Conservatoires: Can they shake off their inaccessible image?

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Housed in Greenwich's Old Royal Naval College with its twin clock towers, white pillars and manicured lawns, Trinity College of Music, reminds one more of an Oxbridge college than an institution surrounded by some of the most deprived boroughs in London.

"Our building is awe-inspiring," agrees Marion Friend, head of Junior Trinity, which runs courses for children aged five to 19 to introduce them to the subject, "and I want to break down the barrier of people feeling 'We can't go through those gates because it's not for us'."

Conservatoires traditionally attract the sort of applicants who might attend a classical music concert or an opera; an elite group who have the money to pursue an expensive interest. To reach the standard required for entering a conservatoire after A-levels, students need to have been practising from a very young age. As a result, most of the places on conservatoires' four-year bachelor of music courses are filled by students from independent or specialist music schools. Britain's conservatoires need to dispel their stuffy, inaccessible image to attract applicants from every socio-economic background and work towards government targets for widening participation in higher education.

This isn't news to top institutions like Trinity, the Royal Academy of Music and Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). All three run extensive, varied outreach programmes in their local communities and schools to inspire children to consider music, which is often barely more than an aside to their school curriculum, something they could study to degree level, or even further.

"We have made extensive efforts over the last four years to welcome people from all kinds of backgrounds," says Curtis Price, principal of the Royal Academy. These efforts are concentrated in the "Open Academy" scheme, which sends teachers and students into local schools and communities and targets deprived areas. All third year students are required to leave the sheltered environment of the Academy's libraries and practice rooms and become its public face, taking music into schools and encouraging children to visit the Academy.

Trinity and RNCM also run a large number of similar programmes. And although they are now required by the government to show how they are attracting more applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of the schemes have been in place for years and are showing positive results.

"Teenagers are coming in and having their eyes opened to what higher education is all about. We open the doors, let them talk to students and encourage them to learn instruments." says Linda Merrick, deputy vice-principal of RNCM.

Although it's a lengthy process, Merrick says they are already seeing students starting degree courses at RNCM whose first contact with music was through one of their outreach projects.

The Royal Academy, too, is seeing results, and the number of applicants from the state sector has risen dramatically over the last four years. "If we accepted all those who applied we would reach our benchmark of 80 per cent," says Price.

The problem is that most don't meet the tough entry requirements because they haven't had access to expensive music lessons from a young age. "You need to have been learning an instrument from the age of six or seven to get to the right standard," says Price. They might, however, make an exception if an applicant from the state sector falls just short of the audition requirements. The Academy also runs a foundation year alongside the degree course to help any struggling students, but no amount of practice and goodwill can make up for over a decade of missed music lessons.

Trinity's head of recruitment Christopher Caine agrees. "Widening participation is a difficult issue because of the pre-training that's required. Our efforts have to be directed towards taking creative projects to schools and trying to involve the kids, promoting music and making studying at a conservatoire like Trinity a realistic and attainable goal for any applicant."

To make studying at a conservatoire truly attainable, most institutions operate dedicated junior music schools. Junior Trinity, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, has over 200 pupils. Although its £590 a term price tag is unthinkable for anyone from a struggling background, it offers bursaries through partnerships with local schools and has won 19 dance and music awards, each of which pays for one child to attend the Saturday school. Trinity also runs GCSE and A-level music courses and offers some free music lessons and instrument loan to encourage children to take up less popular instruments such as the french horn, tuba and trombone.

Merrick believes that it isn't the cost that puts off students from poorer backgrounds. They just don't know that studying at a conservatoire is even a possibility. "Conservatoires have always had this sort of elitist tag, whereas that's far from the case. We've got a broad range of students coming from all postcodes, all areas and all backgrounds. I think the external perception could well be that this is the sort of place they wouldn't get into because they've got the wrong background and they haven't been to a specialist music school."

The schools try to fight this image. The Royal Northern offers auditions to every applicant to ensure that potential rather than achievement is assessed as well as advice sessions, according to Merrick. Trinity offers "consultation lessons" too, though both come at a price: £40 at RNCM and £50 at Trinity. There are bursary and hardship funds, instrument loans and extra support and training during the first two years of the four-year course for students whose level is below that required.

Conservatoires charging the £3,000 top-up fee have to explain how they are seeking to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply. Trinity has pledged to spend 17 per cent of this extra income on local projects that will attract a wider range of applicants.

One problem is that studying classical music sounds dull to children who listen to hip-hop or tune into The X Factor. The answer may lie in moving away from traditional courses in classical music and jazz. Trinity has already merged with the Laban dance college and as the UK's only music and dance conservatoire, offers a BA in dance theatre practice. From this year it will also offer a course in Indian classical music, its first module in non-western music. It is developing a two-year foundation degree in musical theatre performance to start in 2007.

Charlotte Cooper, Trinity's planning manager, hopes such courses will attract "new constituents of students". "The college is investigating how to change its curriculum without diverting from our core purpose," she says.