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Securing a stronger place for music in your school – Head of Music interview

Omar Khoker head of music, Severn Vale School

Image: thanks to Emile Holba and Musical Futures*

Interview with Omar Khokher, Head of Music, Severn Vale School, Quedgeley and Music Lead for the Gloucestershire Initial Teacher Education Partnership (GITEP).

Severn Vale School is a secondary school with academy status, for students aged 11 to 16, which takes in students from Quedgeley and surrounding areas such as Hardwicke, Tuffley and Kingsway. It is a school which continues to be good (OFSTED 2016), and the music department has built a strong reputation and significant support from the senior leadership team. 

Music is growing at Severn Vale: in the five years since Omar was appointed, the number of students taking instrumental lessons has increased from 30 to 140 (obviously this fluctuates through the year), and uptake at KS4 is healthy with around 30 students taking music related options each year. The music department has three teaching staff (one also acting as the coordinator for the instrumental teaching team) and seven instrumental teachers.

In this interview, Anita Holford from Make Music Gloucestershire talks to Omar about how he’s secured a strong place for music in school.

Music lesson take-up by students here seems well established – what’s the situation like at the moment?

“It’s very healthy. We’ve got increasing numbers going on to do music. Nine out of 32 pupils in year 11 last year went on to college to study music, which is a healthy proportion. They mainly go to Stroud College and Gloucester College, and over the past three years, we’ve consistently had students going on to the BOA academy in Birmingham.”

What you do at Severn Vale School to encourage those who may have missed out at primary level but who want to be involved with music?

“Once we know the students who are coming through from our feeder primaries, we write to them with the information about instrumental lessons. And because they can sign up online we’ve got payments made and timetables in place for incoming Year 7’s before they’ve even walked through the door in September. Having an online sign-up and payment system has really helped.

“We’re very proactive in the first couple of weeks of the first term, we talk about instrumental lessons with the students. And we don’t pressurise. We talk about it very much as an opportunity that’s there for them. We also advertise our music scholarship in September which creates a bit of a buzz among the new Year 7 students.”

Is there anything else you and your team do to encourage students to choose music as an option, to study for GCSE or BTEC?

“We’ve shifted to BTEC with our Year 10’s this year, which does have much more of a vocational value to it. Students tend to find it more relevant to the music they’re interested in, and it is very accessible as you can write assignments which are pertinent to your students. I like the transparency of the assessment criteria. I also feel the new BTEC requirements have got an increased level of challenge and rigour which reinforces an equal standing to with GCSE. In terms of how to encourage students through, I don’t think I’ve changed anything since introducing BTEC in terms of expectations and standards in performance and composition. If anything, we’ve probably increased the level of challenge and expectation to cover the range of units chosen by the students. The fact we can differentiate the provision of units to engage a broad range of students with interests in performance, composition, music technology, and production only adds to the diversity of musicians among our students.

“One key factor which has helped the quality of our intake has been that students elect between art and music at the end of Year 8. This means we have students who want to be learning music in Year 9. We also set the classes which means that the level of teaching, support and challenge is more differentiated between the classes, which has a very positive impact on progress all round.”

In order to ensure music has a strong place within a school, it’s always important to build a relationship with the senior leadership team. Has it been a struggle to get music into the strong position it’s in now?

“It’s based on earned trust. I think your first year as Head of Department is critical – that’s when you need to demonstrate what your vision is, show some quick wins, and also have a very clear long-term game plan as to what you want to achieve and how.

“I have been fortunate. The head teacher is very supportive, and the business manager understands the value of music and is a champion of the role of creative subjects in school. It just so happens her brother was the Principal Trumpet player in the Philharmonia and is now Head of Brass at the Royal Academy of Music!

“You’ve got to be able to communicate your vision to the business manager and work with them. It’s also nice from their point of view to not be seen as the accountant or cheque book, and that they’re someone who makes a difference to a student’s life. Working effectively with your financial team is imperative.

“The deputy head and assistant head who are responsible for child protection, student wellbeing and behaviour also know the values and opportunities that music can bring socially and emotionally to vulnerable students. They’ve used instrumental tuition as a means of enriching students’ experiences at school and personally.

“It’s also a case of promoting music through the students, and it’s got to be selfless. They’re the best ambassadors for what you are doing. If they’re talking about it in the corridors, in Student Voice sessions, if you’re at a parents evening and you are the last one leaving because you’ve been absolutely rammed with parents and students who want to talk to you about the students’ progress – then that’s fantastic, and senior management do notice it.”

How else do you use students as advocates?

“Student Voice is vital. We’ve had student panels where we’ve discussed the curriculum, resourcing, what they want from the department, and we build that into our quality assurance.

