Aspiration, achievement and school improvement – head teachers say music can make the difference

In 2012, when music education hubs in England had just started to form, Anita Holford wrote two articles, published on her blog, reporting on interviews with heads whose support for music had improved the achievements, aspirations and development of their pupils and schools.

Following is a summary of the article focusing on secondary heads. You can also download and read the full secondary heads article, and the partner article focusing on primary heads.  

Patcham High School in Brighton is a Comprehensive school with specialist status for arts, media and English. An above average number of pupils are eligible for free school meals and there are high proportions of pupils with Special Educational Needs. In the six years that Paula Sargent has been Head, results have risen year on year and she believes music has had a huge part to play. When she joined, 22% of pupils were leaving with five or more GCSEs at A+ to C: that’s now risen to 50% and improvements are continuing. In 2010, there were 11 subjects achieving 70% A+ to C; in 2011, it’s increased to 16 subjects. For music, the percentage has increased in the last five years from 68% in 2006 to 86%.

‘When I came, the school didn’t have the best reputation and student aspirations were low,’ she explains. ‘Music wasn’t vibrant, it was very old-fashioned, chalk and talk style teaching and the kids didn’t like it. There were behavioural problems and they just didn’t engage with it. There were no choirs, bands or orchestras, no clubs. We did have some peripatetic teachers coming in to do instrumental tuition but the take-up was low and there was no sense that music outside the classroom mixed into the school at all.’

‘I wanted there to be a big push on what I call the ‘glue that holds the school together’, music and drama. I wanted music to come out of the pores of this school.’

Injecting new energy

Following staff changes, including the appointment of a full-time Musical Performance Co-ordinator to ‘inject new energy into the school’, the school has transformed its Music Department – and its whole culture.

The two new teachers encouraged the school to invest in music technology and ‘get rid of the fuddy duddy reputation of music by repainting the music rooms and removing desks so pupils could do more group work, sitting in a circle,’ says Paula. ‘They were really clear about what they needed and I facilitated it.’

‘The kids have responded really well,’ she continues. ‘They’ve put clubs together to suit what the students want to do, it’s very much young people led. We have rock bands playing at lunchtimes and after school and they showcase their work in assembly – ordinary kids who’ve put together their own group or written their own songs. That’s really important – it shows other kids what’s possible and more of them have got involved as a result.

Raising awareness and aspirations

Paula believes music has made an enormous contribution to the wider changes that have taken place in her school: ‘What I think music’s done is raised aspirations. We’ve got our kids to believe they can achieve more than they’ve ever achieved before. The whole performing arts ethos has been so good at including people.’

‘Music is important for the development of the person and my governors agree. It gives young people so much – listening skills, creativity, working in groups – it’s not about playing an instrument, it’s about those skills.

The school’s achievements are being noticed locally and beyond. The annual school musicals which Paula describes as ‘massive productions’ are gaining much attention and three students have appeared on TV in the BBC’s programme about Knight Crew, Glyndebourne’s young people’s opera, led by Gareth Malone.
This has been important in raising the profile of the school and attracting pupils: ‘Our school’s reputation wasn’t as good as it should have been,’ says Paula. ‘If you’re trying to attract children from aspirational families, arts and music are important.’

Keeping music in the curriculum and raising its profile

Paula acknowledges the pressures facing Heads when making decisions about the curriculum as well as out-of-school activities but is convinced of its value beyond what happens in the Music Department: ‘Every now and then at an School Leadership Team meeting, when we’re looking at the curriculum and what we can afford to run, someone will say let’s look at uptake for music. I will always say that there’s no way I’d envisage running a school without offering music. It would be inconceivable.’

‘I think it’s very dangerous if we become obsessed as a nation with squeezing out some of these subjects because other subjects take prominence. There are financial constraints but I would always fight to keep music in my curriculum.’

Summing up, she identifies three key things that Heads can do to ensure music has an impact in their school: ‘Listen to what your kids want from music and make it happen; appoint people who can offer those skills – get people with vision and energy behind you and the rest solves itself. And get the profile of music out there beyond the classroom, then the participation rate increases automatically.’

‘We’ve not done anything remarkable but the rewards for good music in your school are absolutely enormous. Once it takes off, it brings a vibrancy to the school that you wouldn’t have believed possible.’

Read rest of the article, including interviews with heads at Simon Balle School, Hertford and Humphry Davy School, Penzance, using the links at the top of the page.

Inspired by Music:

Inspired by Music: Secondary heads article

Inspired by Music: Primary heads article

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