Thanks to a cordial invitation from Barnsley-based composer Helen Madden, I was able to visit this iconic Yorkshire town for the first time in my life. Several people asked me if I was expecting to see the streets full of men in flat caps leading whippets – which was not the case – but the real Barnsley did surprise me with its wealth of new civic buildings; a mighty public transport interchange, a city centre performance space and an impressive range of new educational buildings all around town.
These include Greenacre School, which caters for special needs and complex needs pupils aged 3 to 19. Walking through bright, wide foyers, encountering a stream of cheery students, was an uplifting experience. Our generous guide was one of the school’s deputy heads, Ian Shires, who turned out to be a longtime brass player – at least one Yorkshire sterotype was coming true, as just about everywhere, we ended up talking about brass bands (and later on, hearing one, the splendid Barnsley Metropolitan Band).
Having been interviewed by a committee of students (I’m pictured above with one of my interlocutors) it was time to visit Greenacre’s musicians. A youngish class was simultaneously sign-and-singing some busy Christmas songs (try signing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, all the verses, yourself and see how you get on) while a music therapist in a beautifully ergonomic classroom was spending an intense one-to-one session with a wheelchair-bound student whose physical options were otherwise very limited. It seemed evident that, in the special needs environment, music is a must-have activity; whereas, in the rest of our cost-cutting Academy-led schools programme, it may increasingly be regarded as an optional extra.