My Inclusion Journey: Toby Smith, Head of Solihull Music Service & Music Education Hub

Wed 21 April 2021
Toby Smith

When Toby Smith moved from the further education sector to become a hub and music service leader, he was determined that inclusion should be about action, and challenge. His personal experiences have informed his understanding of who and what music is for, and he and the team are building inclusion firmly into governance, workforce development and delivery. Anita Holford found out more.

When you started at SMS four years ago, how inclusive would you say your service was?

“We ‘looked’ successful – but we were attracting the same sort of children and young people”

On the face of it, we came across as quite inclusive. Our Saturday morning music centres were affordable, diverse in genres and participants, and attracted more than 400 young people. But that was the easy part.

I came from the further education sector – I was working for Access to Music, and I was quite shocked at the first meeting when I saw an entirely white staff. I gradually realised that the sector as a whole had quite a way to go in terms of inclusion.

We ‘looked’ successful – but we were (and still are) attracting the same sort of children and young people – relatively wealthy, white, middle class, who could afford to pay for instrumental or vocal lessons.  Data is a problem: whereas in FE, Ofsted assess you and provide data about who you’re reaching and how inclusive you are: in music education, you don’t have that data. The only thing we could do was look at where we thought the gaps lay.

I was very aware of what happens to young people if they don’t have music that engages them. I learned violin briefly but gave up and I hated music in school, and didn’t take GCSE. I didn’t start again until I was 16 when I formed a band with friends. So I can see things from the point of view of the kid that was left out of music.

Also, I started to hear stories about pupils being left out of whole class ensemble tuition because they had to go for an intervention, or their behaviour had been poor. At the time, we had no way of challenging that, but we do now, thanks to our work with MAC Makes Music.

So I felt there was an intention to be more inclusive, but we had a long way to go.


What were the biggest worries or challenges for you, in embedding inclusion in your music service and hub?

Knowing where to start. And also, it can be quite easy to say ‘we’ve done inclusion’ after a bit of CPD and a strategy. But that’s not enough. In my first conversation with Phil Mullen who was commissioned to help us create our strategy, I said that what I wanted from working with him and MAC Makes Music was two things. Firstly, it should not just be about writing a document. We needed actions. And secondly, it’s got to be really difficult. We’ve got to challenge ourselves. Selling to staff this idea that, we’re doing something that you can never quite achieve, is tricky. That’s particularly true in this sector, where people pride themselves on being considered successful, by creating ‘award-winning’ musicians and ensembles. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I struggled at first when we’d agreed our strategic priorities because I needed to see tangible actions. Luckily Claire came in with much better knowledge and said we can do this, this and this …Claire now has the role of Inclusion Lead, so it means we have someone who will make things happen.

Young Musicians from Solihull Music Education Hub

What were the biggest incentives/drivers, or sources of inspiration, for embedding inclusion?

“We need to raise the profile of inclusion work and change people’s perception of what makes a high quality music tutor or music tutor career.”

It was the business case as well as the moral case. 

Personally, I’m really against any elitist view of music. To me, music is about access and engagement. I used to work with students who may have come from three generations of families who had never had a job, they had low self-belief, but they loved music. And to get a Level 1 qualification, because music was the hook, means that they were able to go on and get a job. That’s life-changing music – it can’t just be about selling the dream of becoming an elite musician.

And if you allow music to have a purpose that’s beyond that, then it opens up conversations with other people and organisations who are helping and supporting young people in all sorts of ways. So then there can be a business case, because there may be new forms of funding and partnerships.

Music services used to audition children and young people for their groups and ensembles. Some of that attitude still remains. What’s difficult with open access is that it is much harder to staff. Being able to say that you ran a county ensemble is still seen in music education circles as somehow  ‘better’ than saying you’ve run an open access group. We need to raise the profile of inclusion work and change people’s perception of what makes a high quality music tutor or music tutor career.


What impact have you seen on your service, from working with MAC Makes Music?

Our tutors have responded really well. I explained that we need to get this right, if we’re going to survive and expand as a service. And I offered it as a new way for them to grow their skills and knowledge to improve their teaching and make their jobs easier.  For example, attachment training will fundamentally help you to manage a large class of children. Many of our tutors recognised that there was a lot about their approach that already was inclusive. Many of them have kids, some may have their own experiences of exclusion.

