Bristol’s largest concert hall has defended plans to set up the country’s first centre to provide advanced training for disabled young musicians, which will not include any non-disabled students.
The plans, part of a £45 million development of Colston Hall, were unveiled at the House of Commons this week, with backing from four Bristol MPs, the British Paraorchestra and the access-to-live-music charity Attitude is Everything.
But inclusive education campaigners have questioned why the Bristol Music Trust (BMT), which runs the concert hall, wants to set up a centre that will only train disabled young people.
The aim is for it to become the first centre for advanced training (CATs) in music for “young musicians with special education needs and disabilities”, in addition to the 12 mainstream CATs that already exist across England, such as the Royal College of Music, Sheffield Music Academy and Birmingham Conservatoire.
Campaigners fear the plans will simply create another special school-type environment and let other music training centres around the country “off the hook” when it comes to improving their own levels of access and inclusion.
Philip Castang, head of Bristol Plays Music, which is part of BMT, said the existing CATs taught few if any disabled musicians.
He said: “I think this will set an example. They don’t know how to do it. I think they have to look at themselves for sure.”
He said the centre was needed because most current musical education for young disabled people had “therapeutic outcomes, the ambition was fairly low, the instruments were unusable largely, there was no commissioned music that was appropriate, and when music was arranged it was arranged in a dull, simple way”.
He said the existing teaching environment was rarely appropriate and teachers were mostly from a music therapy background.
He said BMT’s intention was to offer the same opportunities to disabled students that non-disabled young people already enjoy, with high-quality music lessons on playable instruments, with the hope that some disabled students would become “virtuosos”.
He defended the plans to create a centre only for disabled young people, which will take children from the ages of 10 or 11 – working with them outside school hours – up to supporting them to join mainstream conservatoires, music colleges or academies.
Castang claimed the centre would not be a segregated environment because there would also be opportunities for the disabled students to play alongside non-disabled students in mainstream choirs and orchestras in the city and across the south-west, such as the Bristol Youth Orchestra, which currently has no disabled members, and for members of mainstream orchestras to play in disabled-led orchestras.
He said: “Real inclusion is the ultimate goal, but you need multiple types of programmes within that to get to that point.
“Our ultimate goal is inclusion and not separation but it needs to go through a process and this is just part of the process to get to true inclusion.”
Castang said the trust was now working on a three-year programme – funded by the National Foundation for Youth Music – that will look at “the teachers, the learning, the technology, the music, the environment” that will come together to produce a “transferable” strategy for extending its work around the country.
Thangam Debbonaire MP, Labour’s shadow culture spokeswoman and a former professional musician, told the Commons event that Bristol “would be the perfect place in the country for a Centre for Advanced Training for SEND [special educational needs and disabilities]”.
She said: “The nation should benefit from the expertise in SEND music education based at [Colston Hall].
“In turn, this would create more opportunities for young disabled people to achieve qualifications and pursue a career in music or simply begin a lifetime of enjoying music.”
Colston Hall is seeking £20 million to complete its redevelopment work, in addition to the £25 million already pledged by Bristol City Council, the government and Arts Council England, to transform the venue into an “international standard concert facility”.
The work, which Colston Hall hopes will be completed by 2019, will provide “three cutting edge performance areas and learning spaces” and an accessible home for the new advanced training centre, as well as a “state-of-the-art technology lab”.
But The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) said it was concerned about the plans.
Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s director, said: “It is hugely disappointing that the decision has been taken to set up something new and separate when more effort should be taken to challenge the existing inaccessibility of schools for musicians.
“Why does it need to be separating them? It lets all the other music schools off the hook.
“They don’t need to bother at all now because [all the disabled students] can be railroaded down to Bristol.”
Suzanne Bull, chief executive of Attitude is Everything, said she was unable to comment.