It’s early on a Tuesday morning and I’m walking through a beautifully manicured garden and entering a clean cut modern music centre. All around me I see artwork, hanging from the ceilings, every square inch of wall displaying colourful artwork. Children hold doors open and beam at me. You would be forgiven for thinking that I was in a rich private school, but in fact I am a stone’s throw from London’s City airport at Gallions Primary School in one of the poorest parts of East London. I’ve been travelling every week this month to visit this inspiring school thanks to the London Symphony Orchestra’s Discovery programme which reaches out to children in the 10 Olympic London boroughs, bringing classical and contemporary music to these disadvantaged but enthusiastic kids.
Having visited many schools throughout Greater London over the past 20 years, I feel a wonderful sense of calm and pride in this small primary school which is mirrored in the children’s behaviour as they take their shoes off on entering the music rooms and the care with which they open their instrument cases.
The music provision here is quite inspirational and was kickstarted by the original headmistress Bernadette Thompson. From a creative background, she saw the area the school was being built in and understood the need to give the children access to the arts and the benefits that would cross over to their academic learning through that access. I’m being accompanied by Ashley Roye, Gallions’ full time music co ordinator and I asked him how Bernadette originally got this incredible music provision off the ground. ‘It started off with just musicianship lessons for everyone’ Ashley explains ‘and then the strings provision was built afterwards. There was a lot of fund raising to get the money in place. We had a big investment from M and G investments which helped to pay for the music building but also we had to make sure we had enough instruments for every child to have the opportunity to play.’ Gallions do actually manage to provide every single child in their school the opportunity to play a string instrument. Lining the rooms are floor to ceiling shelves with violins, violas, cellos and double basses of all sizes which the children use during their music lessons.
But how do they continue funding this extraordinary provision? ‘Through the school’s budget.’ Ashley tells me. ‘We do additional fundraising to support it but the senior leadership team really value the arts and know how important it is, so although we do way more music than the curriculum says we should, we still find money from the budget to make it happen.’
Indeed Gallions do spend way over the normal music budget but the leadership are confident that the return is more than worth the budget allocation. ‘The academic standard has gone up.’ He smiles. ‘There’s an improvement in the overall learning in the school . But I feel this school isn’t just about academic results. It’s about giving the kids the opportunities to try lots of different things.’
Gallions don’t just focus on music. There is excellent provision also for art, poetry and dance . ‘Children here get to access each discipline of the arts. We all have our own niche and music isn’t for everyone.’ Ashley points out. ‘Here they get a chance to try them all and get a taste and see what they like. As they go into secondary school, some of the ground work we’ve done here at Gallions will help them make those decisions.’
As I walk around the music centre, I see pictures everywhere of events where the children have performed from the Festival of Music for Youth to a nearby Porsche Garage. ‘Every year we are lucky enough to have a concert there. They clear a space on the show court and we take our orchestras and choirs along and put on a concert for our staff and parents. It’s nice for them to get out of the school and perform in an environment which they’re not used to. It gives them a whole new experience and a whole new set of skills. What’s more, it’s nice for the parents to come and understand what we’re doing with their children.’
‘There is focus and attention that the children have which comes from learning music and they have a confidence which comes from having to get up and perform in different situations. Being a 6 year old and having to perform in a string concert would normally be unheard of. But here, regardless of their ability level, they all have to do it. I think they get a lot from that.’
So what is their first introduction to these instruments? ‘Firstly we teach them respect for the instruments’ insists Ashley. ‘Their first couple of weeks, they’re lucky if they touch it. They are taught how to take the instrument out of the case, place it on top of the case, stand up to clap the rhythm they’re going to play, then sing the piece and only then can they pick up the instrument. So in those early months it’s instilled in them straight away, the discipline of looking after the instrument taking care of it and not wanting to break it.’
All the children are given group lessons but those who show a particular interest and dedication to learn can have after school lessons with the teachers and a select few are allowed to take the instruments home.’ What is the cost to the child for that though? ‘All of kids doing extra lessons have a bursary from a trust which brings the cost down to £3 a session (1/5 of the actual cost) paying £30 a term for 10 lessons. We can only do that because we applied for a grant which covers it. If we didn’t have that, the parents would have to pay full price and they can’t afford it.’
What about the cost of the rest of the music provision? ‘We top it up with external funding. Next term’s funding is coming from a law firm in Canary Wharf , Clifford Chance who put on lunchtime recital concerts for the kids to attend. We have a good relationship there already. Moving forward, the private sponsorship route seems the only viable long term solution. Arts funding will help get a project off the ground but to maintain it, we need support from companies.’
How many music teachers are required to teach all these children? ‘We have 8 teachers covering musicianship and string teaching - the string teachers cover 2 full days a week and the musicianship teacher’s do 4. We also provide music for our SEN children. Gallions has a large SEN provision and the children are involved in musicianship classes and have classroom time as well as group lessons. The mainstream kids spend time with them - they come into singing assemblies and play to them. What is apparent is that the SEN children get a lot out of music and it’s a great way for them to express themselves and learn. We have separate sessions for them where they work with Drake Music and the LSO so they will get huge value from the music teaching which all the children get.’
I want to know if this a model which could be duplicated in other schools? ‘It’s a long term project.’ explains Ashley. ‘It couldn’t happen overnight but with support and funding it’s absolutely possible. Good PTAs can work wonders and raise lots of money to put something like this in place and it’s a good way of learning. There are untold benefits from learning even if they never pick up a instrument again. There’s more to it than just being a world class violinist - it’s bigger than that. There are so many transferable skills which they will pick up which will help them as they grow up. They may be adults before they understand the skills it gave them.’
I leave Gallions feeling uplifted and hopeful that a state funded school can provide such universal arts tuition for all it’s students and in the process create such a calm, creative environment. Surely this is a school to be mirrored by others, learning from their funding and implementation model? It would require huge dedication from the teachers but most importantly vision and understanding from the senior leadership teams to realise that providing this for their students improves every aspect of their lives. I have my fingers crossed that more schools will try and create a system like Gallions as we move forward in a society where the arts are usually the first subject to be dropped. The cost may be big but the payout is infinite...