I have long felt that a school music department is like a mini school that happens to live inside a larger school. I suppose you could argue that a music department is to a school what the Vatican is to Rome. Of course, a music department has to ensure that it fits into a whole school ethos and the staff are certainly at the full disposal of the senior leadership team but there is still a lot that feels separate from the rest of the school.
Why music departments are 'other'
Even if a music department isn't in a separate building to the rest of the school, it has it often has its own rooming structure that isn't seen anywhere else. Yes, a lesson may have been timetabled to take place in a specific classroom but the teacher will often make use of practice rooms, corridor space, cupboards or outside areas to make their lessons all the more musical. The timetabling of this agreed between music staff ('you take room 1 and the first two practice rooms, I'll take room 2 and the third one. We can fight over the space under the stairs') and probably completely incompatible with systems employed elsewhere in the school ('you want to have eight pupils in a different room without and adult???'). If you are in a separate building, then this feeling is intensified further.
Then we have the peripatetic staff. I always chuckle when people refer to my running a 'small department' by pointing out that I only have one other teacher to manage. Jaws quite often drop when I highlight how many teachers actually teach in the music department and the intricacies of managing frequent changes in hours, days, rooming and other such measures that are necessitated by having a peripatetic team.
Let's not forget the sheer isolation of being a music teacher. 'Nipping over to the staffroom for lunch?' Maybe but only for the length of time that it takes to get my sandwich out of the fridge and check my pigeon hole. 'Can we meet to discuss this at 3.15pm?' Not really - I have rehearsals. The sense of 'otherness' is palpable.
How this otherness impacts our pupils
This 'otherness' is why I have been making a point of creating a music department student voice team. Effectively, a student council just for the music department. In the same way that many of our needs as teachers are dramatically different to the rest of the school, I do believe that the pupils have very different needs too. There is only so much point in having a whole school student council session that discusses the booking system used for practice rooms. As a result, I have recruited a very wide sample of pupils (some of whom have not traditionally seen themselves as being 'musical') to have a say in how things are done in the music department. I've dedicated a portion of my budget to them so that they have the power to solve problems and I've delegated certain aspects of the running of the extra-curricular life of the department to them (the practice room booking system being the first thing I allocated). They have a very real say in the running of the department and they see it for what it is - a genuine interest in their perspective.
Giving learners an 'other' voice
It would have been easy for me to put a bunch of controls around this but, beyond my initial choices of members (predominantly choices that surprised staff and students alike), anyone who has shown a genuine interest has been allowed to sign up as a Music Captain. The diversity of membership (traditional school musicians, 'bedroom producers', disaffected pupils, children who I have given a severe telling off to earlier in the year, children who have only just discovered an interest in music, etc) puts all the control on it that I need - in order to come to an agreement on anything, they are going to need to self-regulate, compromise and identify the real needs of their music department. The budget I have assigned is big enough to make a very noticeable difference but not so big that they can spend money on every little idea that pops into their head. This diversity of membership has also proved that I will (quite literally) put my money where my mouth is when it come to taking an interest in every pupil in the school - I would be surprised if any pupil said that they felt they weren't represented and, if they did, then I would just make them a Music Captain. To quote Tim Berners-Lee, 'this is for everyone'.
Not only is this music department like its own little school, it's like its own little town council. I would like to think that this is symptomatic of the ideas expressed by David Price in his fantastic book Open and, I am very hopeful that it will lead to great things for the music department that I couldn't do even if being a head of music was exactly the same as being a headteacher. I may run a mini school within a school but so do they.
Students shouldn't need a megaphone to be heard
Photography by Ben Sutherland