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Derelict school becomes national leader by making a surprising subject compulsory

“We were in special measures. We had low staff morale, parents not happy with the school, results were poor and nobody wanted to come here, we had budget issues. It’s a downward spiral when you’re there.”

This is what Feversham headteacher, Naveed Idrees, told The Guardian. He continued:

“We could have gone down the route where we said we need to get results up, we’re going to do more English, more maths, more booster classes, but we didn’t. You might hit the results but your staff morale is gone, the kids hate learning. We want kids to enjoy learning.”

What the school did instead was to add six hours of music per week for every student, and the results have been stunning:

  • The school is in the top 10% nationally for pupil progress in reading, writing and maths.
  • 74% of its kids met the nation’s reading standard, higher than the national average of 53%.
  • 74% of its pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared to a national average of 53%.
  • Feversham students are 7.1 points above the national average for reading and 3.4 for writing.
  • Feversham students are 6.5 points above the national average for math.
  • The school’s results for disadvantaged pupils are well above average.

What makes this achievement so remarkable is the fact this school has everything against it.

It is located in Bradford Moore, a poor inner-city area in the City of Bradford in West Yorkshire, England. The area outside the school gates, Bradford Moor, is one of the city’s most deprived and densely populated neighborhoods.

The turnaround is even more notable given the makeup of the school: 99% of its 510 children don’t speak English as a first language, being mostly from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage. Half arrive at school unable to speak a word of English.

Tensions are also exacerbated by a recent influx of refugees and a longer-term increase in the number of eastern Europeans. Thirty languages are spoken at the school.

It’s a complicated situation. One where poor performance is almost a foregone expectation, yet the school has managed to completely disprove any standard expectations.

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The school bases its method on the Kodály approach, which involves teaching children to learn, subconsciously at first, through playing musical games. Children learn rhythm, hand signs and movement, for example, in a way that will help their reading, writing and maths.

There’s very little absenteeism

Music is a source of great joy and uplifts the spirit, so no wonder the school’s attendance is a whopping 98% — this must be some kind of record.

Music is an integral part of every child’s school day. Each of them get at least two hours of music a week. As a bare minimum, each child gets a 30-minute music lesson, a half-hour follow-up lesson, plus a one-hour music assembly with a guest musician and group singing. Songs are incorporated into other classes and pupils often sing about times tables, or history.

A case for the creative arts

As music and the arts are being systematically removed from school curriculum in favor of so-called STEM subjects, creativity is becoming an endangered species. Yet, the performance of the children at Feversham is blatant proof of the value of teaching the arts at school, not only for enhanced academic performance, but also for emotional development.

Music helps us to get in touch with our feelings; feelings that might be suppressed due to difficult circumstances. For all you know, the music class is the highlight of more than one child’s school day. The only place they get release from inner tensions.

Lost in the debate around Sats testing and league tables, Idrees told The Guardian, is the importance of children’s mental and social development. Referring to a child suicide at another school, Idrees said: “A lot of these quiet kids, they don’t know how to deal with emotions, they don’t know how to deal with negativity. At its most basic, the simple act of game-playing can help children learn social skills such as eye contact and taking turns, while listening to music in an hour-long assembly helps develop their concentration in an age dominated by smartphones and tablet computers.”

When will the education authorities realize that the creative arts are more than a mere nice-to-have; they are essentials-to-have.

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

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