The county is justly proud of its music service - but excellence is to be expected as instruction begins in the womb, writes Gerald Haigh
On a foggy Monday evening in Northampton the former playground of an old Victorian school is crammed with cars. The building in Kettering Road is home to the county's music and performing arts service. Inside, every room has something happening - a jazz group, a dance class, lessons on the harp or sax.
The pattern is repeated throughout the week. Achievements of the county's musical groups are legendary: they tour in Europe, have frequent success at the National Wind Band Championships, and are regulars at the Schools Proms. This year, the Youth Concert Band opened the Proms and the Youth Orchestra provided the finale.
"We don't just have one excellent group, but we have a range - orchestra, big band, wind band, brass band," says head of service Peter Dunkley. "They may not all be national champions at the same time, but we're usually in there among the best in the country."
This excellence is backed up in solid work from children of all abilities and backgrounds. Some 800 young musicians come to the music centre on weekday evenings and Saturday mornings. More than 2,000 others go on Saturday to 15 local music centres. In the school day, 10,000 children get instrumental tuition from a 400-strong team of visiting teachers, 69 of them permanent members of staff.
At King's Sutton primary, a village school in the south of the county, more than 40 per cent of the children have lessons from visiting teachers for brass, woodwind and strings.
The same pattern is repeated in the big schools. Catherine Underwood, head of music at Sponne school, a 13,000-pupil comprehensive in Towcester, describes a 30-hour weekly programme of tuition, supplying two concert bands and a string orchestra among other groups.
A progressive path takes in all styles of music including rock, jazz and world music, through the local music centres to the county groups themselves. Sponne had students in the county groups at the Schools Proms, and the current leader of the cellos in the Youth Orchestra started at King's Sutton.
The Saturday music centres also have key stage 1 and pre-school groups. "And of course there's our pre-natal music course," says Mr Dunkley.
This is a popular session which helps pregnant women to choose music to play and sing to their unborn children. On arrival, the infant can join an under three months group based on baby massage with music. There are also early years groups, so a Northampton child can progress from the womb to the Schools Prom. While much of this activity happens in the community, the old building in the centre of Northampton is the powerhouse. It looks like the service might be pining for a cutting edge creative arts centre. Not a bit of it, though. The rambling structure has a huge range of spaces, from big halls to tiny practice rooms, all soundproofed in stout period brickwork.
Mr Dunkley is proud of what has been achieved here. "We've grown the number of teaching hours we do every year since 1993," he says. But he doesn't just measure success in terms of awards and prizes. "We've had children in our groups who have been excluded from school," he says. "But they've behaved impeccably with us - their lives have revolved around the music."
The problem now for Peter Dunkley is that although children get free loan of an instrument to get started, and schools are given a small core of free tuition time, many have to charge for lessons - typically pound;45 a term.
But it seems clear that no head would let shortage of money stand in the way of a child who wanted to learn an instrument, and the free loan of an instrument, perhaps worth thousands of pounds, may be a more significant economic leveller. That is certainly how Catherine Underwood at Sponne sees it. "The investment means it's easier to start people off - that's how the service can generate the kind of numbers that they do and the quality."
A more long-term worry is future support from the Department for Education and Skills' Standards Fund. "I fear for the future," says Mr Dunkley. "Funding is a constant battle, but it is worthwhile because the youngsters get so much from it. It is important to keep focused on that."