Seeing this imposing tree in front of Chelmsford County High School, I wondered if like Ai Weiwei’s Tree, it had been built and bolted together by the students to symbolise some burning political message. Of course not – this girls’ grammar school looks very normal, just like schools used to look before Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid started building them.
Inside though, the school was seething with energy and enterprise. I had been invited to a Student Leadership Conference organised by year 11. My fellow speakers were old girls of CCHS working at very high levels at HMRC, in corporate law and Brand&MarComms (now I know.) I often feel somewhat at a loss in schools when talking about working in the performing and creative arts. It just can’t be denied that these are risky career paths which you should only tread if you can’t bear not to. By contrast, the career advice from my colleagues in more sensible fields was remarkably upbeat and positive. People in Essex must be falling over themselves to have their children educated at this excellent state school. Indeed the Head, Mrs Nicole Chapman, explained that she has lately made efforts to restrict the catchment area, particularly to limit the long daily commutes previously made by some students, restricting them from taking part in after-school music and other interesting activities.
I felt on firmer ground in the school’s lively music department, headed by Alex McGee, who had organised two sizeable composition workshops with me (disguised in honour of the Leadership Conference, under the title ‘Making Good Decisions, Quickly’. If only!) Nearly all of those present played instruments, some to very high levels; and a significant group had first taken these up at primary school. About a quarter of CCHS pupils learn an instrument, and the costs are subsidised. Another day to celebrate that in some places school music is alive and well (amidst new bad news about the proposed EBacc.)