The two sides of Chetham's: what the press reports – and what the parents see

The music school has been at the centre of a media storm. But, while its name is paired with sex abuse and suicide in the headlines, the modern reality for its 290 pupils is very different. Ian Herbert, whose son George is one of them, reports

You might say I once had a role in propagating a school media storm.

A child had tragically died in the playground of a comprehensive in Partington, a Manchester suburb, there’d been talk of a fight and, because this fitted into one of those transient news narratives about knives in the schoolyard, the cameras and we notebook-carriers descended en masse to the gates. I distinctly recall the abuse we received from those who walked by that winter’s afternoon, before encroaching deadlines drove us away. There had been no knives, as it turned out. It was months later that the full sense of the school, Broadoak Comprehensive, and its enterprising head teacher, Graham Downes, who was working to make it a better place, came to light. But by then the caravan had moved on.

The boot’s been on the other foot in the past three weeks. My 12-year-old son is a pupil at the Chetham’s School of Music, in Manchester, and the cameras have been a regular feature, gathering footage to illustrate reports about the place, ever since the conviction of Michael Brewer – a former director of music at Chetham’s who left almost 20 years ago – for the indecent assault of one of his pupils, Frances Andrade. The consequences of Brewer’s case were immediately and unthinkably horrific. Ms Andrade testified in court and even before the jury had delivered its verdict she had been driven to take her own life.

The revelations have been broadening out ever since, attesting to abuse visited on girls at Chetham’s from the 1970s to the 1990s. Other musical establishments have been implicated. As one horrific allegation has followed another, pictures of the school’s Victorian redbrick building have become increasingly familiar, with little or no sense of how the place has literally and metaphorically moved on.

The building you’ll have seen is no longer the place where the musicians of Chetham’s are educated. The relocation of the entire teaching facility from there to the ruggedly handsome £31m new facility next door took place last summer but has gone entirely missed in the narrative of the Chetham’s ‘hothouse’. In the new building, every corner is flooded with daylight. The vast, bright atrium stretches the full four floors to the ceiling and far more importantly in the context of how safely our children – my child – is taught, light permeates bright, airy practice rooms. They all have glass in the doors. Those which face out onto the atrium have entire glass walls.

 Yet modernity has seemed an inconvenient truth about the school which, given the fact that classical music does not command the populist national agenda, has been easily characterized as cloistered, mysterious and dark. There’s been no mystery about the school we’ve discovered since George began his instrumental and academic education there – nearly three years ago – when he became a chorister at the adjacent Manchester Cathedral.

The Chetham’s we have come to know through George has been manifest in the smallest details and makes the school that the nation has suddenly come to ‘know’ unrecognisable to us. The trumpet teacher’s encouraging emails dispatched to us at home, suggesting ways in which a bit of half term practice might not go amiss. The PE teacher with her enthusiastic reports of George’s table tennis, which are a bit of a novelty for us. (Our boy’s not likely to win Olympic gold.) The academic music teacher seizing, with enthusiasm and interest, on some of George’s little piano compositions and suggesting how they could be improved and developed. We know it will have taken hours of his own time to transfer the compositions, note by note, onto the music composition software, Sibelius, so that George can fiddle around with them more easily.

 George likes composing. It’s a process which started with him messing around on the piano when he was a bit more than knee-high and developed into him putting verse to music. Not your typical 12-year-old’s pastime, for sure, but perfectly commonplace at Chetham’s – and that’s the point. A third of his school timetable is taken up with music; including 11 hours a week of cathedral choir rehearsals and five services there a week. He has one-to-one trumpet and piano tuition, music theory lessons and lunchtime concerts. There is timetabled practice time, when he on his own but supervised by a rota of practice assistants – the ‘praccies’ he keeps telling me about. Plus the usual academic roster. The school’s sixth-formers leave for university courses in law, medicine and literature. They might become jazz musicians, arrangers, DJs, conductors, festival directors – or none of the above.

It’s not a big school – 290 students, aged seven to 18 – and they all have individual education programmes. Some speak very little English. Some are dyslexic. Some are on the autistic spectrum. It’s the sense of purpose, business, energy and enthusiasm generated by head teacher Claire Moreland and director of music Stephen Threlfall  which has struck me most, and when you read the recent email posts of parents it is hard to find any who would disagree that we should differentiate between the horrors of the past and the realities of the present.

“The pupils are all fine and certainly not suffering – past events have nothing to do with them,” says a parent on one of the main blogs on events that unfolded at Chetham’s, ‘Slipped Disc’. “As a proud dad of a current sixth-form cellist I am angry about the way so many of you are sounding off without any knowledge of what is going on at Chets in the current generation,” says another, responding to the understandable anger about past events expressed on the blog by alumni.

