Hymns for him;Secondary;Music for the Millennium

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Singing is for girls or sissies - every red-blooded schoolboy knows that. Yet one school music room echoes to the sound of football and rugby heroes singing their hearts out. That's one of the reasons the school has been singled out for praise in an OFSTED arts report. Elaine Williams went there and discovered it's cool to be a choirboy.

The address hardly inspires confidence. Howling Lane, Aln- wick, Northumberland, is where you'll find the Duchess's County High School - musical beacon to our nation's schools.

Under any lesser teacher than George Adamson, "howling" might indeed be the result as 70 bedraggled and disconsolate Year 9 pupils, fresh from a national assessment test, open their mouths to sing. A timetable hiccup means two groups have turned up instead of one, and even Adamson, Duchess's head of music, will have his work cut out to make sweet harmony.

Unruffled, he starts the lesson at a cracking pace. Standing with hands poised over the piano, he surveys the sagging rows of pupils: "OK, stand up, don't fidget, hands out of pockets, move to a position where you can see my face. I want to be able to see your faces and I want all eyes on me."

A few stirring chords on the piano, and the pupils are off, warming up with "There is More Love", a simple American folk song that is transformed within minutes from an awkward, breathy rendition into something strong, sustained and impassioned. Next comes a rousing Bulgarian folk song in three-part harmony.

Mr Adamson teaches by example, through his own exuberant performance. He constantly questions pupils about the dynamics and structure of the music, and gives praise and encouragement whenever he can. His habit of picking out pupils to sing solo does wonders for the concentration of the whole class, and by the end of this lesson pupils are singing the gospel song "Freedom is Coming" with obvious pride and enthusiasm.

Mr Adamson's work has been praised by the Office for Standards in Education and is highlighted in its publication The Arts Inspected. In his three years at The Duchess's - a 1,000-strong, 13-18 comprehensive overlooking Alnwick Castle - Mr Adamson has dramatically increased pupil numbers studying GCSE music. Last year there were just over 20; this year there are 49; next year there will be 70.

He has also built up a choir of more than 90 students, including 40 boys. There's a fair smattering of footballers in the choir, and one of the leading tenors, 18-year-old Kevin Wathen, plays rugby for the county.

Michael Dawson, 17, is also a tenor. Neither he nor Kevin believed they could sing before they joined the school, and Michael, now studying art and geography A-level, is sure it has been the saving of his academic career. "I was a tearaway, but when Mr Adamson came along he persuaded me I could sing. I'd never done it before. If it wasn't for the choir, I wouldn't be here now. I'd probably be unemployed or working on the boats. It's so great, feeling you're really achieving something."

Paul Morris, a 15-year-old music GCSE pupil, is a keen footballer who joined the choir for a few weeks and then dropped out because of the ribbing he was getting from team-mates. By the beginning of the next term he was back. "I missed the choir and decided I'd rather be in it and just put up with the stick," he says. "Mr Adamson doesn't put anybody down. He respects everybody's taste, and he's really encouraging - not like a real teacher."

Mr Adamson believes singing has a fundamental part to play in the development of a child. "It is very demanding on children in terms of concentration, discipline, commitment and energy. Building up the ability in a child to stand up in front of a class and share himself or herself, as you do in singing - that cannot be underestimated.

"If you believe, as I do, that music is the most important subject you can teach, then you do everything you can to give it rigour in the classroom. I work out the structure of lessons and plan progression extremely carefully. I expect pupils to be with me 100 per cent."

The national curriculum demands that all children learn singing to the end of Year 9, but there's no tokenism at The Duchess's. The choir rehearses frequently at lunchtime and has a wide repertoire, ranging from Zulu songs to Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Tammy Wynette to Vivaldi. It is in huge demand for concerts in the region, has performed in France and Germany, and has cut a CD. On a concert trip to Paris, the choir burst into spontaneous song while on a cruise down the Seine, much to the appreciation of other ferry passengers. Karaoke evenings are a regular feature of the choir's social life.

Mr Adamson took up his post as head of music and expressive arts three years ago, returning to the town where he grew up. He left behind a post as head of performing arts at Knutsford High, a highly successful school in Cheshire. In Alnwick he found that music happened outside the timetable, and that there were few musicians and fewer resources - the result of five successive years of spending cuts in Northumberland. He made a decision to make the most of the one resource he had in plenty: children's voices.

At The Duchess's, the choir is open to all. No pupil is turned away. "I don't believe there is such a thing as tone deaf," explains Mr Adamson. "Children don't develop vocally at the same rate. Some don't develop a sense of pitch as quickly as other children, but I think they can all get there."

One young man who constantly sang the wrong note - he had a sense of rhythm but no pitch - is now one of his best basses. But it took nearly three years. "There is a particular problem with boys," Mr Adamson says. "Between the ages of 12 and 17 their voices all develop in different ways. I have boys in Year 9 who sing treble, while others sing tenor and others bass. But if you are perceptive and recognise where their voices are, you can help them find a register. Without that they cannot sing.

"There are songs I do with some Year 9 classes that I cannot do with others because the key is wrong for a particular set of voices. You have to make them see that it's just as macho to sing high as it is to sing low."

Mr Adamson's high expectations are rubbing off on the school. Duchess's takes in pupils from a 20-mile radius, including the children of landed gentry, professionals and farmers living in rural Northumberland alongside families from deprived areas in Alnwick and on the coast.

Because of the positive effect singing is having on school life and as part of the drive to raise standards (the school achieved around 50 per cent A-Cs last year), a compulsory arts option is now being introduced at key stage 4. From September pupils will have to choose at least one subject from a group that includes music, art, expressive arts and media studies.

Geoffrey Thompson, the headteacher, says: "How young people achieve is affected by their self-esteem. We believe this is one step towards enhancing performance."


OFSTED believes that the standards of singing achieved at The Duchess's County High School present a "salutary lesson" to music teachers who are reluctant to pursue singing with boys when their voices are changing. Like George Adamson, the inspectorate feels that teachers should be prepared to listen carefully to boys' voices and be flexible in their choice of music.

According to OFSTED, part of Mr Adamson's success is due to the fact that he portrays singing as an "adult activity that is worth doing well". He believes children can achieve great things in singing "and so they do".

Typically in singing lessons around the country, some children might not be singing at all and many would certainly refuse to sing on their own. A good teacher, says OFSTED, will help a child find his or her voice and develop them to perform with it relatively quickly, so building up transferable skills - presentation, memorising words, confidence and so on - which will help bring pupils on in other ways across the curriculum.

* Writings about and examples of singing by pupils from The Duchess's County High School are available on OFSTED's "The Arts Inspected: Good Teaching in Art, Dance, Drama and Music" Web Site at http:www.ofsted.gov.uk. Enquiries to Janet Mills, HMI, on 01865 247203.

* The Duchess's County High School CD "Fly Away" is available from the school, tel: 01665 602166

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