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'If you took away the music you would destroy this school'

It is 8.20 on a chilling November morning and already a dozen pupils are queuing outside Eccleshill North school, clutching violins and trumpets, violas and clarinets. "They would be out there even earlier but the caretaker won't let them in until 8.30," says Ron Mills, the school's music teacher. "Most of them can't practise at home because there is no space so they come to school and do it every day before lessons."

On the outskirts of Bradford, Eccleshill North is a school where, as headteacher Chris Milone puts it, "the music comes out of the fabric of the walls". From the voluntary orchestra practice before morning assembly until late into the afternoon, music does indeed permeate Eccleshill. At break-times up to 60 instrumentalists of all ages and abilities can be found practising in the music room. Lunch-times are the same, and it is often 5pm before the room falls silent. All this is in addition to the timetabled music lessons and instrumental tuition that takes place in regular school hours.

In a depressed area more noted for its unemployment, drug abuse and crime, music is one of the few success stories. Eccleshill's 260 pupils, aged between nine and 13, are drawn from Ravenscliffe and Greengates, one of the most deprived estates in Yorkshire. Two-thirds of the children from the estate are on free school meals. A third come from single-parent families. Many properties are boarded up or burnt out, and a recent community survey found that "many will not leave their houses for fear of returning to find them broken into or of being attacked".

Despite the best efforts of Chris Milone and her staff, it came as little surprise when a recent Ofsted report painted a bleak picture of the school. Hampered by a budget allocation which inspectors found to be "below the average for metropolitan authorities", the report highlighted weak reading skills, low standards of writing and a "limited command" of speaking styles among pupils. Most pupils fall below national standards in mathematics, science, design and technology, French, geography, history and even physical education.

Yet in one area the Ofsted report positively glowed. In music, attainment levels exceed national expectations in both performing and listening. Pupils who in their other classes were found to have limited communication skills, "talk about the music they hear with confidence and understanding". The school orchestra was commended for its high standards, pupils for their "joy and enthusiasm", and both staff and pupils for the "high expectations and trust" which characterise their relationship.

In its emphasis on music, Eccleshill North is bucking national trends. Last autumn the Associated Boards of the Royal College of Music reported that instrument tuition in schools is in alarming decline, that learning to play an instrument is increasingly becoming dependent on ability to pay, and that areas of the country risk being reduced to musical "deserts".

At Eccleshill the governors decided two years ago to provide instruments without hire charges and free tuition to any pupil who wanted to learn. The decision cost the school about Pounds 3,000 last year. Escalating costs and inflation mean that this year the figure is certain to be substantially higher, but it is a decision that no one at Eccleshill regrets.

"We feel it is unjust to pass costs on to families who cannot afford to pay," says Chris Milone. "Charging makes playing an instrument elitist. We know that the public purse is not a bottomless pit and everyone has to work within budgets, but any service like this has to take account of ability to pay. We feel that the educational benefits far outweigh the costs." Ms Milone estimates that if the school introduced charges for tuition it would lose three-quarters of its 60-strong band overnight. "There is always a danger of being patronising, saying that this is a council estate and if they can't do science then we will give them a bit of music, but this is not like that. Learning music enables them to learn how to bring out other skills and builds their self-esteem and confidence. We don't regard music as an optional add-on. "

As evidence of how music has raised the horizons and expectations of the entire school, she points to the academic improvements made since the inspection. "Take the SATs results in mathematics. Before the free music programme was introduced only 13 per cent had attained level four. Today the figure stands at 43 per cent."

Back in the music room, Ron Mills is simultaneously coaching a woodwind trio on a selection from Lionel Bart's Oliver! and supervising two dozen others who are learning to pick out carols on Yamaha electronic keyboards. The noise of the competing tunes is deafening, but somehow Rachel, 12, and Emma and Donna, both 13, seem to have no trouble concentrating as they run through an impressive rendition of "I'd Do Anything".

Meanwhile, in an upstairs classroom, nine-year old Vicky and Katie are having their weekly lesson, struggling with "Fr re Jacques" from a book called Abracadabra Viola. "Teaching them to enjoy music is far more important than being able to play a tune," Ron Mills says. "The pupils are from an atmosphere where failure is commonplace and accepted. This is something at which they can really achieve, and they work incessantly. Sometimes the noise they make is frightening, but it is wonderful."

The bulk of Eccleshill's ancient stock of instruments was provided by the Bradford authority in more affluent times. However, under plans to make the service fully self-financing within two years, the council is considering levying a Pounds 1 per week hire charge per instrument. "That is Pounds 39 a year, and most of our parents couldn't afford to pay that. If it comes to that they will have to come and take the instruments away themselves because I couldn't do it. These children would be in tears," says Ron Mills.

Over the past two years he has seen the amount of free tuition offered by the authority through its peripatetic teachers fall from eight-and-a-half hours a week to just two-and-a-half. The school is financing the rest. "If you took away the music you would destroy this school," he says.

David Whitfield, manager of the local authority's schools music service, is aware of the special socio-economic problems faced by schools such as Eccleshill but does not have an answer. "We are seeing how the service can be continued, but there is pressure to cut. Universal provision is something of the past. Every school is treated the same." This is where Chris Milone and her board of governors disagree, campaigning for music provision to be allocated according to need and the council's own anti-poverty strategy.

Peter Lancaster, a Labour councillor and an Eccleshill governor, says: "You name the problems and this area has got them. Many of our children arrive without having had any breakfast. When I saw they were coming in and devoting their own time to learning and enjoying music before school and after, I decided we had to put some pressure on Bradford council."

How would Eccleshill's pupils feel if their instruments were taken away? "They wouldn't do that, would they?" says Joanne, at 13 already skilled on clarinet and violin. "My favourite instrument is the saxophone. I'd love to learn. I'm saving up for one."

Next month, the school orchestra is to play at the Lord Mayor's annual charity concert. They will be hoping their councillors might be persuaded that charity begins at home.

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