Julie Read reports on a comprehensive that needs to raise Pounds 80,000 in five weeks, while Diane Spencer sounds a warning note on the Government's plan for more specialist schools
Next month is going to be hectic for headteacher Peter Smith. For apart from the day-to-day running of his Middlesbrough comprehensive, there is some fundraising to do - Pounds 80,000-worth, in fact.
Hall Garth is bidding to become a specialist performing arts school, for which it must find Pounds 100,000 in sponsorship. With just Pounds 20,000 promised, Mr Smith is "quietly confident" of hitting his March 6 deadline, but is coy about how.
If his appeals to the likes of Virgin boss Richard Branson - who owns a nearby hotel - and musician Chris Rea are successful, then Hall Garth will enter a new phase in its short but chequered history.
In 1994, the school made the headlines when former pupil Stephen Wilkinson broke into a classroom of 12 and 13-year-olds, ordered the teacher to leave the room, lined the children up against the wall and stabbed pupil Nikki Conroy to death. Two of her classmates were seriously injured in the attack.
An immaculate circular walled garden in the playground is now the only tangible reminder. Mr Smith believes that Hall Garth has moved on from this dreadful episode but, as he says, "the school has recovered and the special status will give it that extra boost".
Hall Garth is surrounded by acres of playing fields and woods in suburban Acklam. But at least half of the 1,067 11 to 16-year-olds are entitled to free school meals, and live in the city, where unemployment and social deprivation are high.
The school has steadily built an outstanding reputation in music and drama, which has given staff and pupils the impetus to aim for specialist status. Hall Garth now attracts pupils from 28 primary schools - three times the number when it opened six years ago.
Then, the governors pledged to emphasise performing arts.
Mr Smith believes changes to the school's daily running will be minimal because of the demands of the national curriculum.
"Pupils in Years 7 and 8 will spend 8 per cent of their time on performing arts, up from 6 per cent. In Years 10 and 11 they will spend 10 per cent of the timetable, as opposed to 6 per cent. I also hope they will be able to participate in shorter courses of other vocational skills such as lighting and recording," said Mr Smith, himself a former music teacher. What he cannot say just now is how many extra staff he will need .
To cater for the extra lessons the school's 200-seat hexagonal theatre, which hosts all the music and drama performances, will be in even greater demand, and the hall will be extended to create music and rehearsal rooms connected to the music department.
Mr Smith rejects any comparison with Paul McCartney's much-publicised Fame school - Liverpool's Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) - or even with the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon which is funded by the British record industry. He has, however, developed strong contacts with a Leeds secondary due to become a performing arts centre in September.
If Hall Garth manages to raise the money the Department for Education and Employment will match the funds. The school will then benefit from an extra Pounds 100,000 a year in additional revenue.
This is all music to the ears of the students in Year 9 who are learning about chromatic scales from head of music Chris Lewis. Divided into groups playing glockenspiels, xylophones, autoharps and finger cymbals, they have composed tunes based on Walter de la Mare's poem Snow.
They are surrounded by photos of the school's Yangchin music group which travels the world performing on a range of exotic instruments picked up along the way - including the Chinese dulcimer. Alongside are pictures of the school's various musical exchange visits to Ober-Ramstadt, Acklam's German twin town. Mr Lewis is proud of the fact that 12 per cent of the pupils are involved in some way at every performance.
Saxophonist Katy O'Farell, 12, believes that becoming a school of performing arts is a "brilliant chance" for her to practise her instrument more and to learn dance, a specialist area which the comprehensive is determined to expand.
"The project has given the school a real buzz," said science co-ordinator Gillian Lamb. "While we emphasise to the kids the need to get the GCSEs, the focus on arts gives them an extra opportunity in life and that can only be a positive thing."