Plymouth's Education Action Zone has an extra musical dimension. Laurence Pollock explains.
In a cramped office at Barne Barton primary school, Laura Palmer and Danielle Hersey are straining on the cornet. Tutor Jamie Dove patiently guides them through the notes again. As he does so, you can make out a tidal wave of sound, building and rolling, elsewhere in the school. Everything seems to vibrate. This is Matt Griffiths's percussion group warming up their marambas. Laura, Danielle and the massed percussionists are all after-school musicians in Plymouth. The application and bubbling enthusiasm have been germinated by the launch nearly two years ago of the country's first music zone, part of the city's 21-school Education Action Zone (EAZ).
The music zone's director, Matt Griffiths, has a mix of musical, social and organisational skills. On the financial side a "mystery" trust has donated nearly pound;350,000 over three years. Nearly 1,000 children do not know who this benefactor is. No one will speculate on the Magwitch figure. It has also had a fruitful partnership with the Yehudi Menuhin School. There have been exchange visits and Plymouth young musicians joined with Menuhin school pupils to play Christmas carols to the Blairs in Downing Street in 1999. Other music zone spin-offs include school workshops given by visiting Glyndebourne opera professionals.
Education Action Zones have recently been revealed to be missing their financial sponsorship targets. Plymouth's anonymous offer means Mr Griffiths and his animateur Mark Trewin can run an education service instead of a fundraising business. "Just like schools used to be," one of the tutors confided.
They have recruited tutors, engaged with heads and music co-ordinators and set up dozens of afterschool clubs. Each week 400 children, on average, participate in the two-hour sessions. There are 25 clubs ranging from brass, steel band, African drumming, singing, pop, DJ-ing, folk, individual tuition and percussion.
In the hall at Barne Barton, Mr Griffiths oversees the young people setting out their equipment and tutors them on the boomwhackers. As plastic impacts on the wooden floor, they learn to exploit the varying lengths and notes of the tubes. As the session develops, rich and complex rhythms raise the roof, and then the volume drops to a barely audible rustle. No musical theory or digital motor skills are needed; you just go for it.
After a break, the club moves on to marambas before surrounding a huge glockenspiel. Glenn Anderson, aged nine, has been coming for a year to the club and the marambas are his favourite. Illness or family commitments are a big disappointment when they keep him away. Britney Spears fan Natasha Spencer, aged seven, who does singing as well as percussion, says there would be no music in her life without the clubs.
The zone has been funded, it is said, because the donor trust is interested in how extensive free music provision can help areas with high levels of crime, deprivation and low educational achievement. The western side of Plymouth, the site of the EAZ, includes Devonort naval yards. This has experienced the long-term effects of the UK's reduction in defence investment. Alan Harte, headteacher at Barne Barton, sees the social and education fall-out from these economics. He warns that disaffection with education is setting in with children as young as 10. "It's a question of them enjoying coming into school."
Matthew Taylor, head of performing arts at Tamarside Community College - one of the two secondaries in the music zone - agrees. But he also believes skills levels have increased in the classes he teaches and that the next Office for Standards in Education inspection should reflect these developments.
The GCSE class has doubled in the past year to around 20 from the usual eight or 10. "The music room at lunchtime and breaktimes is packed and there are a number of thriving bands. School-time and after-school activities are becoming intertwined," says Mr Taylor.
Whatever the broad social goals valued by education professionals, for children and for parents, the focus is decidedly on music.
Delia Collins says that her daughter April, aged 12, has been "thrilled" at the musical opportunities and the clubs have brought her enormous benefit. "She is not particularly academic but she does like singing and dancing. Music is low in the curriculum, especially in primary schools. Since she started at Parkside Comprehensive she has sung in assembly and she could never have done that without encouragement." During a recent half-term, April attended a music week which her mother says she could not otherwise have afforded. Free transport made a big difference.
Matt Griffiths is not a professional teacher but he expects to run sessions with the same focus as a curriculum event: "We are not providing a musical cr che," he says. A reluctant child who did not feel the kind of enthusiasm April clearly does could be disruptive. In fact, though, the "zone" is at full capacity and there are waiting lists for some sessions.
Matt Griffiths and Mark Trewin have tutored extra clubs but are now at the limit of their own available time. The music zone gives a positive message in an area hit by industrial decline and naval retrenchment. The musical message in the city is pacey, multicultural and contemporary.
THE music zone concept is being developed by the National Foundation for Youth Music. In December 2000 it announced the first six youth music action zones in London, north of England, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Eastern England and Thanet, Kent. The zones target areas of social and economic need and work with established music organisations. David Sulkin, NFYM's head of development, says a music zone is being planned for the Cornwall area. "We are aware of Plymouth's excellent achievement. They may be able to pass on their expertise."
National Foundation for Youth Music, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1 1AU. Tel: 020 7841 0800. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.youthmusic.org.uk Glyndebourne Opera Education, Lewes, East Sussex BN8 5UU. Tel: 01273 812321. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org