Late last year, Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, voiced concerns about the possibility of the arts being pushed to the margin of the curriculum with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.
At Stretford High School, in addition to encouraging our students to achieve academic excellence, we have also made it our mission to ensure we provide young people with opportunities to discover their own talent and creativity.
For us, an essential aspect of this is giving all our students access to the benefits that a musical education can bring. We have found that these benefits stretch far beyond purely developing musical skills, to improvements in behaviour, confidence and self-esteem. This is why we have chosen to invest in our music provision, even at a time when it is tempting to direct funding elsewhere.
The funding challenge
It is an exceptionally challenging time financially for schools. The pressures created by a reduction in funding, hikes in school service prices and the continental shift in evolving school relationships and status have all put the squeeze on headteachers’ priorities like never before, making it difficult to find and deliver an effective service.
We used to organise music lessons and instrument hire through the local authority’s music service. When this service diminished, we had difficult decisions to make about how we were going to fund and organise our music provision.
Overcoming the challenge
We took a threefold approach to our lack of funding: assertive use of the Pupil Premium, promoting excellent staff attendance to dramatically reduce supply teacher bills, and not being afraid to negotiate better service level agreements by outsourcing some school services.
We were then able to redirect any money saved into providing opportunities for our students. Many schools have streamlined their music provision, and as a result are attracted by partnerships and private music services with the capacity to give away free add-ons.
Although this might work for others, it is not the route for us. We wanted to be in full control of how are students are taught and took the decision to invest in qualified or training music teachers who are also professional musicians – they are out there.
Every single year 7 student gets free instrumental tuition as part of the curriculum, alongside their whole-class music lessons, from instrumental teachers who are all professional performers themselves. Thereafter, students on free school meals are given the opportunity to obtain scholarship awards so they can continue to learn.
Other students can subscribe to our in-house instrument lesson service. We provide many of our students with instruments to rent or to use in school. In fact,
83 per cent of our year 7s either rent an instrument to take home, or use one in-house.
We have also invested in brand new facilities and instruments. We have a new “Music Zone” with a recording studio and a performing arts theatre. We have since found that students are happier and perform better now, with top-class facilities they can be proud of.
As a result of all this, we have uncovered talent that might not have been discovered had we made the decision not to commit to funding music provision. The demand from students has been astounding, and now a third of the school population gets instrumental tuition without paying a penny.
Since introducing free music tuition in 2010, the pass rate for the students’ musical instrumental exams increased to 90 per cent (we are now the country’s largest Rock School Exam Centre).
The rise in attainment was welcome, but the main reason for our investment in music was not to raise grades, but to enhance the school experience and lives of our students.
It is clear from our end-of-year student surveys that our investment in music has developed a passion for it among our students. The vast majority express an interest in continuing with their instrumental tuition as they move through the school. Most of these students also express an interest in taking music even further – into higher education and beyond, with many aspiring to be music professionals or teachers.
An overwhelming number of students say they have developed confidence through learning an instrument. They also saw improvements in terms of listening, concentration and organisation, and attendance of year 7 students and those receiving music tuition in key stage 4 has increased on average.
Chris Woolham, our deputy director of performing arts, says there are some students whose lives have taken a dramatic turn for the better since starting instrumental tuition.
Jai admits his behaviour in year 7 was far from perfect, and can recall times when his anger was overwhelming. This changed soon after he was offered drum lessons. Now, he can control his emotions, and when he feels overwhelmed by them, music gives him a positive outlet.
He can express himself through playing: “If I’m angry I can express it; if I’m upset I can express it – I can lose myself in it.” Jai has been given a focus and drive: he is in the music practice room at every possible opportunity, because he feels that if he makes progress, he will eventually achieve what he wants.
Ciaran sees the music room as a haven. He said that when he first started secondary school, he got up to things he shouldn’t have both inside and outside of school. Playing the drums has given him a means of escaping negative influences and confronting negative thoughts. His attitude to authority has also changed. Ciaran feels that he can go to any of his music teachers about his problems without fear of being judged.
Simon lives in care. Statistically, he is at great risk of underachievement. Within four months of beginning to learn the guitar, Simon developed such confidence, passion and skill for it that he committed himself to pursuing a career in music. This is not just a pipe dream: he is studying for grade 6 guitar in year 10, a remarkable achievement considering he has only been playing for three years. His determination to achieve has spread beyond the music room to other subjects – he is studying for AS level maths in year 10. The biggest change we have seen in Simon is how respectful he has become. He credits this to his musical tuition. He says that now he has a focus in life, he wants to give respect back to the people who helped him to find it.
Of course, our students do appreciate their music tuition for the skills it gives them. More importantly, for us as teachers, it gives them focus, drive and often a means of expressing feelings and troubles they have found difficult to cope with. The fact that we have made tough decisions in order to invest in our music provision symbolises that we are willing to give each student the time and energy they deserve. This is a key strategy in engaging young people and parents who may be hard-to-reach.
Opportunities for developing young people’s creativity and independence are fundamental, when instilling the highest expectations required to reach the best academic outcomes.
James Haseldine is headteacher of Stretford High School in Manchester. All students’ names have been changed.