Q&A with Ben Parker – Head of Creative Arts at Dallam School, South Lakes

Ben Parker, Head of Music and Head of Creative Arts, Dallam School, South Lakes

Our Creative Engagement officer Kate, recently spoke to Ben Parker about his work as Head of Music at Dallam School and his role as Head of Creative Arts. Kate also works with Ben, as she teaches piano at Dallam School, within the Music Department.


K: Hi Ben! Could you tell me a little about your background in music? What got you started in music and inspired you? How/when did you first become interested in music education?

B: I remember being visited by a group of musicians in primary school (who I later learned worked for Staffordshire Music Service) and they offered us the opportunity to sign up to learn to play an instrument. I went home and proudly told my Mum that I wanted to learn to play the double bass. She paused, thought for a moment and said “how about the trumpet instead?”. I suspect she may have been thinking about the logistics of a 10-year old carrying an instrument twice as big as him to and from school! I had the same trumpet teacher throughout primary and secondary school. He had a big role to play in inspiring me to have a career in music. I progressed through school wind bands, community music centres and then onto county level, which gave me many amazing opportunities.

By the time I was 16, I knew I wanted to have a career in music but had felt that performing was the way to go (in fact, teaching was the last thing I wanted to do!) .By this time I was in Sixth Form and I spent every free moment in the music department. The teachers at school were very kind to me and let me undertake repair jobs, help out in lessons and move equipment and tidy practice rooms. Spending more time with them leant me to naturally learn more about the wider impact of teaching and the rewards it offers. By the time I left for university, I knew that teaching was the career for me. I studied at Lancaster University, completed my PGCE two miles down the road at the University of Cumbria and progressed straight into teaching. This is now my fifteenth year and I am very proud of what I do. I am very thankful to those people who helped me along the way.

K: In your role as Head of Creative Arts, what are the artforms you have at Dallam and could you tell us something about your ambitions and hopes for the Department?

B: The Faculty consists of four departments: Music, Art, Drama and Media. I have been at the school for just over a year now and I am very privileged to lead some supportive and enthusiastic teaching staff. The legacy of the Faculty was evident right from the moment I walked in the door and I was keen to contribute to that story.

The department is still re-emerging from the impact of Covid, and whilst I am fairly new to the role, I am very much of the view that we have a very bright future. My main aims and objectives centrally revolve around inspiring young people to be creative and learn to have a love for any aspect of industry, much in the same way that I learned to have when I was their age. I want us to be able to provide as many opportunities as we can to expose students to the world of creative arts, through teaching in lessons and extra-curricular opportunity such as trips, visits and live performance. I am realistic that not every single student we teach will go on to learn to play an instrument, become an artist or tread the boards, but I am confident in the role we have to play in helping them to become creative thinkers, problem solvers, resilient workers and people who can work on their own or collaboratively with success.

The Creative Arts are not only a necessity for wellbeing, but they are also a key role in helping young people become well-rounded human beings. And, if we can get them to have some fun along the way and perhaps inspire one or two to enter into that industry, I feel we will have done a good job.

K: The creative Industries is very wide ranging and has so many opportunities (gaming and IT, music, theatre, film and television, marketing, design) for students to develop potential career opportunities. How do you build this knowledge and access for students involved with your Creative Arts department, with the budget considerations and challenges for the arts, at this time?

B: A well-researched, planned and developed curriculum model is key. It is important that use this platform to expose students to as much breadth in the arts as possible. Right now, our music Key Stage 3 curriculum covers everything from African Drumming to Gamelan Music, Blues to Rock n Roll and Britpop and Minimalism to Film Music. We acknowledge the importance of exposing access to careers along the way and in fact, we actually have a unit in Year 9 all about Careers in the Music Industry. The main aim of that scheme of work is to help students learn that they do not necessarily need to be an outstanding performer or composer in order to be able to have a career in music. There is one lesson, for example, in which students learn to plan and budget for a music festival. I suppose what I am trying to say is that, inside the classroom, we try to give students as much access as we can and that allows us to build students’ knowledge.

Outside the classroom, things can be a little more tricky. It is a shame that when I receive emails from organisations and charities offering workshops the first thing I think is budget. I want us as a department to be able to provide as many ‘real world’ opportunities as we can. Fortunately, there are some amazing organisations out there who can offer to do things for free (we recently had a two-day Drama workshop delivered by the Anne Frank Trust, and it was absolutely amazing). Without these, things would be much more difficult. The school has supportive parents and the staff who run the pupil premium funding and are very supportive of the arts and the opportunities that they can provide. I am conscious that we do not have an endless supply of money. I am also very conscious about the impact of the cost of living on all parties – parents, school and performers. Avoiding any puns, I suppose my answer is that we just think creatively…

K: Do you see any changes with young people around their engagement with the arts, moving on from the Covid lockdowns and for example, how this impacted opportunities and the skills needed to collaborate in ensembles etc and be inspired by live performance?

B: I think the biggest impact was I noticed emerging from Covid was centred around the confidence of students. Some of the skills have had to be retaught – listening to others when performing as an ensemble was a big one, but understandable as to how that was lost through Covid. We have some excellent and outstanding musicians, but they were more used to performing as soloists and not as part of an ensemble. We are working hard to build that back in and progress is being made, but it has taken some time to encourage students to be brave and make that step. We took our GCSE students to see the Hallé Orchestra perform in January and the biggest thing I noticed is that the students were absolutely mesmerised by them. It dawned on me that they may not have seen a live orchestra perform for a long time, if ever. It only reinforces the importance of our ambitions – we need to ensure that we promote the benefits of the creative arts and the impact they have on us as human beings.

K: Working in the creative industries is often very fluid, not a linear career path. How do you explain and support this concept with students (and parents) when talking about portfolio career opportunities? Do you think there is a lack of recognition about the academic and theoretical/analysis skills that are as vital for creative arts students, as for other industries?

B: I think that Ofsted have actually helped us in this area. The recent research reviews in Music and the National Plan for Music Education highlight the importance of the breadth of knowledge and a holistic understanding of things, rather than just working to tick a box as to whether a student can play or compose something or not. As I mentioned earlier, this is where a well-planned curriculum can pay dividends when it comes to this type of skill development. We want students to learn how and why, not just what. We also focus quite heavily on theoretical skills in the very beginning phases of Year 7, such as the elements of music and reading musical notation. The message to them at this stage is very simple: we need to learn this now because it is core knowledge and, if we can understand this, we can apply it to a wide range of contexts.

This message is the same in all departments in the faculty. We try to link lesson content with careers as often as we can and we aim to make this part of our everyday learning conversations. I actually think that from here, students can begin to build that idea of career flexibility and fluidity themselves…or at least I hope! Whilst we try to explain how our knowledge and concepts can be applied to careers, I am hopeful that the similarities and differences from one career to the next are apparent. It also underlines what I mentioned about the skills that we can teach, that aren’t just creative arts specifically. I was told by a Headteacher recently in conversation with a Head of Engineering at a University, that when they interview students for their course, they do not focus on their mathematical or scientific ability, they focus on how creative they are. I think that in itself highlights just how important the role of the Creative Arts are.

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