Phil Revell reports on a school that consistently produces outstanding showbands
Across the road from Abraham Darby School lies one of the biggest and poorest estates in the town. The school is not yet a specialist college, its results are solid if unspectacular and its buildings are not much to look at.
But Abraham Darby, known locally as "The Abdab", routinely turns out musicians with the ability to compete at national level. Its showband has won gold at the National Concert Band Festival for the last three years running. At this year's Music for Youth awards, it won the award for the outstanding performance in its category. In 2001, at the 14th World Music Contest in Holland, it took first prize in its group - and that meant competing against adults.
Then in November last year it appeared at the Schools Prom at the Albert Hall, a venue that held no fears for the pupils. They had played it before.
The showband is the top of the tree, but Abdab has a total of 14 bands, including brass, jazz, woodwind and even a bamboo pipes group, who meet every Friday evening. They make their own pipes. Nearly a sixth of the school's 1,260 pupils are involved in music and the rehearsal rooms are busy lunchtime and evening.
Instrumental lessons are free. The quid pro quo is that the kids come to band. They can have an instrument worth hundreds of pounds for just pound;5 for their time in school - pound;1 per year. Saturday morning music college is open to any age.
Brass band music is neither compulsory nor the only extra-curricular activity: the school is also well known for sport.
"To me the job is about making music enjoyable," says Simon Platford, the school's director of music. "In many schools, playing an instrument is unusual, it costs and people tend to play for a little while and then call it a day. At Abraham Darby we've built up a strong tradition of musicians.
Being a band member is as normal as playing sport for the school."
The repertoire consists mainly of jazz standards from composers and bands including Sammy Nestico, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller, but there are also pop and rock classics from Lennon and McCartney, and Earth Wind and Fire.
"Students continue to play after their GCSEs, offering an important link between the younger players and the staff," says Mr Platford. "And the younger ones see that it is something you carry on with after you've left school."
"Simon demands high standards from the kids," says Lyn Riley, Abraham Darby's headteacher. "They experience success - and it's our belief that success breeds success."
Phil Revell taught at Abraham Darby school from 1979 to 1996.