Grammar schools are often accused of downgrading the arts, but there are exceptions. Jonathan Croall visited two of them.
Two years ago a student at Dartford Grammar School for Girls was murdered. Headteacher Jillian Hadman remembers the girls' first reaction to the tragic news: "When we asked them what they would like to do most, they all wanted to dance, or paint, or play an instrument. I thought it was tremendous that they were able to express their feelings in that way. It was also terribly helpful to them."
The response was not by chance. For several years, the arts have been central to the school's educational philosophy. While some grammar schools see them in traditional terms as a soft option, Dartford puts art, design, music, drama and dance at the heart of the curriculum.
"Grammar schools don't always do this, so we try to give a lead," Ms Hadman says. "It's vital that everyone should become an all-round person, but you don't get balanced individuals unless you treat the arts as important."
Much of the pressure for good arts provision came from parents. The school had only provided a wide range of expressive arts subjects at key stage 3. But parents were apparently so impressed by the girls' achievements, they asked for the same range at GCSE and A-level.
The school converted classrooms into dance, drama and music studios, and the work expanded. Today all girls freely choose to take at least one arts subject for GCSE, and about a third choose two.
Music is particularly strong, but not only in terms of exam results. Many girls are singers, or members of the Kent county and youth orchestras or the London South India Orchestra. Last year one reached the finals of the BBC's Young Musician of the Year competition. There's also lots of musical activity out of school hours. Hannah Peppiatt is typical. She plays the piano and the cello, is a member of the school orchestra, sings in the choir and leads a string quartet. "Music used to be a hobby, but now it's my life," she says.
Art and design are also doing well. In 1994, 51 out of 74 students achieved A grades at GCSE, while l0 out of 12 A-level students got an A or a B. All five A-level textile students obtained a grade A.
Peter Daniel, head of art, believes everyone has artistic potential: a teacher's job is to help it unfold. "Girls with limited ideas can get a grade A GCSE because they learn to use materials creatively," he says. "They see what others can achieve, and get dragged upwards. Excellence is contagious." He reckons art "offers a different educational diet, because it's expressive. But that doesn't mean it's any less rigorous. I object when staff say it's a relaxing subject."
Displays at the school demonstrate the quality of the work. On the day I visited, coursework at all levels was being exhibited as part of the Dartford Arts Festival. Mr Daniel reckons some of the girls' A-level work is of degree standard.
Displaying the work is important. "There's a feeling of everyone participating, of everyone's efforts being valued, and students start to talk and value other people's work," Ms Hadman says.
Several Dartford girls go on to art college each year. But Mr Daniel emphasises that research and personal study is valuable for those who don't take that route. "Many of them will have to give high-profile presentations in their working lives: this work gives them the confidence to do that."
While Dartford staff needed no persuading to give art and music a higher profile in the school, drama was apparently a different matter. But attitudes changed when it was realised that several children who were thought to lack motivation were no longer being discussed at staff meetings - and all of them had opted for drama.
"It's because drama has developed their self-esteem and self- knowledge, " Ms Hadman says. "It's helped the girls to become more realistic about their capabilities and better able to achieve their potential."
The Schools Music Association's annual conference for teachers, music inspectors and anyone interested in music education is on October 20-22 at the Britannia Hotel, Daventry, Northamptonshire. The theme is "Planning and assessing" in the light of the new Order for the music curriculum. Tony Knight from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is the key speaker and John Bills, president of the National Union of Teachers, will address the conference dinner. Fee: Pounds 160, Pounds 140 members. For details send SAE to: Valerie Hawkins, SMA conference secretary, 3 Moss Hall Court, Finchley, London N12 8PD.