Post by Dick Letts, April 1st, 2014
for Individuals and School Communities
In December 1975 I was appointed as Head Teacher Administration, also with responsibility for the Music Faculty, to Ashcroft High School, a comprehensive co-educational school with 1,100 students, situated in the then rather notorious Green Valley public housing area in South-Western Sydney. 40% of students came from single-parent families, home life was challenging for many, and there was a significant transient population. For some, school was the safest and most secure part of their lives.
However, the school had achieved some fame in the wider community in the sporting arena and for its outstanding stage productions. As a result of the leadership and commitment of dedicated and talented teachers, students were given the opportunity to discover and develop talents which would open doors and change lives. The Ashcroft High Rugby League team was unbeatable in open competition, with several players going on to professional careers. The school had won the Arts Council Award for the most outstanding musical production by a school, its performance of My Fair Lady, thanks to the directing genius of Peter Paige, a Social Science teacher, whose great gift was the development of performance talent in students.
The great advantage of the football codes and taking part in stage productions is that there is little or no cost in doing either, and, in most of the Western world, sport and entertainment have offered an opportunity to escape the poverty trap. The Whitlam Labor Government (1972-1975), through a report it commissioned from Professor Karmel, examined the reasons for inequality in educational outcomes between different communities, and identified socio-economic disadvantage as the primary factor. It created a category of “disadvantaged” schools, and provided substantial additional funds to those schools in order to redress the many inequalities experienced by students.
Ashcroft High qualified on every criterion as a disadvantaged school. The most significant musical disadvantage identified was lack of musical instruments – neither the school nor the community could afford them. Over 5 years, the school received $50,000 for the purchase of musical instruments (probably 10 times that in today’s money) – 200 band instruments (flutes, clarinets, alto, tenor, baritone saxophones, trumpets, horns, trombones, euphoniums, tubas) guitars, classroom percussion, electronic keyboards, drum kits, timpani, orchestral percussion. Concert bands, stage bands, rock and jazz groups proliferated. Instrumental music became the most popular elective subject in years 9 to 12, chosen by over 50% of students. All students studied music in Years 7 and 8. How was the instrumental program taught, and by whom? Every student was taught by one of three teachers: Greg Barnwell (wind specialist), Brad Post (brass specialist), Mal Hewitt (string specialist and administration). Group lessons and rehearsals commenced at 7.30 am or took place after school until 5.30pm, in addition to instrumental tuition in elective classes throughout the day. No tuition fees were charged, but students with school instruments paid a minimal maintenance fee to cover instrument repairs.
Regular evening concerts in the school hall were well supported by the community. As well as providing performance opportunities for students, they provided quality entertainment for the community at a small charge, and the chance to educate an audience unfamiliar with concert etiquette (don’t talk loudly, don’t eat loudly, and don’t walk out during items). Opportunities to perform on the Sydney Opera House stage came frequently, thanks to the Public Schools Concerts programs – a first time in the Opera House for parents and community, a first time to the city for some. The 1976 Ashcroft High production of West Side Story won the Arts Council Award for that year, and was presented by the Arts Council in a 10-performance season at the Seymour Centre after the local run. There was a certain authenticity in teenage kids from Green Valley, Sydney, playing teenage Jets and Sharks from West Side New York! Two cast members went on to professional careers in film and television.
All of this happened with the very strong support of the school principal, the school executive (allowing flexibility in such matters as timetabling), and the parent body. The reaction from a mathematics teacher on seeing a certain boy playing the saxophone in stage band with great concentration was: “How do you do it? I find it difficult to stop him climbing out of the window!” He never missed a rehearsal, was always well behaved, and submitted to the discipline of practice at home, because the positive experiences of his involvement in music were replacing the negative experiences which had characterised school life previously. The lives of students were transformed in the following ways:
· Students with poor attendance records became students who would never miss a day
· The positive attitudes engendered by their involvement in the music program were transferred to their other subjects
· The music department became a safe and secure place to “hang out” and practice in the after-school hours
· Students who previously would have left school at the earliest possible opportunity stayed on to complete their HSC
· Tertiary study at university or conservatorium became the chosen path for many whose parents were unlikely to have completed secondary education
· Career prospects opened up which would previously have never been considered – some became teachers, some became professional musicians, even law and medicine became within the reach of a couple of high-achieving students
· Students learned the discipline of daily individual and group practice, and were able to transfer that discipline their lives beyond music
The school and community were transformed as well:
· The Arts were recognized as central to and essential to the lives of students (the school developed outstanding programs in the Visual Arts too)
· The community developed a love and appreciation of music, drama and dance, along with an understanding of what constitutes quality in performance
· Communities suffering socio-economic disadvantage frequently become insular and isolated, but the students of Ashcroft took their performance skills to the whole of Sydney in Opera House concerts, and the rest of the state through tours to country regions, thereby expanding their own horizons and the expectations of their families
· Teachers in other faculties in the school were quick to recognize the changes in students as a result of their passion and commitment to music, which led them to examine their own teaching styles and techniques
· The school and community achieved wide recognition for all of the right and positive reasons (with a very supportive local media), rather than all of the wrong reasons, as is often the case in areas of socio-economic disadvantage, as good news stories were shared with a much wider public.
The Ashcroft experience showed that, given the resources that established and well-off schools, both public and private take for granted, and teachers with the right skills combined with passion, enthusiasm and commitment, students from disadvantaged backgrounds can achieve comparable results to students anywhere, and that music does have the power to change lives.
Head Teacher, Administration, Ashcroft High School, 1975 – 1979