a similar note to role models, it is important that conservatoires maintain a diverse and balanced work force. All UK conservatoires have adopted targets in order to achieve this, but an extra push is still required to meet these. By recruiting teaching staff with varying backgrounds, conservatoires can minimise the risk of unconscious bias influencing admission decisions and impacting the range of types of music being endorsed.
On the surface this might seem like the job of concert halls as opposed to conservatoires, but this common misconception leads into my final and most substantial point.
Conservatoires as leaders
Conservatoires should be positioning themselves as thought-leaders in music. In other sectors, higher education institutions are the heart of innovation in the industry. Conservatoires should be overflowing with new concert formats, insights into digital music making, and creative ideas that are relevant to contemporary life. As things stand, many conservatoires are imitating concert halls, trailing behind professional venues and ensembles. This is an extremely vast topic of debate so for this blog let’s focus on the topic at hand, diversity and inclusion.
Conservatoires’ programming should be abundant with student-led projects. They are primarily educational facilities; therefore, they should be continually offering opportunities for their students to create their own performances. The result would be a vast range of fresh ideas and new concert formats. Concert venues could learn much about audience engagement from such productions. Moreover, conservatoires could easily promote a huge number of diverse role models by promoting student led projects in this way.
There is also a profound need for conservatoires to emphasise new music in their programming. Students would have performed enough older repertoire before starting degree level study. I am a composer. I am admittedly biased. But new music promotes the work of diverse students and also presents pieces that are substantially more relevant to modern audiences, serving to inspire all students from the beginnings of their musical journeys. Tragically, many young people do not realise that this sort of music is still being created today and, as a result, a great number of students assume that conservatoires are not for them.
It is fantastic that conservatoires have made an effort to increase the diversity among their students, but the time has come to remove diversity from a separate box and to push for inclusion too. This is where the motivation behind the drive for diversity becomes important. Are we trying to satisfy a statistic or are we interested in what diverse students can contribute to a formerly closed environment? The turning point will arrive when conservatoires realise that they are not opening their doors so that diverse students may step in, but rather so that the institution can step out.