Two schools in harmony

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Bill Mackie visits Aberdeen City Music School, a national centre of excellence in the grounds of an ordinary secondary

Mike Taylor's instincts made him wary of making room for a new centre of excellence. Dyce Academy, his medium-sized, semi-rural secondary, had been chosen to accommodate in its midst a pound;2.2 million national school for young musicians with well above average ability.

"I had serious mixed feelings about it," the headteacher admits. "I would not have been happy to have a very elitist unit within a very ordinary comprehensive school - a cuckoo, if you like, in the nest. It could have been a recipe for disaster on a number of levels: conflict between the staff and the music school and between the kids.

"But I signed up for it because I wanted to ensure that these talented, gifted kids could be part of a normal school while developing that talent."

A few days after the start of the school year, he accepts that his fears appear unfounded now that the initiative is up and running.

In the distinctive pink brick corridors of Aberdeen City Music School (ACMS), a teenager from Falkirk is demonstrating his skill on the saxophone to girls from Ayr and Glasgow. From one of the 17 small practice rooms that lead off the corridor, there is a cascade of piano notes of a sonata being played by a youngster from Banff.

The school is sited within the academy so that musicians can follow an ordinary, balanced curriculum as well as the specialist one. This involves an extra 10 hours' work a week, with instruction in their chosen instruments, masterclasses, ensemble work and academic music classes.

Later, during a break between ordinary lessons, the music school's first 15 entrants - 11 of them boarders - talk about their new life. A bright, attentive bunch, from all parts of Scotland and various sectors of society, the pupils are unanimously grateful for the chance they have been given to develop their abilities - and say the Dyce Academy children have treated them like ordinary pupils.

At ACMS, Stephen Pinnock, the school's director, was determined to build an institution worthy of its centre of excellence tag, and has put together a formidable team of teachers and tutors on contract. Indeed, a number of pupils were drawn to Aberdeen by the reputation of their prospective teachers.

He was also careful about choosing from the more than 30 applicants. "We wanted to set standards from the beginning, to build a reputation that will continue to attract the best,"he says.

However, these professional strictures did not prevent him giving a girl a second chance when, by her own admission, she gave a terrible first audition. "There was a spark there, but she wasn't quite ready,"he says. "So we got a professional cellist to give her a couple of hours' tuition and then let her reaudition after a couple of weeks when she worked really hard." In the end, he accepted her.

ACMS plans to double its intake next year, although some of the pupils feel this might affect the "family atmosphere" they have quickly developed.

The concept of the school arose from the Scottish Executive, which invited bids to run specialist schools. The city submitted the music school project, originally to serve the local area but also to act as a national centre of excellence.

There were three other music schools in Scotland - one in East Dunbartonshire, near Glasgow, and two in Edinburgh, one of which is private. The north-east authorities anticipated that ministers would be receptive to the idea of an additional music centre.

Jacqueline McKay, Aberdeen's arts co-ordinator, explains: "We found our pupils were not accessing Edinburgh and Glasgow, not because they weren't talented but because their parents did not want them to make the journey. That was true of Aberdeenshire and the Highlands and Islands, too. So it seemed an attractive option, not just to cover the area but to become a national school."

As it happens, funding was also awarded for a traditional music school at Plockton in the west Highlands.

Looking after children with special interests is not a new experience at Dyce. "A few years ago we set up a base for autistic children to integrate them into the mainstream of school life,"says Mr Taylor. "The staff are proud of the fact that we made a good job of that and it is working really well."

The young musicians occupy another area on the educational spectrum, but absorbing them into the academy is crucial.

At his job interview, Mr Pinnock summed up the philosophy of the music school in three words: excellence, co-operation and integration. "That is the only way it can work,"he says. "Let me invite you to our first public concert in the spring. Then you will see a difference. Then you will see if it is working."

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