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Making music part of the ethos of Simon Balle All-through School

Written By: Mark Taylor
6 min read
Making music part of the ethos

Simon Balle All-through School has a primary phase from reception to Year 4 and a full secondary phase. We have 1420 on role and our music team consists of two full-time staff for curriculum, as well as 16 instrumental teachers; each of varying hours, who are employed by the school and the local music service and deliver 350 lessons per week. We have a music administrator, music assistant and a part-time musician in residence. Currently 30 per cent of pupils have instrumental or singing lessons. A similar number are in an ensemble or choir. 

We describe ourselves as a musical school and are passionate about music. Over the 20 years I have been at Simon Balle, we have built up music from a traditionally ‘niche’ subject into a popular thriving department. 

Building up music has taken blood, sweat and tears and I must stress that what works, works for us in our situation but I believe that there are many lessons that can be applied elsewhere. I firmly believe in the musical pyramid; invest in the starters, get them hooked and the rest should evolve. In our school, older musicians inspire younger ones. We have a team ethos within music, which included students, staff and parents. We have high expectations throughout our work, and our curriculum is built around the principles of a growth mindset. Our students love to be challenged to see what they can achieve. We work on all styles of music and support each musician as an individual, each with their own pathway. 

The two most important pieces of advice I have been given are to firstly have a vision, and secondly to remember that music as a subject is very different from other subjects in how it is taught and assessed. We believe that its practical nature requires a different approach to teaching and assessment and have found that vision is everything. Each member of our team believes in our vision and so much else takes care of itself. For us, vision is not just a phrase, it is an ethos. Each department needs to choose an ethos that works for them. For our school it is ‘creating tomorrow’s citizens today’ and that is true of our music; creating musicians of the future. Being ‘different’ is good and performance is at the heart of our learning, where assessment of the musician takes place over time, not just over one piece of work. 

A turning point in our work was in 2015 when we became an all-through school, starting with Reception and building up to Year 3. What I found most exciting was that we could now be ‘in charge’ of what was being taught prior to Year 7. We could build up our future musicians from the very start. We had previously supported primary schools to help their students grow into musicians learning instruments but now we could apply what we had learned through these collaborations to our own students. We eventually turned to someone I knew from my Musical Futures pilot days – Hampshire County Council’s Music Inspector, Kevin Rogers. He was someone I could trust for an opinion, someone who would understand our ethos. He spoke to Alison Saunders, our headteacher, and me, about what the purpose was for each Key Stage. He encouraged us to think about teaching skills and understanding, rather than topics of musical activity. He dared us to be different; he gave us purpose and vision. Indeed, that vision has shaped so much of our all-through school, not just in music. The document we wrote about our musical school, taking learning from Reception to Year 13 outlined the musical purpose of each Key Stage and how they flow together. In it, skills are most important and taught through performance. Theory is part of it but subtly taught, gradually and over a long period of time, in all aspects of our work. We made brave decisions, including having a strings training program in Year 2 and offering woodwind to Year 3. Our primary classes have music taught by a specialist each week as part of PPA, and we have a choir from Year 2. We try to ensure that some music is part of the primary phase each day, even if for a minute. We have a weekly music assembly, where more experienced musicians and the whole school perform on rotation. Year 3 are taking music medals. Music is alive. 

At the same time, we could not ignore the secondary phase. The work we did in local primary schools all those years ago has paid off in spectacular fashion with an amazingly musical Year 11 cohort, many having achieved grade 6-8 in their instruments. This in turn enhances the school’s progress 8 score, so the 22 or so musicians who will achieve that this year make a massive difference. 

I still maintain that older musicians will inspire younger ones. Many students join Simon Balle simply because they heard the big band performing on open morning, for example. And I firmly believe that if students are inspired, they will want to work. Our annual music tour to the Ghent Music Festival sees us perform in front of 8000 or more on one of the largest stages there. In the past we have performed at Ronnie Scotts. Last year, our big band musicians filled the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. Our concert band has 60 musicians, and junior wind has 40. For us, life is about experiences and for our students these experiences are unforgettable. Our music is now so big, we have our summer concert each year at the Saffron Hall and last year we filled it. We also have visiting musicians who come and support our diploma students. Our ‘popular music’ output gets better every year and we now have the evidence of how music makes a massive difference to the lives of our musicians, whatever their ability or background; through progress 8 data, outcomes, feedback and those who continue to study music. Our music is, in every sense, inclusive. Through music we teach students so many skills for life – teamwork, community, dedication, self-confidence and more.

Music is so popular because it is part of our school culture. It is so much part of what our school is. That is down to the people – staff, students, parents, leaders and governors. Music has helped so many students begin to enjoy coming to school. Our music centre has been extended and has become a ‘home’ to so many over the years. We have supervised practice from 8am and the building is still alive late into the evening. We also work closely with the local music service.

However, with funding the way it is, we have to adapt. Music lessons cost the earth, so they have to be value for money, and show progress. Instrumental teachers are on the front line, so they have to be part of our team and not just visitors who come and go. Having 16 instrumental teachers in school means we have to have systems in place to ensure they are all supported and understand our musical ethos. Our Mac network is on its knees through age, and with the knowledge that the replacement cost is very high, we are looking at Chromeboxes and cloud-based software at 30 per cent of the cost. We find that if we work hard on the quality of our environment, the students respect it.

So, my advice to others is:

  • believe in yourself, have a vision and passion and dream big
  • show all the benefits of music, including progress 8, to your school leaders
  • get older musicians to inspire younger ones
  • get the ‘buy in’ to your ethos from everyone, including those at home
  • keep rehearsals consistent, every week, to build commitment
  • maintain high expectations and standards at all times.

My wish is that all involved in music education come together to build the musical pyramid for all. We should invest heavily in the beginners and have secure, popular musical pathways inclusive of all ages, abilities and levels of interest. We must ensure we have long-term quality, built on evidence-based strategies. Quality and accountability must be at the forefront of all data, with all initiatives leading to sustained musical education, not just a one-off opportunity. Most importantly we must remember that we are all in music education to inspire the next generation. When an instrument such as the saxophone is becoming endangered, we must then question if current strategies for engaging students in learning are actually working. To me, the musical pyramid, beginning right from Reception, is everything.

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