Band of gold

Michael Burnett

'Children who learn to play a musical instrument are laying the foundation for academic success.' So runs the philosophy at a Lancashire secondary school that boasts nine bands, an orchestra and a choir. Oh, and a GCSE pass rate of more than 50 per cent. Michael Burnett visits Wardle High while, overleaf, Nigel Williamson reports from a school on the other side of the Pennines that is fighting to keep music alive in an area blighted by unemployment, drug abuse and crime

Friday night is brass-band night at Wardle High School, in Rochdale. Touring the school after lessons are over is a stunning experience. Each year group has its own band and, with five of them rehearsing simultaneously, the school is alive with music.

Wardle High is driven by music-making; as well as its brass bands, the school has two wind bands, an orchestra, a choir, and two swing bands. Its deputy head, Tom Hobson, is convinced that music plays a vital part in the development of his pupils' academic abilities. "Children who learn to play an instrument are laying the foundation for academic success," he says. "And we have plenty of evidence that young people who pack up playing then do less well in their other subjects."

Mr Hobson's argument is borne out by statistics: 56 per cent of his GCSE pupils gained five or more certificates at grades A to C this year, and Wardle was the highest-ranking state school in its authority in the league tables. The school will probably do even better next year, when the results will be adjusted to take account of value-added factors.

Musical standards are just as high: Wardle's bands are regulars at Music for Youth's national festivals and proms, and its swing bands play all over the country at weddings and other events ("Benny Goodman is very popular," says maths teacher and Year 8 band conductor Colin Barnes).

Thirteen-year-old Ruth Wiggans played euphonium in the Year 8 band that played at last November's proms. "My best friend went 'wow' when I told her I was playing at the Albert Hall," she says. "But it's hard work being in the band. We have to practise a lot, and you've got to be committed and organised. "

Andrew Butterworth, 14, explains how he started as a trombonist. "A teacher from Wardle High School came to my primary school and taught me," he says. "And then being in the band here pushed me a lot further." He says being a musician helps with his school work in general. "Doing music helps me organise my time better. And that helps with things like homework."

Gail Mortimer is a parent governor whose daughter Emma is also in the band. "Performing is good because of the discipline which music imposes upon children," she says. "Being in the band also teaches pupils that they have responsibilities to others. It helps develop a loyalty to the school community. And that discipline, responsibility and commitment is transmitted into the children's behaviour and academic performance in school."

Given the extent of the extra-curricular music-making at Wardle High, it's surprising that the school's 1,300 pupils find the time to participate in a total of more than 250 clubs and societies. "Children need to be motivated through the opportunities school offers," says headteacher Chris Giblin. "Music is the focal point of our activities, but we are concerned to provide a complete extra-curricular life. Children need, and want, tasks to do. And those who are involved in activities like music certainly don't end up in court. That's because playing music adds so much to children's lives. They have to go home and practise, for example, and it makes them more involved in life and in society."

Wardle High is probably the only school in the country whose vending machines sell valve-oil for brass instruments alongside the crisps and chocolate bars. But, with more than 450 pupils playing these instruments, the school has, with characteristic initiative, both provided much-needed service and seized a marketing opportunity. "We make Pounds 50,000 a year from the vending machines and then plough the money back into the school," says deputy head Tom Hobson.

Mr Hobson is a great believer in grant-maintained status. The recent completion of a new music and sixth-form building is, he says, a result of the school's ability to manage its own finances. "The Government gave us three-quarters of a million towards the building," he says. "And we had to contribute Pounds 300,000, which we found through good financial housekeeping. "

Wardle's move to grant-maintained status five years ago was supported by more than 80 per cent of parents. In some schools such a change in status has resulted in selection of pupils and a weakening of links with the local community. Not at Wardle High. "We are totally non-selective," insists Chris Giblin. "And the governors are proud of the fact that this is a real comprehensive taking children of all abilities from the immediate locality. We don't select pupils to play in the bands either. They are open to everyone as long as they attend rehearsals and keep practising."

After 20 years at Wardle High, Tom Hobson is soon to retire. Hhe isn't looking forward to leaving. "I'm not a musician," he says. "I just play the trombone. But the school and its music have been my life.

"When the school opened in 1977 the buildings in Wardle weren't ready, so we opened in temporary accommodation in the centre of Rochdale. The head then was Bill Anderson, and he was concerned that the children had nothing to do at lunchtimes. So Bill set up a brass band to help keep the kids out of mischief. The new school still wasn't ready in 1978 so he set up another band. Then things took off and, by 1982, one of our bands had been selected to play at the schools proms." Mr Anderson was Wardle High's "bandleader" right up to last summer, when he died aged 67, and Chris Giblin picked up the baton.

Tracy Giles was a pupil in 1977 and a member of that first band. She now teaches maths at the school. "I wanted to give something back to the school that had done so much for me," she says. "As a pupil I saw teachers in a different light when they played alongside me in the band. And, today, the staff still work cheek by jowl with the kids outside the classroom. This helps develop the easy-going relationships which are unique to Wardle. Parents are also involved in our activities and many have become friends with each other and with members of staff." This close relationship has resulted in Wardle's latest musical initiative, evening instrument tuition for adults living in the school's area.

A third of Wardle's pupils take GCSE music, and last year 96 per cent of the entrants gained As or Bs. "The examination syllabus is good because it includes a wide range of genres," says director of music Stuart Marshall. "But you can't cover the music in depth, and that makes A-level inaccessible to some pupils. "

Despite this, and the fact that Wardle's sixth form is only in its second year, 12 pupils are already taking A-level music, and Mr Marshall is optimistic about the future of the department. "I've got such a committed staff," he says. "And they think nothing of doing sometimes three band performances in a single weekend."

Wardle High, like other schools with thriving music departments, is an example to us all. For its success confirms that musical performance contributes to the overall academic and social development of young people. And this has particular significance at a time when, in many schools, instrumental lessons have been badly wounded by financial cuts.

But there's more to Wardle's success. For, in the 20 years of its existence, the school has built up a rare sense of community. And it's a community which cares. "Society doesn't praise children enough or applaud them," says Chris Giblin. "They need to be valued a

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Michael Burnett

Latest stories

Geoff Barton

Omicron, nativities and the DfE: Another fine mess

Schools are being told what to do by those with no concept of the reality of running a school - and it's only making an already tough situation a lot harder, explains Geoff Barton
Geoff Barton 3 Dec 2021
New headteachers - here are 9 things you need to know

Headteacher wellbeing and sources of 'streth'

Former headteacher Chris McDermott set out to find out the true causes of leader stress and support – and in doing so coined a whole new term, as he explains here
Chris McDermott 2 Dec 2021
Transdisciplinary learning: how to embed it in your school

Why you need a transdisciplinary curriculum

At the Aspirations Academies, six hours a week are dedicated to applied transdisciplinary learning - but how does it work? And should you apply something similar at your school?
Steve Kenning 2 Dec 2021