John, this joint is jumping

17th November 2006 at 00:00
In a farmhouse set in the Staffordshire countryside, a small school is using music to help pupils who other schools can't cope with. Stephen Manning paid a visit

Tom is playing the drums along to Summer of '69, the Bryan Adams hit, accompanied by two other pupils on guitar and bass. The 11-year-old's energies were not always this way inclined. Five months ago he arrived at the Roaches school, a residential special school for pupils with social and behavioural difficulties in the Staffordshire moorlands. He had been excluded from a number of schools because of violence towards teachers and other pupils. But the Roaches school's music lessons appear to be having a positive effect.

John Milner, the music teacher, has devised a method that is less about formal music learning than about instilling transferable skills of communication and group co-ordination that his pupils lack.

Using simple songs, mainly classic rock like the Survivor hit Eye of the Tiger, or Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, Mr Milner instructs pupils individually, then brings them together to play. With simplified notation and open-tuned electric guitars (tuned to E major to avoid learning chord shapes), the band get a tentative grip on these power chord anthems within minutes.

The score is a mix of numbers, letters and drawings. "Standard notation looks needlessly complicated and can be quite off-putting, especially for those who can't read," says Mr Milner, a musical arranger who did a PhD on Duke Ellington. "A good arranger builds complexity out of simplicity.

Ellington got his players to come up with simple lines, but interwoven they make something quite complex."

There was concern that Tom's arrival would cause too much disruption, even for a school like Roaches. Now, though, a picture of him playing drums is on the wall, next to photographs of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, the jazz greats.

Lessons take place in a small music room in the lower school with a drum kit, a rack of electric guitars, keyboard and a stack of amplifiers. The lower school is in a farmhouse. Goats and sheep wander past as pupils and teacher attempt Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio.

There are 30 pupils at the school, 22 on the upper site and eight on the lower. About half have statements of educational need and half are in residential care. They have been excluded from schools and pupil referral units, and are sent to Roaches as a last resort.

The length of stay for the pupils varies from a couple of months to several years, with the annual residential fees starting from pound;103,740, usually paid by local authorities. The timetable is balanced between core subjects (literacy, numeracy) and activities tilted towards behavioural control, such as animal husbandry and aromatherapy. "This is to help them understand the difference between hyper and relaxed", says Amy Hopkin, head of the lower site.

While the school is pressing ahead with a GCSE programme, its real goal is to get each child back into a mainstream school. Many have been unable to hold down residential placements, though three returned to mainstream schools this September.

Proving that it's the music that makes the difference is difficult, as it would mean denying pupils access to music in order to compare results. But a pilot project conducted by Mr Milner and Dr Katie Overy, lecturer in music psychology at Edinburgh University, with young offenders at Pentonville prison was encouraging - participants agreed that song lyrics were more motivating and easier to work with than normal text.

Martin Hearle, senior social worker at Shropshire county council, has referred challenging children to the school and thinks it makes a difference. "The range of activities, and the fact that the school is so remote, helps the children live a more ordered life than they are used to.

"Children I have referred with emotional behaviour problems have ended up helping other kids and assuming responsibilities."

Mr Milner reckons that other schools, special and mainstream, could adopt this approach to reach out to more vulnerable pupils. "A drum kit, a few guitars and keyboards, a computer to record it on. It may sound expensive to some schools, but it's definitely worth it , and it's cheaper than prison"

Pupils' names have been changed

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