Young, gifted ... and mostly middle class

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The Independent Online
In the large practice block at Chetham's School of Music, in Manchester, thirty 11- and 12-year-olds are doing their third practice stint of the day, another session of 40 minutes in a daily round of almost three hours. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, on piano, violin, recorder and organ, emanate from the small practice rooms; one child is improvising, another pokes his head repeatedly out the door. Supervisors patrol the corridors.

Founded in 1655 by Humphrey Chetham as a charity school for 44 boys, Chetham's has since 1969 been a specialist music school, catering for 280 boy and girl boarders between 8 and 18. The school is state-aided, with parents contributing to fees according to income, and is open to anyone who can demonstrate sufficient musical ability or potential.

But Anne and John Rhind, who run the girls' sixth-form boarding house, say that in their 10 years here, the school has become markedly more middle class in its intake, with an accompanying drop in applications from state schools.

Part of the problem is making Chetham's more well known. A mail-shot to all primary schools produced little response, Anne Rhind says. Programmes such as the BBC's Young Musician of the Year, which frequently features Chetham's pupils, tend to be watched by largely middle-class audiences. In any case, 90 per cent of applicants hear of Chetham's through their instrumental teacher, and in the present climate, in which almost all lessons have to be paid for by parents, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are increasingly unlikely even to embark on learning an instrument.

The aim of Chetham's is not to produce soloists - although there may be half a dozen of these every 10 years or so. "We are a school to educate musically gifted children," explains John Rhind, "and the education they receive here provides a better basis for doing their music."

Most pupils take five or six GCSEs and two A-levels, spending more time on their two instruments as they move up the school. Where a 14-year-old at Chetham's, for instance, would spend up to 70 per cent of the time on academic work, fitting in three or more hours' practice a day, by the sixth form, academic work is down to 30 per cent and practice up to five or six hours a day. Seventy per cent of Chetham's pupils go on to music college, and 30 per cent to university, usually to read music. About a third overall end up earning their living as musicians, as teachers, performers or music therapists.

Stephen Threlfall, director of music at Chetham's, fears that cuts in school music provision are already beginning to lower standards. "There is not so big a pool of children for us to select from as there was, and rather than seeing more of the cream of the crop, it is thinning out."

Applications from brass players are stronger than in the country as a whole, boosted by the northern brass band tradition, but Chetham's is worried about its string players.

"Strings are down enormously, in standard and numbers," says Julian Clayton, head of strings. "One can only assume it is to do with music services being cut. If this trend continues, in future we will turn out fewer good musicians."

DH 'Music Awards at Independent Schools 1996', Music Masters' and Mistresses' Association, pounds 7.99.