Good practice for SEN children in music education

Jonathan Westrup

Jonathan Westrup has been a Drake Music Associate since 2005 and currently leads on SEND and Music Education. His work covers delivering a range of projects, courses and teacher training. Jonathan was responsible for the daily running of the DM Education initiative.

Jonathan also contributed to for the National Plan for Music Education and has advocated widely for improved participation in music for SEND children. He has written widely about approaches to accessible music making, and featured in the Radio 4 documentary 'Charlotte White's Musical Flight' (2011). He plays drums and guitar.

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We’ve been lucky to feature a host of enthusiastic SEN teachers on IMS, all of them fighting to make sure that pupils with such hurdles are afforded an excellent education. Here, freelance musician and music educator Jonathan Westrup discusses what best practice looks like for SEN pupils in music education.

The question posed by that title would no doubt have given many music services professionals the jeebies even a few years back. Put simply, there were not many music teachers out there with the requisite experience and ongoing professional support to address it satisfactorily. And when we use the term ‘SEN’, what do we precisely mean? Is it a group of children with dyslexia in a mainstream secondary? Or a small class of children with PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties) in a special school? They all have a right to an enjoyable, consistent music education but they all need different approaches and equipment to help ensure that happens.

Since 2012 we now have Music Hubs working to a clear framework for joined up music provision for every child – the National Plan for Music Education. By bringing together the very best music practitioners in any given area, the hope is that delivery both in and out of schools will improve over time. Every child will learn an instrument, engage with singing, play in ensembles, be able to access progression routes in music. Again, we return to the title – what might these strands of work look like for SEN / Disabled (SEND) children in a range of settings? And how will the organisations leading the hubs – almost always the existing music service – meet this challenge?

Time to face down all these question marks. Based on my experiences working for an assistive music technology organisation since 2005, I would offer these thoughts on good practice:

1. Have high expectations for what SEN / Disabled children and young people can achieve in music.

Sounds obvious, but in many cases I’ve seen teachers and teaching assistants amazed by the progress and ability children can demonstrate when they have access to playing and composing music.

2. Build in additional time for delivery in SEND settings

This is the single biggest issue I hear from teachers – more time for planning, more time to deliver (takes time for wheelchair users to arrive and get set up, breaks midway through a session etc); time to reflect and to learn how to use new bits of accessible music tech. And, as we know, time = money, so music hubs may well have to adjust their budgets accordingly.

3. Appropriate instruments/ music technology

This is a familiar debate in contemporary music education in both mainstream and special education settings. But it obviously has particular resonance for students who face physically disabling and other barriers. We need to demystify this thing called 'Music Tech' – a Steinway Grand Piano is itself an amazing piece of music technology. We need to afford more value to music technology as creative musical instruments and ones that shouldn't challenge the integrity of grade examinations or accredited courses.

4. Provide training and peer-to-peer support

Unlocking the creativity of TAs and teachers is as important as it is for the children and young people. We need to set up supportive networks between special schools in the same regions, and provide training in creative approaches to using assistive music technology in the classroom. 'Original ideas that have value' do not have to be complicated. The sustainability of the activity is more important in the early stages.

5. Frameworks, Courses and Resources

Historically there has been uncertainty about how to assess the musical progress of SEND children, as well as a lack of accessible, re­usable teaching and learning resources for accreditation. Heroic individuals have created bespoke solutions, but too often the resources and approaches are not available or re­usable in other settings. This has inevitably led to too few disabled children achieving accredited outcomes or benefitting from their teachers' confidence to help them progress.

One recent notable development is the Sounds of Intent framework assessing the musical development of children with learning difficulties and / or autism. This is already making an impact on the musical opportunities and progress of SEND children in this country.

I remember someone asking me "How can you create resources when the spectrum of needs are so varied and numerous?" The answer is that you can't create 1,000 versions; you create a solid starting point that can be developed by teachers and musicians based on the needs in their particular setting.


The needs of SEND children are definitely high up in the ‘in-trays’ of music hubs; similarly, Music Education Conferences are seeing a year-on-year increase in presentations and Teachmeets covering SEND topics. However, building capacity within the workforce to meet the need will inevitably take time and more importantly a shift in culture to strategically embed SEND provision across a music hub’s overall offer. The Music Education sector will be a much richer place in the coming years if it successfully works towards achieving this goal.

Do you teach music to SEND pupils? Share your experiences in the comments.

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