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Lucy Galliard writes that the real impact of the first school to be started and supported by a symphony orchestra will be demonstrating what’s possible.

An orchestra performing in a hall
CBSO's Project Remix 2018 final performance

© Mat Beckett

For years now, we have been hearing about the decline of music education within schools. With the pandemic, the challenges of providing music education have been heightened, as demonstrated in the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ recent publication The Heart of the School is Missing.

The impact of this is being felt across the whole music sector, but perhaps most acutely in the classical music world. Learning to play a musical instrument privately can be an expensive process – the cost of lessons, instruments and exam fees can all be prohibitive. The number of young people from culturally diverse backgrounds who continue with their music education to conservatoire level is low, as evidenced by UCAS data.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) has always been an advocate for music education. We have been giving concerts for children and families since 1920 and, in 1992, were the first UK symphony orchestra to appoint a full-time education manager. We now deliver a broad range of learning and participation activities. But after spending so many years signing petitions, lobbying, and raising the profile of music education, we wanted to do more.

Starting a school

Our journey towards establishing the Shireland CBSO School began back in autumn 2016. We set up a meeting with the New Schools Network, a charity that promotes the formation of new free schools around the UK, to explore the possibility of starting a music school.

A few months later we were approached by an academy trust planning to establish a school in Sandwell, a local authority in the Black Country bordering Birmingham. While this potential partnership did not come to fruition, a relationship between the CBSO and Sandwell Council emerged. Our shared ambition for the musical education of young people in Sandwell was clear.

In September 2018, the council introduced us to the Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust, a respected local multi-academy trust that currently operates four primary and three secondary schools. The trust ensures all their pupils have access to a broad curriculum including music, and it quickly became clear that Shireland CEO Sir Mark Grundy shared our vision. Less than a year later our application to open a secondary school with facility for sixth form was approved by the Department for Education.

Bringing the vision to life

The school is due to open in September 2023, with a cohort of 900 pupils by the 2027/28 academic year. This will be later than we anticipated, not just because of Covid-19 but simply due to the time it has taken to secure a suitable site. Our chosen building in West Bromwich will need to be renovated to include new facilities such as a performance space. This all takes time.

The Shireland CBSO School will be run by the Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust, with the CBSO as a partner and advisor. Our shared vision is that every pupil will have access to free instrumental or vocal tuition from qualified teachers and undertake GCSE music or an equivalent award. A CBSO ensemble will be in residence at the school and pupils will attend CBSO performances regularly. There will be career advice, creative workshops and support for older pupils. Music and creativity will be at the heart of all learning, not just a bolt on.

Sandwell is a culturally diverse part of the West Midlands. We will not only provide access to western classical music education, but to instruments and learning that caters to a broad range of musical tastes. Rock bands, jazz ensembles, Bhangra groups and choirs will be as important as wind ensembles, chamber orchestras and brass quintets, providing enormous scope for collaboration between musical genres.

Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of music making for younger people. Enabling pupils to reach their full potential is our primary ambition. However, we also hope to normalise orchestral music: this is critical to the ongoing relevance and success of our artform. We need musicians, administrators, and audiences for the future – what better way to achieve this than embedding music in education?

Change and challenge

Committing to the school means changing the way CBSO works. The CBSO gives up to 150 concerts a year, so ensuring there is adequate space within the work schedule will be paramount. Another challenge will be maintaining existing learning and participation work for thousands of young people in other schools across the West Midlands.

We are confident these challenges can be addressed, enabling the CBSO to become a truly 21st century Orchestra. Working with and learning from young people will help us develop new approaches around their needs and interests. For many musicians, the creativity they can bring to working closely with schools provides enormous job satisfaction, as well as aiding their personal and professional development.

We believe that this is the first time a symphony orchestra has been involved in opening a music focussed, non-fee paying, state school. The real impact of this school will be to demonstrate what is possible. The school will have no additional governmental funding, just the same budget as any other state secondary school. If we can fully achieve our ambitions, it will provide a template for other schools to redress the decline in arts provision and return music and creativity to the heart of education.

Lucy Galliard is Director of Learning & Engagement at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
 @LucyGalliard | @TheCBSO

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Lucy Galliard