Leeds Conservatoire Leads Session on Classical Music Inclusivity at ABO Conference

Leeds Conservatoire’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team led a session titled Is There a Seat for Someone Like Me? at the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) Conference.

The ABO represents the collective interests of professional orchestras, youth ensembles and the wider classical music industry throughout the UK, and the conference is its primary event each year. This year’s conference took place from 1 to 3 February at Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room.

The conference explored the experiences of underrepresented student musicians in the orchestral talent pipeline, creating conversations around what more the industry should do to welcome underrepresented talent, develop inclusive practice and tackle systemic inequalities.

Nick Burdett, Projects Team Manager and EDI Lead at Leeds Conservatoire, said, “Having the opportunity to create conversations that share the lived experiences of some of our underrepresented students with industry leaders in the orchestral sector is extremely valuable. It is vital for the next generation of musicians to have visible, relatable role models within the industry to develop a genuine sense of belonging.

“We know that there is still a long way to go to make sure that there is a seat for everyone, but by working together we hope to create the positive, systemic changes that all of our future orchestral musicians deserve to experience. We hope to continue the work with our students, staff and partners to influence inclusive practice across the sector as a whole.”

The session was a great opportunity for Leeds Conservatoire to collaborate with some of its partners, with Black Lives in Music, Opera North and Orchestras Live all supporting the facilitation alongside current conservatoire students and staff members. Together they led conversations surrounding ethnicity, gender and neurodiversity, raising the profile of Leeds Conservatoire’s ongoing EDI work and commitments, and creating conversations to support the changes we hope to see for our musicians who wish to enter the industry, with leading organisations from across the UK.

Roger Wilson, Director of Operations at Black Lives in Music, said, “This was a fantastic session and brilliantly led by the conservatoire’s EDI team, who maintained sensitivity at the centre of this very important narrative. Bringing diverse voices into one space can only pay dividends. The effect is all the more powerful when those voices have so much lived experience.

“The compelling and personal stories that were shared, facilitated a visceral connection with the session content for those in the room. Having this opportunity to listen, talk and share is important in order to be reflective, learn and to be active in the campaign for real representation and establish safe and inclusive spaces in our sector.”

Becky Smith, Head of Higher Education Partnerships at Opera North, added, “As someone who works for an organisation which supports talent development in our sector and actively engages with student musicians through our partnership with Leeds Conservatoire and other institutions, the session provided a space for thoughtful reflection and discussion on what we are doing and could be doing better to ensure inclusive practice is embedded in all our activities.

“The scenarios discussed, lived experiences shared and positive suggestions made for improvement were really valuable and will hopefully inform and lead to some positive change as we move forward.”

Beyond symbols – a roadmap to race equality

It’s been an unsettling two years for so many reasons, and examples of racism and injustice continue to emerge in all areas of public life. The most recent of these, accusations of endemic racism levelled against Yorkshire County Cricket Club over its handling of allegations by Azeem Rafique, have created a new storm on social media.   This follows the  racial abuse ignited by the Euro 2020 football finals, and shows that eighteen months on from the global Black Lives Matter movement, we still have a long way to go in tackling racial inequality. Incremental progress has been made, but recent events demonstrate that flattening the firmly-embedded anchors of white privilege is not a quick fix. 

It was great to see the united support from organisations across the country for Black Lives Matter last year, but we need to go beyond a symbolic approach to tackling injustices. As an education group, we’re committed to doing all we can to break down barriers and ensure we’re operating in a fully inclusive environment that seeps into our everyday lives.

What can we do to tackle racial injustices?

Education has a key role in identifying and tackling racism. A year ago, members of Luminate Education Group; Leeds City, Keighley and Harrogate colleges, pledged to:

  • Create a five-year plan to build anti-racism actions into their college cultures.
  • Provide development and training opportunities to address discrimination and unconscious bias, and embed support for students and staff dealing with the effects of racism. 
  • Develop and deliver an anti-racist, inclusive curriculum.

The five-year Race Equality Roadmap, which was developed by the Luminate Race Equality Forum, aims to dismantle structural barriers to inclusion, engagement and progression, leading to a more just organisation for everyone. The project is a significant piece of work, supported by senior members of the group, including a dedicated governor. It focuses on organisational culture, inclusive and diversifying leadership, staff career development, decolonising the curriculum and developing stakeholder and community partnerships.

This isn’t just a box ticking exercise, it’s the beginning of a cultural shift to encourage self-reflection, including acknowledgement of entrenched negative beliefs and unconscious bias which serve to reinforce inequality. 

It is our responsibility as educators to question, challenge and understand the roots of racism and its impact on those who experience it. People of minority ethnicity continue to be under-represented in the further education workforce, and are significantly less likely to occupy leadership positions. Consequently, our students from minority ethnic backgrounds are not exposed to enough role models in leadership or the classroom and our colleagues of minority ethnicity experience barriers in progressing their careers.

Conversations about race and racism have focused in recent years on individual behaviours and addressing our unconscious biases, yet whilst reflective practice and honest discussions will build an inclusive and safe culture, this does not necessarily address deeply entrenched inequality in society.