 Paul Mann, one of Britain’s most talented conductors, who conducted the Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra in an extraordinary performance of Prokofiev and Shostakovich at London’s Cadogan Hall last Friday – the finale of one of the school’s two annual ‘music weeks,’ for which the academic timetable is cleared – has a foot in both eras, as a member of the Chetham’s alumni of 1981-1983 and conductor now. He identifies a clear change in culture between then and now. “Each time I go back it’s struck me how the social culture of the school is different,” Mann tells me. “There is a tremendous difference in the way the kids are taught. At that time [in the early ‘80s] we were very insular and not discouraged from being so. You practised alone, were taught alone, played alone. Occasionally there might be some chamber music but it was very solitary. Now they have their one-to-one lessons but there are group lessons where they are encouraged to perform to each other.” He is describing the ‘performance classes’ which George has just started telling me about. It was George’s own brass quintet’s turn two weeks ago – them playing their  “Girl from Ipanema” 1960s bossa nova number and six other classmates being asked what they thought, with the school’s head of brass facilitating.

This wouldn’t be every 12-year-old’s preferred way to spend a Tuesday morning. This environment is not right for every child. It’s not even the right one for each of my other two children. But it is hard to imagine George being in any other place, now. “A square peg in a square hole,” is how his choirmaster described him in his last school report. Yes, some people certainly would say that putting poems to music is a bit square but his schoolmates wouldn’t. They’re all free to develop and expand an innate musicianship. Paintballing and Manchester United aren’t for everyone.

Mann says the child protection checks he undergoes every time he goes back to Chetham’s bear out a world unrecognisable from the Brewer days and I know what he means. A supervisory adult must be on hand during choir rehearsals to provide pastoral care if required. My child’s in the choir but I can’t supervise because I have not got around to sorting out my own Criminal Records Bureau check. It’s more rigorous here than anywhere else in Europe, Mann says.

Of course, no-one is pretending that the relationship between tutor and musician in an establishment like this is a typical one. “Musicians are very creative people and they are going to  be emotionally more involved in their subject,” Diane Widdison, national organiser for the Musicians’ Union, tells me. “The pupils practise for hours and hours on end. That relationship with your instrumental teacher can be very intense and have a big influence. Music is a very emotive subject.”

Introducing a homogeneous form of protection can be a vexed business. In 2006, the Musicians’ Union advised its 900 teaching members that there should be no physical contact with their pupils whilst teaching them how to hold an instrument or correct their posture. A mini media storm erupted. Michael Gove, then shadow Education Secretary cottoned on to the story –  from a Daily Mail article, the union still believes – and declared it to be political correctness gone mad. The union, which has issued 100 short films illustrating good teaching techniques, accessible via its website, has stuck to its guns. The number of abuse cases currently being made against music teachers are probably in single figures, though data isn’t available. The National Union of Teachers, which has 250,000 members, handled 200 such cases across the entire teaching profession last year.

By sending our child to Chetham’s are we worried about the risks of him facing something inappropriate? No. No more so than sending him to any other kind of school, anywhere in the country. But we are more worried that brilliant musicians will give up teaching because of a furious bureaucracy and storms like this one. And that, in an attempt to safeguard pupils and teachers against every eventuality, we will iron out what is special about a specialist school and settle for dull homogeneity. Mann last week saw the devastation written across Moreland and Threlfall’s faces and the bafflement of the students “who don’t recognise this picture which has been presented of their school.” It is essential to “deal with the past without destroying the present,” he says.

So why isn’t Chetham’s saying all this? Why not throw open the doors then and invite the world in to see how it really is now? ‘Do it’, I emailed them to say. ‘No,’ they replied – and nothing you have read on this pages emanates from them. They cite the potential risk to on-going police inquiries, yet I think there is possibly a more compassionate reason. Any words offered in defence risk obscuring or deflecting from the real victims in all of this, like Frances Andrade.

So, expect the barrage to go on. There may well be more historic allegations.

For just the briefest moment, last Saturday afternoon, the troubles seemed to dissolve away, when 100 Manchester schoolchildren from three local primaries performed Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” with the choristers and a community orchestra to a packed Manchester Cathedral – conducted by Threlfall. Mann conducted the Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra at a packed Cadogan Hall the previous night. “In case you’ve been wondering, this is what the real Chet’s is all about,” he said from the rostrum, when they were played out. And the auditorium erupted.

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