Sweet music to these tired old ears

8th April 2011 at 01:00

I've just returned from this year's Southwark Music Festival with my band of 25 guitarists.

I have always considered music an essential part of the primary curriculum, but so often it is shoved aside to make way for the more academic subjects needed to push children through the all-important level 4 barrier. Certainly, when I became a headteacher I was underwhelmed by what I found at my newly acquired school. There were some descant recorders, a few percussion instruments and five acoustic guitars, one of which was broken.

Where to start, I thought? Since I played guitar, it seemed sensible to mend the duff instrument, restring the others and start lunchtime lessons with a small beginner group, just as I had done as a deputy in my previous school. As the number of guitars gradually grew, so did the range of instruments in the school. Brass first, then woodwind; clarinets to start with and flutes later on. I found a superb young musician who had the children playing jazzy Christmas carols within months. Violins arrived and then cellos, and I realised there was nothing the children couldn't cope with given the incentive and the equipment. We added a drum kit, tuned percussion, two saxophones and half-a-dozen keyboards.

Then it occurred to me that we had all the components for a school orchestra. Although music has always been an important part of my life, I didn't have the skill to put one together. But my new deputy head did.

Hunting out suitable scores, she arranged for the separate parts to be taught by our visiting instrumental teachers until, one amazing autumn morning, we suddenly had thirty-five instrumentalists playing a full orchestral version of What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor? Okay, there were a few dodgy notes, and keeping the violins in tune was a nightmare, but to me it was as thrilling as the last night of the Proms.

"It's a shame Southwark doesn't have a music festival," my deputy said afterwards. "I'm sure other schools must be doing exciting things in music, too." She then wrote to every school in the borough to gauge their interest. Meetings were organised, a large secondary school offered to donate its hall for the festival and suddenly things were up and running. Many schools wanted to take part and the Southwark Music Festival was on its way to becoming an important annual event.

It's amazing that we have just celebrated our third successful festival. There was a huge range of musical talent: several choirs with lots of inventive harmonies; a vivid African drumming piece; a small orchestra playing a composition written by the children; a string group; some traditional calypso music; my advanced guitar group playing a fast-paced 1950s medley; and choral music for everybody to join in with. To conclude the festival, a community choir formed of parents performed with one of the school choirs. The adults were nervous, but the appreciation at the end must have been truly heartening.

Many teachers throughout the borough give enormous amounts of their free time to create an occasion like this. They work before school, after school and during their lunch breaks because they know how important music is for the children, and they know the children will never let them down. It was a shame that only one person from the upper echelons of the local education authority was able to attend this wonderful event. Perhaps the others had some important data to pore over in their ivory towers. All a matter of deciding where your educational priorities lie, I suppose.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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