Making it happen: the musical school


I would imagine that most head teachers and senior managers in schools would love to have an outstanding music department, where high standards are coupled with breadth of participation across the school. However, how do we ‘make this happen’ in practice, particularly in a time of reduced resources and changes in the provision of music education nationally?

This two-part feature will provide practical and effective strategies for: Creating the vision; Working with staff and outside agencies; Engaging parents and pupils; Encouraging excellence: inclusivity and quality.

A clear vision of the future is an essential element in any change process. In this first article we explore what it means to be ‘a musical school’, and examine some of the practical issues involved. 

Creating the vision

What exactly do we mean by ‘a musical school’? In my first head of music post I vividly recall the headmaster telling me that he wanted  music to be ‘at the heart of the school’. But what does this actually mean in practice? Winning competitions and performing in high profile events?  High levels of participation in curricular and extra-curricular music? A strong local reputation for music? A few outstanding performers to showcase at awards days and open evenings?

At this point I should mention that the headmaster in question would definitely not describe himself as ‘musical’. In other words he did not play any instrument, or sing (beyond the usual hymns in assembly). He was a keen listener to music, as in fact most people are, but nothing more. So as we explore what makes for a musical school (and how to achieve it) remember this important point for heads and senior managers: You don’t need to be ‘musical’ to promote and encourage music within your school.

Many people think of music as a ‘dark art’ shared only by a few talented individuals invariably from musical families who can read music and play an instrument.  Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact in the words of a BBC science programme: Science is telling us that to be human is to be innately musical.

Sadly, our preconceptions about what it is to be ‘musical’ can colour our expectations. This means that what we think of as a musical school is often inadvertently elitist. I recall doing long term supply work in a large comprehensive school where music had recently been rated ‘excellent’ by Ofsted. In this environment a select group of youngsters (in this case, almost exclusively instrumentalists) were encouraged and nurtured. Several went on to music college after their A Levels, and both GCSE and A Level groups boasted quite high (although not startlingly high) numbers. Yet the vast majority of pupils (who were not designated as ‘our musicians’) felt that music was not for them. This attitude was particularly noticeable in classroom music lessons, where an ‘us and them’ atmosphere made it difficult to achieve much with a large number of otherwise very capable youngsters. If being ‘musical’ is the preserve of those (from those ‘musical families’!) who began instrumental lessons in primary school, then even otherwise high achieving pupils can come to regard music as their ‘sink’ subject, with serious consequences for behaviour, confidence and motivation.  In fact, many can be put off music for life.

The same unconscious elitism also operates in many primary schools, where youngsters identified as ‘musical’ often fit a certain stereotype. In practice these tend to be girls with a clear and flexible singing voice, general self confidence, and some musical background at home. (Boys’ singing voices tend to be heavier, and to develop later.) Or they may look to the pupils who are progressing exceptionally well in instrumental lessons and graded music exams. If the particular school doesn’t happen to have this type of pupil, they are always on the lookout for one, lavishing praise and attention on them.

Looking for Mozart
In my book Discovering & Developing Talent in Schools: an inclusive approach (NACE/Fulton 2005) I call this all-too-frequent approach: ‘looking for Mozart’. What is wrong with looking for outstanding pupils? There is nothing wrong with it, per se. However by focusing solely on a few outstanding performers we run the risk of discouraging the vast majority from developing their musical talents to the full (there is also a real risk of creating a self-absorbed ‘prima donna ’, which doesn’t benefit the budding Mozarts either).

The reality is that youngsters’ musical development is:  a) extremely variable; and b) dependent very much on family background and in particular on the musical opportunities offered to them early in life. There are very few Mozarts around, but believe me, there is plenty of talent within your school – whatever its catchment area and type – to create a musical school to be proud of.

A clear vision: 
inclusivity and quality
If our vision of a musical school is limited to spotting, attracting and encouraging a few high achievers for public occasions, then music will never be ‘at the heart of the school’. In my experience the most sustainable and successful music programs tend to be characterised by two elements: high levels of participation, and; a commitment to quality music making.

In other words, it’s not just a case of getting large numbers of pupils to participate in mediocre performances. A truly musical school will have an inclusive approach, while offering youngsters the chance to be part of something in which they give of their best, and experience at first hand the enjoyment and pride which come from delivering a good standard of performance.

High levels of participation
In a primary school context, this may mean a high take up of instrumental lessons through the local Music Education Hub. But it can equally well mean large cohorts of pupils taking part in organised extra-curricular groups and events such as musicals, choirs and informal ‘talent contests’.

At secondary level – where a department’s resourcing and staffing are primarily determined by the take up of the subject at GCSE and A/AS level – there are added challenges for music departments. This approach can fail to appreciate the ‘parallel curriculum’ which many youngsters follow, pursuing their musical development outside the school environment. This parallel curriculum can be extremely varied, including  graded examinations, private lessons (without ‘grades’), involvement in the local music education hub, and a range of formal and informal musical activities organised by churches, brass bands, community youth choirs, popular music groups, music theatre programmes, folk music groups, and so on. With the intense specialisation inherent in A/AS Levels (and even at GCSE), music can’t be fitted in as an examination course for many, eg those who need to take three sciences, or more than one foreign language.

The challenge in creating a musical school is to mobilise and encourage those who are involved in music making outside school to become active participants in school music, by offering a range of activities and roles. This cannot be achieved without sufficient staffing, either from within the school or from external organisations.

A commitment to quality
Quality is an essential element in building a strong music programme. With the explosion of media such as the internet, surprisingly young children have access to recorded performances of a good standard in virtually every genre of music; and think often think deeply about the music which attracts them. This is one reason why schools which hope to engage pupils by promoting only popular music often run into difficulties:  in my experience, the pupils have such strong views on popular music that it’s easy to repel as many as you attract.

How can we talk about quality in terms of, for example, a primary school concert? Surely these occasions are for pupils to perform as well as they can, for the delight of the parents, and should not be ‘high pressure’ events?

Well, yes and no. If music is  well suited to the ages and abilities of the performers, then capable performances can be given. No performance – even at professional level – is perfect. However any performance can be: well prepared and rehearsed, with attention given to beginnings and endings, any words thoroughly memorised, etc; presented in a professional manner, eg pupils wearing appropriate dress, coming on and off the stage confidently and with discipline, acknowledging applause at the end.

In fact without these elements – which can also be included in classroom performances for all pupils – then the many benefits of music participation in terms of teamwork, self-discipline, attention to detail and confidence-building will be lost.

Making it a reality

Of course it’s all very well to have clear goals for putting music at the heart of the school. Implementing this vision needs the cooperation (and enthusiasm) of staff, students and parents alike. You may be surprised to find that it’s not actually necessary to hire a charismatic music teacher to lead this process. It can be accomplished through planning, strategy and teamwork.

You may also be surprised to find that it doesn’t necessarily mean putting in endless financial resources – although if music in the school ‘takes off’, then administrative support for the burgeoning range of activities will be essential to avoid ‘burn out’.

In the next issue we will look in more detail at practical strategies for creating a musical school, including motivating staff, engaging pupils and parents and liaising effectively with outside agencies

About the Author

Bette Gray-Fow is a writer, musician and educational consultant with many years of experience in developing outstanding music programmes in schools. She is the author of Discovering & Developing Talent in Schools: an inclusive approach  (NACE/Fulton 2005), Chorus for Everyone (Lindsay Music 2004) and numerous articles and reviews. She is a member of the Schools Music Association and the Incorporated Society of Musicians; Adjudicates for the British & International Federation of Festivals, and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. (