Music has become a vital part of school life at Bents Green Secondary Special School in Sheffield, where head of music Judith Ennis is looking forward the finals of the National Festival of Music for Youth (NFMY) in Birmingham this month. It will be her group's second successive appearance at the festival - a massive achievement for her children. "We're quite a small school of 120 pupils," she says. "Seventy per cent are on the autistic spectrum, with a range of communication difficulties."
It's not often that a school like this has a music specialist, and Judith works hard to ensure that all the children reap the benefit, using imagination and skill to make performance accessible to them. She uses tuned percussion, and builds pieces in layers from short motifs, at different levels of difficulty to suit each player. In this way, for example, she and the young musicians have constructed a version of Michael Nyman's Time Lapse, which they will perform at the festival.
"I work to their strengths - they're very good at memorising," she says.
The resulting sound, from a range of instruments that includes the beautiful, haunting bass metallophone, is ravishing to listen to.
Good school groups invariably grow from sound classroom roots, and this is especially so here. "What you'll see and hear is exactly what I do in the lessons," says Judith. "It's all done by ear - lots of blues, modal music.
Everything's adapted by me and the kids, it's a collaborative effort.
People want to write autistic children off, but they can achieve a very high level. Their concentration and motivation to get it right are enormous."
Performing in the public eye, though, was a big challenge at first. "Last year, I wasn't sure till the last minute that they were all going to be on the stage," Judith says. "But one boy said it was the best day of his life, and he really meant it."
There'll be nerves, too, at the 210-pupil Walderslade Primary in Chatham, where the school choir is preparing for its first appearance at the festival. Teacher Neil Jones has been before, with singers from his previous school, and he came to Walderslade in 2003 knowing what could be done. "I was lucky that the school had a good tradition of singing," he says. "The grandfather of one of the children plays the piano for me and we have this sort of double act."
Neil provides a good example of the "we could do that" effect that's inspired so many festival participants. "I went to the Schools Prom many years ago, and it's been the inspiration for everything since," he says. "I want them to appreciate the standard of music that children and adults achieve. Hopefully some of them will keep it up in secondary school, as a hobby or even a career."
Neil is a singer and adult-choir trainer. For teachers who want to build their knowledge and skills, the NFMY this year includes a "Singposium" on July 12. It's a day for all who work with young singers and choirs, featuring lots of practical work from a group of experienced conductors and choir trainers, including Deborah Catterall, who works with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and conductor composer and youth choir trainer Alan Simmons, a stalwart of the festival for many years. It'll be a good day, with lots of fun, and much boosting of confidence. A great way to finish a busy school year, if you ask me.
Twice as a teacher, I took my own junior school groups to the NFMY, and it's true to say that although they won no awards, what they and I learned from the experience showed in their subsequent performances and permeated all the musical life of our school.
That's the great strength of the NFMY - it's an educational experience for everybody. Children learn as they prepare for it. They then learn about performance, they learn from their adjudicator's comments and, most of all, they learn from watching and listening to other groups. Importantly, all of that's true for every entrant, not just those reaching the finals, because there are regional auditions which are fully fledged NFMY events in themselves, with top-class professional adjudicators.
It's a learning experience for adults, too, and that includes parents and support staff as well as the teachers who work directly on the music. The festival is a day out for the school - with supporters and parents turning out in strength, and the whole thing becomes a community event, with the musical group and its performance as the focal point.
This shows in some remarkable scenes in the performance itself, where, although everyone listens attentively to everyone else, there's the most enthusiastic applause you're ever likely to hear - and it's offered to every group, by every band of supporters. Neil Jones, who's seen it all before, has enjoyed telling his children and adult supporters what to expect: "I just want them to soak up the atmosphere," he says, "And to be ready to make plenty of noise when the opportunity comes."
* "Singposium" costs pound;45. Contact Anna Gilbert, Music for Youth, 102 Point Pleasant, London SW18 1PP Tel: 020 8870 9624 Fax: 020 8870 9935 Email: email@example.com
Striking performance: pupils of Bents Green School in rehearsal l Entry details for next year's NFMY will be available in September on the website www.mfy.org.uk or direct from Music for Youth, Tel: 0208 870 9624
* Music for Youth is sponsored by Halifax, Music Industries Association, The National Union of Teachers, Norwich Union and The TES, with funding from Youth Music. Media Partner: Classic FM
* The National Festival of Music for Youth 2005 is supported by: Arts Council and Millennium Commission through Urban Fusion; Henry James Sayer Charity; The Ratcliff Foundation; CB and HH Taylor 1984 Trust; and The Wilmcote Charitrust (The Woltmann Fund)
The National Festival of Music for Youth
Now in its 35th year, Music For Youth's "National Festival of Music for Youth" is the biggest children's music festival in the world. This year, between July 11 and 16, 10,000 young musicians and dancers, representing 300 groups, will converge on Birmingham, taking over the Symphony Hall, the Adrian Boult Hall and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's CBSO Centre.
The summer event is in a sense the tip of the iceberg, because the groups performing there have been selected from the 40,000 performers who attended 45 regional festivals, each of which is an exciting professionally adjudicated NFMY event in its own right.