“Also, if you’ve got an open evening I’d say be proactive and have musicians playing in different parts of the school. We always put on a mini concert with the performing arts students. We have had students performing in the foyer as soon as people come in, and we make sure that music is visible from the outset. Both our rooms are open, with demonstrations of what the students are learning. We want the students to talk about what music is like at Severn Vale.

“I teach with my door open, so if SLT, Year Team Leaders etc. are walking down they will hear what’s happening and are welcome to pop in.”

One example of the Head backing music is his Music Scholarship which is launched each year in term one. Who’s idea was the Scholarship?

“The idea for it came up jointly between the head teacher and our business manager. Then we came up with rubric for it, how it would work, the terms and conditions.

“It’s open to all students whether they’re having instrumental lessons or not. Students apply and audition, and one from each year is awarded £500 towards their musical learning. A key part of the award criteria is to do with how the funding will have impact, make a difference, and provide opportunity which may not have been there otherwise.”

Closing the attainment gap is increasingly important to schools. Do you think there’s any element of that going on here, that the SLT has recognised that they need to look at different ways of doing that, not just maths and literacy?

“Absolutely. One of things that I like about here is that, yes, we need to be looking at our targets, grades and results, but it’s always done with an holistic understanding of the child and their background and needs.

“I think about some students I had last year where the creative subjects where basically what kept them in school. It was the focus for them.

“And behaviour and attitudes to learning in music lessons is something that’s improved greatly, and that’s been recognised. I can think of one student in Year 9 in particular, who has challenging behaviour in all of his subjects and he comes into his music lessons and he is absolutely perfect. I’m sure that plenty of other music teachers out there have students just like this. Part of this is down to the curriculum. It has to be relevant. Also, the students respond best when they engage with real music-making through live musicians.”

“SLT make the connection. Often they will come to me saying, We’ve got a student who wants instrumental lessons, or would like singing lessons as a means of developing their confidence – can we arrange for that to happen?”

Is that usually Pupil Premium funding? How did you get that in place for music?

“We’ve got an allocated amount of money from the Pupil Premium budget, which is £5,000 per year. I think my predecessor set it up, and I’ve been able to carry it forward. Some colleagues I’ve spoken to in other schools have sometimes not been able to access this level of additional funding. Pupil Premium helps in providing learning opportunities to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access them, to close the attainment gap – and we know that music helps with all sorts of aspects of learning, from increasing motivation to improving metacognition, developing confidence and communication skills, and making school a happier place for them.

“We tend to part-fund instrumental lessons by 50 per cent. If there’s a case that the other 50 per cent can’t be fully met by parents, then we’re not going to deny that student the opportunity because that’s going totally against what PP is about. It’s about opportunity and entitlement.”

Do you have any statistics that you use to show people the value of what you do?

“That would be part of our departmental minutes and our line management review documentation, which we have to submit three times a year, and which is rigorous. We analyse the data on SISRA – target grades, student performance across KS3 and KS4, ability groups in terms of prior achievement, high, middle and low, closing the gap in terms of gender, and English as an Additional Language and looked-after children. The data doesn’t lie. It’s totally transparent – that’s where the accountability is.

“There’s quality assurance and monitoring. It’s monitoring which is done in such a way that you have control and autonomy. There’s trust here, high trust, but high accountability.

“Also there’s evidence from coursework and concert recordings that I put it on the departmental SoundCloud page which has motivated students to raise the bar in terms of performance standards. And last year my line manager who oversees the Pupil Premium budget, wanted pen-portraits of specific students for an overall school case study.

“But the best evidence would have to be to come and see the students perform.”

Is there anything you’d like to pass on to other people that you’ve learned during the process of securing a strong place for music here in Severn Vale School?

“I think one of the biggest things for any head of department to bear in mind is that SLT are human beings too. I often share student recordings with SLT and year team leaders – as well as email them to parents. Colleagues often comment on how nice it is to hear students’ performances and how it adds another layer of understanding about a student.”

“From my experience, one of the things SLT appreciate, and more likely to get you the support, is not going to them with problems but with solutions. And solutions which can be validated. Also, if ABC is being asked of you, make sure you ask for 123 to do it.”

Further links and resources :

Facts and guidance about Pupil premium

Pupil Premium information from Department for Education

Education Endowment Foundation – information and resources for tackling the attainment gap

Pupil Premium Report/guidance from Oxford School Improvement

Pupil Premium information from Gloucestershire County Council

Using the Pupil Premium to support music education – advocacy information

How music changes lives – research summarised on the MMG website

More evidence about impact – from Music Education Works! website

Seven tips for advocating music in your school


Musical Futures is an initiative and movement to transform music education through real-world learning. We Teach Music was a photography commission to celebrate music teachers: a journey through the length and breath of the UK to capture them in their regular school working environment.


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