The Choir: How singing saved our school

Susannah Butter

Kensington Aldridge Academy (KAA) has been described as standing in the shadow of Grenfell Tower. Its students prefer to say it’s “in the light”. When I visit on a Wednesday afternoon teenagers charge around the corridors and a group gathers around a sixth former with blue hair showing her friends a video on her phone. The only indication of what the school has endured is a stack of Grenfell Support newsletters in reception.

Four pupils from KAA and one former pupil died in the fire at Grenfell Tower on June 14, 2017. Many lost their homes. In the aftermath, the school was relocated to temporary Portakabins. When they were ready to return, in September last year, headteacher David Benson decided to mark that milestone for the academy, which specialises in performing arts. He called in TV choirmaster Gareth Malone.

David Benson, headteacher of Kensington Aldridge Academy

The documentary Our School by the Tower, which started last week and concludes tonight, shows what happened next. Malone had already helped the Grenfell community with a charity single. He says: “It left me wanting to do more. When David got in touch the challenge appealed. It filled me with trepidation but I saw it as helping them to tell their story.

“On the surface, the pupils looked like any other kids. But once you talked to them the perspectives they had and the air of fatigue was unusual. Sure, they were running around the playground but there was a sense of emotional exhaustion, in the staff as well. They were clinging on to the side of a mountain and if one thing went wrong the whole pack of cards would fall.”

Benson and the pupils imagined they would sing just one song. They ended up writing a whole musical and doing a workshop with the cast of Hamilton. “The one thing that hadn’t been done was to give kids free rein to publicly have a creative response to what happened,” says Malone. “That’s where we arrived at the idea of a musical, to make them feel like they defined their story for themselves.”

He never asked them about the tower. “I’d ask how they were, what the future looked like. Some would say quietly that they thought it would be time to move on soon. How do you get beyond [something like Grenfell] without forgetting it? Those are big things to grapple with when you are a kid, and guilt comes with that. You want to give them licence to look to the future.”

Pupils at the choir's final performance (BBC/Twenty Twenty Productions)

It’s not just the story of Grenfell that made the first episode resonate but the personal transformations of the children. Adil, a foster child who had been in care since the age of three and moved nine times, went from being a lost figure who acts up to a confident, skilled poet.

Meanwhile, a softly spoken girl called Lyric, aged 15, sings a song she wrote about her friend who died. Lyric says now: “I had so many emotions inside and I wanted to share them with people because I wanted them to relate to it. Everyone is in pain, they are not alone.” Her friend Olivia, also 15, now says: “She took the words out of my mouth.”

Olivia adds: “People on social media have got in touch with my friends and said it’s been more than a year, ‘get over it’. I am still healing. It’s obvious people are still hurting and this show has helped others outside the community to relate.” Before Grenfell, Olivia says, “I was naive”. “I wasn’t living every day as if it was my last. I didn’t think about death because I was 12 — why would you?”

Eliana, 12, says: “You have to face reality to release that burden, accept someone has died and they will want you to live without always crying. Maybe people who watch the show will get confidence to cope with things in their own lives.”

Malone saw himself as “a fresh pair of ears”. “It’s telling that Lyric hadn’t shared her song before. I had to gain their trust but it became a positive that I hadn’t been there. They had seen their teachers as humans crying in the aftermath of a tragedy and the kids felt responsible for the adults.”

Olivia says that Malone lifted spirits. “He’s such a jolly person that he made everybody a lot happier just walking down the corridor. He brought something completely new and gave everybody that boost.”

Gareth Malone in the playground of Kensington Aldridge Academy (BBC/Twenty Twenty Productions)

During the project, Malone saw a psychotherapist. “There were moments where I felt like I was getting nowhere. I’d air my frustration with the therapist and then come in fresh. I tried to be as bright as I could. The children had needed to be very mature and serious and a lot of the play we made allowed them to be silly.”

Benson hesitates about using the phrase “moving on”. “I would never use it because we would never diminish what happened. It’s a big part of what we are and we miss the students [who died] massively. But returning to the school was about looking forward.” Malone admits that he still has doubts before projects. “I wonder, will it help to sing a song? But music is a balm. I’ve especially noticed it at funerals — where the atmosphere is sharp and harsh and full of fear, music soothes.”

The performance was a welcome distraction from moving back to the scene of the fire. “It eased up coming back,” says Olivia. “We’ve had so much change but we had the choir to lean into and keep us grounded and stable.”

“The overwhelming majority of students wanted to go back to normality,” says Benson. “They have deeply seated academic ambitions and that doesn’t go away because of traumatic events. We were able to help them refocus on what they wanted to do whilst making sure there was a lot of therapeutic care and support.”

Benson set up KAA in 2014. It is not selective and he is proud that two years since the fire the results are in the top five per cent nationally and that they are narrowing the gap between pupils from wealthy and less privileged backgrounds. KAA was honoured for “outstanding achievement” at the Evening Standard School Awards last month. How have they done it? “The foundations were strong,” says Benson. “When it became turbulent we were able to keep that core business of teaching and learning.”

Now the school is facing new challenges, with a rise in knife crime affecting young people. “We know how awful it is when a student has their whole future snatched away because of what happened to us when we lost five students in the fire,” says Benson. Olivia and Lyric tell me how people they know from primary school have changed. Olivia says: “You meet someone who used to be a happy person and a year later they will be enclosed and dark and there is not much about them anymore. You see them throw away their potential.”

“I don’t know that singing is the answer to gang violence but it has a major role in feeling part of a community”

David Benson

How do you address it? Malone says: “I don’t know that singing in a choir is the answer but I do see the importance of creative arts. They have a major role in making people feel better about themselves and to feel part of a community.” Benson agrees: “Talk about knife crime in a proportionate way. If you talk about it all the time that’s not doing the right thing by the kids, which is to talk about their talents. The best way you can address it is to inspire the students and create a positive and ambitious culture that helps them focus on opportunities.

“Exclusion has to be a last resort. If a child is presenting certain behaviours the school needs to ask why. On the other hand you will not find a single secondary school in London that hasn’t at some point had to permanently exclude a child.”

For Olivia, music is “an escape”. “We’ve had so many lessons about how to keep ourselves safe, and they are helpful, but doing something creative keeps your mind off it. After school is prime time. People rush out excited that the school day is over. If you wait until 5pm [doing an activity at school], everyone has calmed down and you can just go home because there is nothing happening on the street any more.”

KAA is in communication with other schools in Kensington and Chelsea, says Benson. “Some schools are reticent to talk about it because they don’t want to be labelled as ‘the school with the knife crime problem’ but if every school is facing this issue we can put together joint strategies so that children can avoid getting into risky situations. I keep coming back to this but if you have inspirational teaching of academic subjects, that will lift people up. Who doesn’t want to do well in their GCSEs and have options?”

Like all schools, KAA is under funding pressure. The Intrepidus Trust protects its arts education. “Schools are not just buildings where maths lessons happen,” says Benson. “They are communities — and what provides the culture is the ability to hold assemblies, come together, listen to performances. If you take that out of the school you end up with something which is much more mundane. Art, drama, music will benefit the children in every other subject. Music has energised the school.” The children in the choir say it’s made them more confident and they are now putting their hands up more to answer questions in other lessons.

The choir is still going strong and is working on a rendition of Rise Up by Andra Day for their half-term concert. Benson says the school moving back is bringing a sense of normality to the area: “It helps people in the area to see routine things like the children walking to school in the morning. That’s part of the healing process and 2019 feels like the school is looking forward. It is a relief.”

The Choir: Our School by the Tower is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm