Special schools have faced many challenges during the pandemic – caring for medically vulnerable pupils, maintaining social distancing and bubbles, and dealing with the additional emotional and mental health needs of their pupils. Schools could no longer have visitors on site, so all Jessie’s Fund’s projects were postponed at the start of the first lockdown. In the subsequent cycle of lifting and then reimposing restrictions, some schools have opted for our online music sessions (which carry their own challenges and limitations) and, more recently, some have let our musicians into their schools with negative covid tests and PPE.
Castle Hill School, in Huddersfield, had initially agreed to the latter, and a starting date for the project was set for 7 June. However, at the beginning of June, Kirklees was identified as an area of concern due to rising infection levels, so after much deliberation we agreed to deliver the entire project outside under a wooden gazebo. Our contingency plan was to move sessions online, but luck was on our side: the weather was perfect, the school remained covid-free and our musicians were able to work at the school over a two-week period, culminating in the school’s annual ‘CastleFest’ celebration day.
Jessie’s Fund musicians Tom Sherman (saxophonist), Ali Mac (percussionist) and Jess Baker (singer & songwriter) delivered the project at Castle Hill School. Over the two-week period, they worked with the same three secondary classes each day, allowing pupils to develop through the creative process, and exploring with teachers how music can be used across a range of activities in the school day. They also delivered one-to-one sessions for pupils who found it harder to engage in a group setting, and ran twilight training sessions for staff, building on techniques they had used during the day.
Ali Mac described one of the young people he was working with:
L is a young boy of 12 years, with profound and multiple disabilities and severe visual impairment; he communicates by moving his head, knocking on his tray with his right hand, and by laughing and smiling. In our first session, he seemed surprised by a lot of the sounds, and was quite introverted. Over the course of the project, he settled in to the sessions and started smiling and laughing, and answering questions by knocking on his table. We offered different musical activities to him, such as stop/start, gradual build to a climax and tempo changes. The staff were really excited by his reactions. We then did a one-to-one session with him to build on these communication techniques.
In all our projects, our focus on staff development ensures the impact of our work is far greater than the time we spend in a school; at Castle Hill School we worked with 21 staff – in daytime classes and twilight training sessions, helping them learn simple skills and techniques in music. For example, in one of the twilight training sessions, our musicians spent time experimenting with staff on the school’s ukuleles, looking at ways of using them in different classes and for different areas of the curriculum.
Jessie’s Fund is now in discussion with the school about the next steps towards music development across the whole school, having worked exclusively with the secondary-aged students in June.
We envisage that we will return to the school for a two-week project in the primary department, and thereafter plans will be set in place for a final one-year project concentrating in more detail on the further development of staff skills and confidence.
On completion of a year-long project, Jessie’s Fund would leave the school with staff ready to deliver their own age- and stage-appropriate musical activities. Music would be integrated across all areas of the curriculum, and a senior leadership team would be fully committed to the use of music for all its students, with all the associated benefits this brings.