Editorial: Pondering Inclusion in Times of COVID-19

By Dr. Susanne Burns, Development Consultant and Senior Arts Leader in England

On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a Global Public Health Emergency. We are living in unprecedented times and facing one of the most widespread public health emergencies we have ever faced as a worldwide community.

As our schools and cultural venues closed and countries moved to lockdown, we saw a rush to take every kind of learning online. But this brings challenges: practical access to the internet and to technology, the individual and special needs of those accessing the learning, and of course the capacity of the workforce to deliver it.

This has led me to ponder the implications for inclusion—a fundamental principle of the worldwide Sistema movement. How do we continue to ensure inclusivity while providing access to music education, now that schools are closed and social gatherings banned? What might be the implications of a move to online delivery for Sistema-related programs worldwide? And what if parental involvement and support is lacking and the value of music is not recognized in the home?

A first consideration for all programs is that not all children will have access to technical equipment, broadband width, or phone credit to participate in online learning. Here in the U.K., some emergent solutions are being tested to support online provision, such as lending instruments and other equipment, including tablets and laptops, as well as preparing packages of material and dropping them off at homes where Internet access is constrained.

But what about the social component of inclusion? Our programs target communities most in need and reach children previously excluded from high-quality musical experiences. When taking part, children become part of a community that brings a sense of belonging and value, which research suggests supports their well-being. In England, we have six In Harmony programs inspired by the Sistema movement. They are social development programs that provide free musical tuition for primary school children in some of the most deprived areas of the country (defined as “including cultural deprivation”). As someone who has researched these programs for more than 11 years, I know that they build confidence and resilience. I know that the social aspects of taking part are as important as the musical impacts. And I know that essential to these social aspects is the active, lived experience of being included.

Achieving genuine inclusion means removing the barriers that might affect particular groups or participating segments of society. But inclusion also refers to what happens in the room—the active process of being included—once a child is able to take part. However, in the times we now find ourselves, “the room” may no longer exist.

In times of lockdown, when children are at home with families and denied access to schools and out-of-school collective activity, will online access meet their needs for inclusion? We must consider the impact on the child of losing the “community” and the social aspects of collective music-making.

To try to address the social component of inclusion, our In Harmony programs are also making regular contact with parents and children at home, through text and video conferencing, to check in on progress and problem-solve. Some are setting up Zoom meeting rooms where musicians, parents, and children can log on at the same time and share their experiences. However, as one parent told me, “All of this requires a safe and supportive home environment.”

What is clear is that, in the words of that same parent, “The dance of learning—the ebb, the flow, the risk, the fall, the climb—is hard to achieve without being present.” So, in addition to the practical delivery modes being developed, we need to simultaneously consider the pedagogical strategies we use in them. We need to work out how musicians might adapt pedagogical approaches to online delivery, where the immediacy of presence and community is absent, and where body language and face-to-face connection are missing. Also crucial to inclusion is flexibility—the capacity to adapt pedagogical approach and support to the needs of the moment. If the online content offered does not allow for experimentation with different teaching methods, or doesn’t recognize different styles of learning, it will not be inclusive.

There are many questions and few solutions yet, but we must consider the questions carefully while developing online solutions. At this stage, it is too early to tell how effective our solutions will be and for how long they will be needed. But it is likely that the new normal will incorporate a great deal more digital and online provision. Therefore, it is essential that our musical workforce have the capacity to deliver and expand the range of resources to which our students have access. It is one thing to use online learning as a stopgap for keeping things “ticking over,” with an expectation that “real life” will be back soon. It is quite another to structure and develop longer-term online learning solutions, something for which most musicians aren’t trained.

We can only begin to speculate on the impact of the crisis on the principles we hold so dear, and on the children and their families and communities. As one musician I spoke to said, it is possible that “the gap between those that have and those that don’t will widen.”

We must ensure that this does not happen in El Sistema programs. This is a critical opportunity for us to consider how best we might collectively—and fully—achieve our goal of inclusion. Sharing our knowledge globally will be of huge importance.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Dr. Burns as a member of Sistema England. This error has been corrected in her byline, and The World Ensemble sincerely apologizes for the oversight.

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