Gerald Haigh finds a school that has improved its GCSE music results - by not replacing a teacher
Ensuring pupils at key stage 3 achieve good results in music is no simple task. Running an enjoyable and worthwhile class music lesson with the group sizes likely to be found in Year 7, for example, calls for high-level classroom skills and good resources.
There is also the problem of what music the pupils did at primary school. Robert Birch, head of music at Stoke Park Community School in Coventry, for example, takes pupils from 17 primaries: "It's very clear that there are vast differences - it depends on the skills of the teachers."
The school has exemplary GCSE music results - an average of almost 100 per cent grades A to C over the past three years, and more than 90 per cent over the past 10 years, in an area that is by no means a leafy suburb. So what is the secret of Stoke Park's success?
Mr Birch explains:"When the pupils arrive we do listening and assessing exercises. We extract pupils from lessons, four or so at a time, checking who can identify rhythm patterns and sing in tune and so on." The music staff also look at end of key stage 2 test results. "We find that English is a good guide when it comes to putting together our groups."
Constructing teaching groups that work well together is very important at Stoke Park because music teaching is based on performance skills, with small groups of pupils working with musicians.
In Year 7, for example, a quarter of the year group at a time - about 45 pupils - comes to music. For much of the year they will work in four groups, spending about 10 weeks on each of keyboards, steel band, percussion and descriptive music. "The composition of the group is crucial if they are to achieve something of an acceptable standard within that time," Mr Birch says.
The group is carefully mixed for ability. During Year 7 the dynamics of each are closely observed, and abilities assessed, so that in Year 8 the groupings can be refined by moving pupils around as necessary.
These teaching groups - each has perhaps 10 or 12 pupils - are small by the standards of most state schools, and further up the school they shrink even further.
A decision made by Mr Birch and his colleagues five years ago has allowed this to happen.
"A vacancy came up in the department and we proposed to the head and the governors that instead of employing a third teacher, we should spend the same money on employing professional musicians by the hour, to work with groups of pupils."
This means that a Year 7 steel band group will be taught by Victor Phillip, one of the country's most experienced and able steel band exponents. "Within three weeks," Mr Birch says, "they will be playing When the Saints. In week four they will start on something more difficult."
The tutors, though performing professionals, all work in education, usually as peripatetic teachers with Coventry or other authorities. This means they can focus on performing skills as well as cover aspects of attainment target 2 of the national curriculum, listening and appraising, Mr Birch explains.
"The keyboard tutor, for example, will work on the students' understanding of pitch and notation in quite a conventional way. In steel band, Victor will be introducing ideas about dynamics and listening to different styles and rhythms."
There are 13 tutors working at during the week with different year groups. For example, there is songwriting and African drumming in Year 8, and rock music in Year 9. This modular method builds an enthusiasm for the subject that pays dividends not only in GCSE results, but in the level of interest in all kinds of music.
Any music department thinking of following suit needs to be aware of some of the hurdles. The head and governors must be fully supportive and aware of the administrative work involved in running the groups and tutors. There is also an issue of principle involved in filling a teacher's post with people who are not necessarily qualified as teachers.
One important gain is in flexibility. Visiting teachers can be changed, and their hours renegotiated according to the needs of students and the curriculum.
The biggest rewards, though, are seen in the form of well- motivated students who achieve very good results both at the end of key stage 3 and at GCSE level.
"The aim," Mr Birch says, "is that each student can find an area of musical performance which suits them and where they can achieve well."