Strangers in harmony

A new Government-funded scheme is throwing music students from independent and state schools together - and the experience is more than orchestrally rewarding, says Diana Hinds
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What happens when a group of independent schoolboys from Tonbridge Wells in Kent team up with a group of urban boys from East London to make music? The answer, it seems, is that the two groups have a lot of fun and learn from one another.

At least that is what happened in a musical partnership between Tonbridge School in Kent, and St Bonaventure's School, a Roman Catholic boys' comprehensive in East London. Both schools have their own strong musical traditions, and felt they had much to offer one another. Tonbridge, with 40 instrumental teachers and over two-thirds of boys learning an instrument, has a flourishing symphony orchestra, and is capable of performing symphonies by Brahms and Sibelius.

"It is easier at a single sex school to create a string-playing tradition, because the boys don't see it as something that girls do," explains Hilary Davan Wetton, director of music. "We have a lot of boys playing the violin, and they have the esteem of their peer group." Singing, however, is something Davan Wetton hopes the partnership will help to build: "Our boys tend to be nervous about singing the top line at 13, because they feel it reveals them to be not fully mature."

St Bonaventure's School has a thriving choral tradition, specialising in Gospel and contemporary music. "Our boys sing full on, with no inhibitions," says Ian Wilson, director of music. But they need encouragement with their instruments. Few get further than grade four standard, because their parents can't afford more lessons or because they lose interest.

The partnership consists of three parts, each involving pupils from the rull ability range: a string ensemble (playing a specially commissioned work by Michael Csanyi-Wills); a vocal group singing gospel music, directed by the professional singer and animateur, Brenda Rattray; and a jazz group, led by Scott Stroman, head of jazz at the Guildhall School of Music.

The jazz musicians will be required to improvise - something with which the classically-trained Tonbridge boys are less familiar than their state school counterparts. "Our pupils are far less used to working without printed notes," says Davan Wetton. "At a high-achieving school like this one, pupils tend to have inhibitions about doing things less than perfectly - and that is what they have got to let go of. It's a wonderful learning process."

The schools' first application for funding under the government's Independent-State Schools Partnership Programme was rejected because of insufficient community involvement. But it was reworked to include three concerts, all open to the public - one at each school and one in Stratford Circus Centre, east London - and it has now been awarded a grant of £11,900 from the Department for Education and Skills.

Last month, the schools met for the first time, at Tonbridge. "Our boys saw the grounds - the huge cricket pitches, the beautiful buildings and the chapel - and their jaws hit the floor," says Wilson. "But if anything, it was the Tonbridge boys who were more shy."

"It's not too hard for me to mix with people," says Michael Jakob, 14, a clarinettist from St Bonaventure's. "The Tonbridge boys were quite friendly - they didn't just ignore us. I think this project will improve the general standard of our music. But it also improves the kind of person you are - how you mix in with other students."

Richard Southgate, 13, a Tonbridge violinist, says he had expected a bit of awkwardness: "But it was easier than I'd thought, and people chatted to each other quite easily. Playing the music was more enjoyable because we were doing it with new people. Cooperating musically with people you've never met before is really good fun."

Getting the schools to sit together was difficult at first, says Davan Wetton. "But there's nothing so good for breaking down prejudices as working together." For an all-boys school, music can also be a way of bringing in girls. Only three girls, from St Bonaventure's sister school, are involved in this project, and Richard, for one, admits he would have quite liked to be working with a mixed school.

The number of boys' independent schools has shrunk in the last decade, as many schools have gone co-educational. In January 2003, only 155 out of 1,300 schools in the Independent Schools Council were 95 to100 per cent boys, compared with 282 in January 1993. But many of those remaining boys' schools have strong links with sister independent schools, either on the same site or close at hand.

Nottingham High Junior School, for instance, is following in the footsteps of its senior boys by developing musical links with its independent sister school. Last summer, girls and boys from years three to six teamed up to put on an orchestral and choral concert in Nottingham's Albert Hall, and a similar event is planned for June 2005.

"We developed this because we felt the boys were missing something," says Phillip Pallant, the head teacher. "We thought they were perhaps ignorant of the fact that girls also have remarkable talents in music, and we wanted them to share the learning experience. Music is not only an incredible skill, but a way of building self-esteem, and of forming fantastic friendships that can last a lifetime."

Nottingham High hosts weekly rehearsals of the Nottingham Youth Orchestra, attended by people from independent and state schools, and its senior staff help with coaching. The junior school is also interested in pursuing musical links with local maintained schools, some of whom have thriving percussion and calypso bands.

Ampleforth College, in Yorkshire (which goes fully co-educational in September), is in the second year of a successful independent/state musical partnership with Cardinal Heenan Roman Catholic High School in Leeds. Designed to "promote pupil participation and enjoyment, improve performance and raise standards in music", the partnership has already incorporated workshops for choirs (including a BBC Radio 4 "Daily Service" broadcast), jazz ensembles, rock groups, steel drum groups and composition work for GCSE pupils using ICT.

A plenary concert will take place at Cardinal Heenan High School in March, as well as a performance of the "Missa Sancti Nicolai" in Ampleforth Abbey in May, using singers and instrumentalists from both schools and from the wider Ampleforth community.

The idea of independent schools forging partnerships with their state counterparts is becoming more accepted. Independent heads are aware of the need to show such links to preserve their charitable status. The Charity Commission has warned that independent schools failing to engage with the wider community could be stripped of their tax-free charitable status and of their assets.

But the Government's launch of the Independent-State Schools Partnership programme, in 1997, has also helped to generate a more altruistic interest in partnerships.

"Everybody is aware that charitable status is going to be more closely scrutinised in future," says Dick Davison of the Independent Schools Information Service. "But there is now a fairly widespread belief among senior people in independent schools that it is a proper thing for a school to be part of its community. The ISSP programme has stimulated a significant number of schemes that might not otherwise have happened."