Breaking sound barriers

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Caerphilly - Wales's fourth largest authority - is showcasing its work at this year's show. Here Biddy Passmore looks at some of its success stories

The young musicians who will entertain visitors to the exhibition come not from the usual leafy suburbs but from an area with some of the worst deprivation in Wales.

They have benefited from Caerphilly council's belief that music is not a luxury but an opportunity that should be available to all.

"We take a paternalistic view," says Keith Ellerington, director of the service. "We have the support of elected members and officers and we work hard to support parents and schools."

Today, nearly one in 10 of the LEA's 31,000 pupils takes instrumental tuition every week. Add in those taking singing lessons and working on musical projects, and the share of Caerphilly pupils who take part in regular musical activity outside the curriculum is an impressive 22 per cent.

This has been achieved by extending the range of instruments and music covered. There is now much more emphasis on rock, pop and jazz, with free tuition and loan of instruments, not just for classical string and wind players, but also for pupils wanting to take up the guitar or percussion.

There is a county youth big band and a rock school.

In partnership with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, the LEA supports tuition for able and talented pupils. Caerphilly has 11 students in the national youth ensembles of Wales this year: nine in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, one in the National Youth Brass Band and one in the National Youth Wind Orchestra.

The borough spends more than pound;750,000 a year on its music service - nearly pound;125 a year for each pupil engaged in extra-curricular music.

Small wonder its music service wins prizes, most recently one from the Performing Rights Society for The First Dragon project.

A companion piece to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, The First Dragon was written by Welsh composer Mervyn Burtch, to a libretto by Francesa Kay. It was performed by the Welsh Sinfonia to pupils in Caerphilly and throughout Wales, after workshops in local schools where pupils worked alongside composer and librettist.

Caerphilly's library service also wins prizes. It has for 10 years provided an extensive programme of author visits to schools that other LEAs consider a model of its kind. The service makes a special effort to feature strong male role models like authors Morris Gleitzman, Alan Gibbons and Bali Rai, to encourage more boys and young men to read.

In Caerphilly, as elsewhere in the Welsh valleys, empty mines have left a legacy of low income, poor health and low aspirations. Although employment is now high, the area has one of the highest levels of economic inactivity in the UK. But David Hopkins, the director for education and leisure, (pictured above) says: "The social context defines our task rather than limits our expectations for educational success."

The borough started with a mixed school system and a very low performance base when it was created in 1996. Attainment and attendance were poor and are still below the Welsh average, but there is progress. However, an Estyn inspection last year found that the quality of education in its schools had improved significantly.

Now the borough is creating unified 14 to 19 provision to raise standards, combat disaffection and increase staying-on rates. The aim, says Mr Hopkins, is to have "a county-wide curriculum offer with more vocational options, available either in the local school or cluster, creating pathways both to higher education and the world of work".

Caerphilly is putting money into this strategy - pound;350,000 this year.

Uniquely in Wales, it is creating a 14 to 19 curriculum development unit.

Mr Hopkins said: "We see too many young people losing interest in education and need to reverse that trend."

He is in a good position to identify with the needs of disaffected youth - he left his grammar school at 16 and did not take studying seriously until his thirties.

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