Gains for anti-racism are insecure: there is an emerging backlash against anti-racist dialogue in educational and public authorities in the USA, where a number of states have banned the Critical Race Theory from the curriculum, while the publication of the UK Parliamentary Report chaired by Robert Halfron MP (June, 2021) into educational outcomes for white working-class children led to opinion pieces in the FE sector counterposing economic disadvantage and racism in a fight to the bottom of a disadvantage hierarchy. The underpinning assumption, unquestioned in our work at Luminate, is that racism does exist, and disadvantage in opportunity, social and economic inequity and lived experience of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the UK is well reported and evidenced in inequity in a range of indicators including criminal justice, education outcomes, health, housing, the law and civic life, as highlighted in the recent Runnymede Trust report. 

How can we lay the foundations to create meaningful change?

At Luminate Education Group, we’re building beyond data and quantifiable information by focusing on collecting accounts of experiences, thoughts and ideas from across the staff and student body to help us recognise and address both structural disadvantage and the unconscious bias we all have: college is a microcosm of the society we live in and a ground-up approach, opening two-way communication channels, is fundamental for the success and longevity of our Race Equality Roadmap. We want to create a lasting impact shaped by lived experience, that seeps into our communities and share best practice with other education providers and organisations as a reflective process to instigate meaningful change. 

As a restorative organisation we aim to connect with people; building on the relational aspects of college life, drawing on trauma-informed practice and recognising the impact of adverse experiences, we offer a range of training and awareness raising opportunities for staff, including how to engage with people from diverse backgrounds, developing the skills and confidence to address discrimination and  we recognise the impact of poverty and social disadvantage in our work. 

As a society we have a long way to go in weeding out racism and discrimination, but collectively, we can continue to sow the seeds that will lead to a more harmonious world.

International Women’s Day

On 8 March, people all over the world come together to celebrate International Women’s Day. This day highlights the struggles of gender equality and brings people together to help combat this.

It’s a chance to take action, and raise awareness of the economic, political and social achievements of women across the world. 

What is the theme this year? 

Bias and discrimination have been holding women back for centuries. This year’s official theme is #BreakTheBias, which looks at how we can collectively break the bias and misconceptions in the interest of creating a gender-equal and inclusive world. 

You can get involved with the #BreakTheBias campaign by sending in photos of yourself with crossed arms as seen in the below image, or taking a selfie with one of the pledge cards, which you can download here to show your support.


Luminate Education Group is celebrating International Women’s Day by introducing ‘Leaders of Luminate’; a series of talks and interviews with female or non-binary leaders across Luminate Education Group. This will start on International Women’s Day and continue weekly for six weeks. To attend, sign up here.

The group is also launching a Women’s Staff Forum, which is open to anyone who identifies as female or non-binary.

Throughout International Women’s Day, staff across Luminate Education Group are also invited to come along to Leeds Conservatoire’s Café Conversations. These will be hour-long sessions and the conversations will explore a range of topics from navigating a work-life balance, imposter syndrome and authenticity. 

Inspirational women

As part of the celebration, we asked women leaders across the group about who they admire.

Ann-Marie Spry, Group Vice Principal – Curriculum and Adults, said: “My biggest inspiration was my mum, Elieen, who was an amazing forward-thinking woman. She was strong, resilient and exposed me to culture, diversity and social responsibility from an early age. As I get older, I recognise her sacrifices and determination to ensure my brother and I had a well-rounded formal and informal education.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be the modern day Marie Curie; a woman in a male-dominated world in science and medicine. In my earlier career as a teacher in science and health, I had an amazing mentor called Barbara Tindale, who was one of the best teachers I’ve ever known. She had the ability to bring out the best in everyone around her, and was a true diplomat ahead of her time. My career would not have been the same without her patience, time and inspiration.

“I’m also inspired by everyday people who are strong, brave, compassionate and always willing to share their gifts to develop others. I see inspiration in the younger generation too, such as Malala Yousafzai who’s been vocal about education for girls and women, and Greta Thunberg’s unwavering commitment to our environment.”

Gemma Simmons-Blench, Deputy CEO – Curriculum and Quality, added: “My 19 year old step daughter, Molly, is my inspiration. I’ve known her since she was seven and for part of her early life she was extremely unwell, meaning she missed at least 50% of primary school. This meant she had to play catch up all through secondary school. Despite a series of operations and coping with an undiagnosed condition for a long time, Molly achieved amazing GCSE and A level results.

“Molly has now gone on to Northumbria University where she is studying a psychology degree. Even though Covid-19 caused further disruptions to her education, she has made an amazing start, making new friends and fully engaging with uni life. Molly has handled every situation with integrity, showing true strength in character. Myself and our family are so proud of her and in awe of her confident and positive spirit. 

“With a placement during her second year secured, we can’t wait to see what Molly takes on next. She is an inspiration to me and our family.”

How do you think we can break the bias in education?

Gemma: “As females in education, we all need to be very aware of what the issues are with gender biases, so we can always proactively acknowledge and challenge them. As a group of FE colleges, we strive to be inclusive in every aspect of our organisation and as a result have created a working environment that is truly balanced. As a result of this, we have a duty to instil this view amongst our students, staff as well as other sectors.

“One of the ways we can help break the bias is to have more liaison between education and employers. The FE sector is more advanced in terms of gender balance, but we must use this position to help encourage this thinking more broadly. Wherever possible we should use our networks, connections and influence across key sectors to showcase how gender equality can and should operate in the workplace. 

“As a collection of education institutions we take our position as role models for our students and the communities we serve very seriously. Another way we can continue to break down gender bias in education is by ensuring our curriculum and cohort of students remains diverse and inclusive. At Luminate Education Group we’re proud to embed balanced values around gender into our culture and education.”

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