Now, they’re not afraid to talk about inclusion, and to ask for help when they find something challenging.

Some have picked it up enthusiastically and really grown with it, and it’s starting to rub off on others. It can be difficult work but really rewarding.

MAC Music Education Hub Strategy Group

How have you embedded inclusion more deeply and across all the hub’s functions? ie the move from inclusion being a group of projects, to being embedded across the core roles and in your organisation’s strategies, policies and practices?

“We never wanted any young person to be given the triangle and sent to the back of the room because they weren’t seen as capable, or musical, or worse still, not being allowed in the class at all.”

It can be as simple as sending a form to the class teacher before we start a whole class programme so they can tell us about the needs of the children. We make it the responsibility of our whole class ensemble tutor to get that information and it’s less about the form and more about opening up that level of conversation with the teacher. We never wanted any young person to be given the triangle and sent to the back of the room because they weren’t seen as capable, or musical, or worse still, not being allowed in the class at all.

We also know we need to look at genres, because although we seem diverse in our whole class offer, we don’t have any music tech tutors – and we’ve been asked for that by Alternative Provision Schools. A couple of things are holding us back: a staffing freeze, and also I want to make sure there are progression routes for pupils afterwards.

In terms of groups and ensembles, we’re looking at how to make them more inclusive. We run Creative Sounds in partnership with MAC Makes Music – evening creative music making groups for young people aged seven and over, which is open to anyone but particularly those with additional needs and disabilities.

And creating your own music isn’t part of the Core or Extension roles but it’s fundamental to inclusion and appealing to young people so we’re trying to get songwriting into our groups and ensembles. We’re aware that some of our rock and pop groups are run using a ‘classical’ model focusing on technical progress on your instrument through lessons.

In terms of singing, we had a Hub partner for the singing strategy but we want to make our offer far more inclusive, so we’re focusing our efforts on developing a Solihull branch of the West Midlands Inclusive Choir which is open to everyone but particularly those with severe and profound learning disabilities.

Importantly, we’re now building inclusion firmly into the governance of the Hub, with the formation of an inclusion subgroup (see Claire’s inclusion story for more about this).  

The challenge for hubs is progression. How do you track that? It’s got to be a case study type approach. We have a student in one of our schools, where we were delivering brass whole class. I went in as the support tutor, and there was a pupil with additional needs who was clearly really committed. With a bit of encouragement from us, he went on to have lessons with a tutor and joined one of our ensembles. His mum brought him to a ukulele group too. All it took was a bit of encouragement from the tutor – but he could easily not have been spotted.

My nephew is autistic and there’s nothing like first hand experience to make you think, how would they be treated? How would they deal with this?


Finally, what would you say are the main factors that lead to success or are helpful in driving inclusion forward?

One thing that’s really helped – in fact, it’s made all the difference - is doing it alongside other hubs. Having a document is one thing. But that constant challenge has kept everyone on their toes. We’ve formed really supportive relationships too. I speak with other hub leads two or three times a week, specifically about inclusion matters. It can be something as practical as "I’ve got to write this policy, do you have one we can model it on?".

Our group is very trusting and open. It helps us practically, and it helps us to improve. We’re not afraid to say, "we don’t do this very well, how can we do it better?". It should always feel like we’re at the start of the journey.


This post is part of a wider case study called "Working together to move the needle on inclusion in five West Midlands music education hubs", produced by Anita Holford

Check out our blog or click these links to follow the rest of the story.

My inclusion journey - Claire Batty, Head of Solihull Music Service and Music Education Hub

Inclusive Music Pathways: Solihull Music Teacher Vlogs

Solihull Music Education Hub (MEH) is part of the MAC MEH Strategy Group – five hubs who meet monthly, to support and challenge each other to move the needle on inclusion in their organisations and partnerships. The group is facilitated by Holly Radford, who leads ‘MAC Makes Music’, part of Midlands Arts Centre, and one of the founders of Youth Music’s Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England. The work is funded by Youth Music.