Doing it the Feversham Way: Music as core - bucking the trend
Graham Sheffield
8th February 2019
Doing it the Feversham Way: Music as core - bucking the trend

It’s an unlikely story – about a Primary School in a disadvantaged area of Bradford, with a very high percentage of pupils (over 95%) speaking English as a second language, basing its entire curriculum around the humanities, principally music and dance, employing specialists to implement the plan, and thus turning its fortunes around.

This runs counter to all the unfortunate and damaging orthodoxy prevalent in our education system today, with the humanities, and in particular music being downgraded and all but eliminated from the national curriculum.  We are told it’s because of a shortage of resources, and yet Feversham Academy has no more resource than any other school.  The enlightened Head Teacher, Naveed Idrees, has simply reordered his priorities and made some choices – namely to stop doing some things in order to be able to execute his plan.  He decided that Music would happen, so too other Arts subjects including Dance, and these would permeate the entirety of school life.  From an officially “failing” school in 2010 in special measures, Feversham, as a direct result of its radical approach is now in the top 10% of its league in STEM core subjects including Maths and English.  In 2018 78% of Feversham pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, against a national average of 61% - an astonishing turn around!

Music and Arts are demonstrably proven to provide the bedrock of this academic success.  Naveed has based his philosophy on what he calls human values and educating the “whole” child.  Core subjects (Maths, English and Science) are what he calls “tools” and not an end in themselves.  He has backed his case, not only with results, but with research suggesting that musical learning can provide structural and functional changes in the brain, as well as promoting social skills and well-being.

I first came across the story through the BBC in Autumn 2018; it was closely followed by an announcement that the musical magician behind this, Jimmy Rotheram, had been short-listed for a major Global Teacher Prize.  Help Musicians UK, which I am proud to chair, is a 98 year old charity dedicated to supporting the music profession, and by implication with a strong desire to stand with like-minded partners, such as ISM and the Musicians’ Union, in sustaining the future of our profession and the teaching of music in schools, which in turn sustains the pipe-line to the conservatoires and the profession itself – if there’s nobody studying music in schools, then ultimately there will not be a pipeline!  Our primary focus has to be on the professional musician, but we do work with organisations such as Youth Music to help smooth the transition from school and college into a music career.

I decided to ask if I could visit the team in Bradford and see for myself.  Both Naveed and Jimmy were very positive about the plan, and furnished me with some facts and figures in advance of my appearance.  So, on a recent cold and snowy Friday morning, I turned up at Feversham for a morning of teaching and music, “the Feversham way”!  School day started at 8.45am with a full school music assembly, 500 children in toto, led by Jimmy as animateur, pianist, cheer-leader and drummer.  He got the children rocking, with synchronised singing and rhythmic patterns, pupil demonstrations of drumming and dancing, as well as a few solo performances.

Then, after a quick coffee in the staff room, it was off to the classrooms in pursuit of Jimmy, who is clearly a man on a mission.  Gently dishevelled in appearance, and somewhat self-effacing, his appearance in each classroom acts like a shot of adrenalin.  Pounding down the corridors, he explains to me that he has one full lesson a week with each class, plus two shorter “refresher” sessions, interjected into other classes.  So, for example, he suddenly appears in a Maths class and simply takes over for 15 minutes, with the full agreement of the other teacher, who often joins in the music!  It’s not a conventional approach (Jimmy is a Kodaly method teacher), and he doesn’t fill the young minds with facts about composers and history.  He gets them singing, recognising pitches, moving, creating rhythmic patterns and games, increasing in complexity as the children move through the classes year by year. 

In effect he is improving many kinds of human functions and sensibilities through a music-led approach – and they just love it!  The atmosphere is highly positive and Jimmy has a kind of Pied Piper ability to lead and get everyone, even the shy ones, to pitch in, whilst retaining a highly disciplined approach.   “Listen well!” is one of his mantras: he’s tolerant about children making mistakes or, in his words, “going off piste”, but they have to listen hard when others are singing.

Within two hours we must have covered about eight classes, with Jimmy absolutely on the money remembering which groups had reached which standard and where they’d reached in the process.  I observed that, simply through the break in the lesson, for a short session of singing, rhythm and movement, the children returned to the academic work with renewed concentration and application.

In conversation later with Naveed and Jimmy in the office, they tell me that Welsh councils and schools are strongly interested in his approach and have been flocking to see the school at work, also that there have been approaches from Scandinavia to see Jimmy in action.  He has delivered lectures and workshops with the energy of a zealot!

Jimmy hopes the new model music curriculum will be a step in the right direction, but fears that, without thorough teacher training, to empower those delivering the curriculum with the skills and knowledge they need, the demands may emerge too complex to deliver, or too diluted to get the best out of the children. To my mind, given the current dearth of music teachers, it may be both too little and too late.  The proposal also fails to convince me that the interdependence between music, the arts and the rest of the curriculum, which is so key to success at Feversham, is fully understood by the policy makers.

In thanking the Feversham team for allowing me to eavesdrop for a whole morning, I shall be advocating strongly for their enlightened approach to be shared more widely and for resources to be re-allocated to enable other schools to follow suit. 

Just next to the door to the Music Room there’s a sign proclaiming “Music is the Voice of the Soul”.  Let that be a message for all of us, for other schools and for education ministers.  Music works!  If you’ve any doubt, go and visit Feversham, but be prepared to join in!