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St Mary’s Music School – the journey to online learning

Headteacher of St Mary’s Music School, Dr Kenneth Taylor, takes a look at the work that has been taking place behind the scenes during the C-19 pandemic

Since the announcement of school closures and travel restrictions due to Covid-19, specialist music schools across the UK have faced huge uncertainty. Headteacher of St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, Dr Kenneth Taylor, takes a look at the work that has been taking place behind the scenes to ensure the school can continue to provide a first-class level of music education for all its pupils.

During late February and early March, it became clear that the closure of St Mary’s Music School, due to the threat posed by the Coronavirus pandemic, was an increasing possibility.

Without the benefit of hindsight, it was not clear the school would be closed for several weeks or months so we set up various contingency planning meetings with special consideration given to three areas:

  • boarders
  • academic teaching
  • music teaching

At all times in the build-up to the closure, the school gave permission for any family to withdraw their child from school – boarders and day pupils alike.

Almost all European pupils returned home

Towards the end of the week of Friday 20 March, almost all of our European pupils had returned home – something that became increasingly difficult as planes into Spain and Italy were subject to cancellation. Nevertheless, the excellent work of our Boarding House Manager, Jane Mears, and her team ensured all pupils managed to return home or, in the case of one French pupil, to stay with another school family here in Scotland.

Jane has remained in touch with boarding families throughout the closure and since the start of term; each Wednesday there is a meeting of all boarding pupils through Zoom.

On Monday 23 March, one or two teachers worked in the school but that evening, the movement restrictions to ensure social distancing were announced and the school was closed.

Dr Kenneth Taylor speaking to pupils, parents, staff and supporters of St Mary’s Music School on Monday 23 March

Subsequently, every two to three days, the buildings were checked by the Headteacher, Assistant Director of Music or Maintenance Manager with various items being delivered to pupils’ homes and filming completed for assemblies.

From Monday 27 April onwards, the Maintenance Manager and the Janitor have been in school during the day to ensure the buildings are in good order and to perform minor repairs and decoration.

Starting the journey to online learning

The four days at the end of term (23-26 March) allowed the school to test its systems for online learning. Pupils had responded well to the online learning in Teams and much fine work was observed in terms of instrumental teachers interacting with the submission-based process.

One promising approach is for the teacher to make a film themselves responding in real time to the video the pupil has sent in. However, a problem for some was the time being taken to produce high quality written feedback and several teachers were keen for the school to develop a process to interact with pupils in real time.

During the Easter holiday, there was much work completed by the Assistant Director of Music to develop online versions of some of the other music activities in school such as:

  • a complete package of Aural Classes to cover the whole of the Summer term
  • a process to stage performance classes using Teams and Zoom
  • the beginning of a series of online presentations to show the whole school during performance practice

In addition, we looked at a variety of vehicles to deliver real-time online teacher / pupil interaction. Cost, quality of sound, security and an ability to record the lessons were the main considerations.

Real-time online teacher / pupil interaction

After much work, testing and deliberation, we decided on Zoom delivered through school-based accounts set up with school-based emails for each of the teachers. All lessons are recorded with the lesson kept for three days. Pupils and teachers have been asked to report any concerns regarding these lessons. Interaction through any other online mechanism such as Skype is not allowed.

The staff In Service on 20 April was hosted on Zoom and there was a record attendance of over 75 staff present. This, along with some of the features found in Teams which allow digital information to be shared so easily, has shown the school that there will be plenty of opportunities to use this technology once the school is able to reopen again.

We introduced instrumental teachers to school-based Zoom lessons and almost all teachers have taken this up, some using it as an add-on in addition to the submission-based lessons they had already initiated. Parents of pupils P5-S3 have been asked for feedback on what has been achieved and most are happy with a small number concerned about too much work for their child to complete. The academic and music-based offerings are continually under review.

Accordion teacher, Djordje Gajic, and pupil, Sofia, in an online accordion lesson © St Mary's Music School
Accordion teacher, Djordje Gajic, and pupil, Sofia, in an online accordion lesson © St Mary’s Music School

Technical challenges

Although tasks have been set for choir and orchestra, these activities – along with chamber music and coaching with a staff pianist – are not really feasible since we do not have a means of playing together in real time online. This is technically possible but requires a huge bandwidth to provide sound quality of the necessary standard without a time delay and is certainly outwith what can be achieved with a domestic connection. In lieu of coaching, the keyboard department is building a database of accompaniments, accessible on Teams, for any pupil to download and use for practice.

Other things that have been achieved include recorded weekly assemblies and lunchtime concerts delivered by staff. Most staff and pupils seem to be coping reasonably well. Obviously, the longer this goes on the more difficult it is going to be to maintain morale and a general concern is that both pupils and staff are spending too much time in front of screens.

Meanwhile, we have put procedures in place to move our audition process online and have even been able to develop a virtual version of our normal Two Day Stay when applicants join in lessons and meet with pupils and staff.

A lasting legacy

Altogether, this has been a demanding time for all our pupils, our parents and our teaching and support staff but I am delighted to say with confidence that the St Mary’s Music School community has risen to the challenge with vigour and that we have been able to meet the same high standards of music education we apply in more normal circumstances.

I have no doubt these experiences will leave us with a lasting legacy we can build upon to continue to inform our teaching and learning practice for the benefit of all the young musicians in our care.

About the author

Dr Kenneth Taylor
Dr Kenneth Taylor

Dr Kenneth Taylor took up his appointment as Headteacher of St Mary’s Music School in April 2013, succeeding Jennifer Rimer, who spent 17 years as Headteacher.

Educated at Dulwich College and the University of Edinburgh, Dr Taylor has a strong academic background in university science research and education and for the previous 15 years held teaching and management posts in a wide range of Scottish schools.

He combines his enthusiasm for the education of children with his love of music and is a keen singer and instrumentalist, playing the viola, piano and organ.

Header photo: Violin, Dalcroze and musicianship tutor, Monica Wilkinson, teaching an online music pedagogy lesson © St Mary’s Music School