If your child has an exceptional talent in music or dance, and ambitions to perform, choreograph or compose, then a specialist school can be the ideal alternative to a mainstream school. Benefits include specialist teaching and facilities, the chance to be with like-minded students, and an education that’s focused on vocational training rather than academic exams.
These niche schools are looking for the most talented dancers and musicians in the UK and beyond (most have a large number of international students) – and can set them on a pathway to the Royal Academy of Music or the Birmingham Royal Ballet. These are schools where academic entrance exams are replaced by auditions, vocational qualifications are studied alongside GCSEs and A Levels, and music or dance classes fill up the daily timetable.
While the talk of such vocational schools may bring to mind the words 'elite', 'exclusive' and 'expensive', their doors are very much open to everyone.
A government-funded Music and Dance Scheme (MDS) offers means-tested grants to help cover tuition and boarding fees at eight specialist music and dance schools in the UK. Available for students aged 11 to 19 years, the MDS offers bursaries at schools including Chetham's School of Music, Wells Cathedral School, The Purcell School, Yehudi Menuhin School, Royal Ballet School, Elmhurst School for Dance, Tring Park School and The Hammond School.
These schools report that up to 85% of their students are receiving up to full bursaries to cover their tuition fees. So, regardless of your ability to pay, your child can still access some of the very best music and dance schools in the country.
WhichSchoolAdvisor takes a closer look at how these eight schools are educating and training some of our most talented children in the fields of music and dance...
Chetham's School of Music
The only specialist music school in the north of England, Chetham's School of Music offers a music-based curriculum to boys and girls at an historical campus in Manchester. As a specialist music school, a third of the timetable is dedicated to music. Students have at least three hours of music lessons every day, encompassing instrumental tuition, performance, aural training, choral work, academic music, and music technology.
It's home to a community of 300 students aged eight to 18 years from the UK and overseas. Leavers go on to leading conservatoires and music colleges including Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School of Music. It's a fee-paying school with annual tuition fees of £25,000 (£33,000 for boarders), but 85% receive up to full funding through the Department for Education's Music & Dance Scheme (MDS).
The Purcell School
As the UK's oldest specialist music school, The Purcell School is all about the music. With its personalised, music-focused curriculum, expert tuition and specialist facilities, this day and boarding school brings everything from woodwind to jazz and composition to music technology to the fore. For students thinking of studying music at university, a conservatoire or a contemporary music school, The Purcell offers the opportunity to develop their potential as musicians.
The co-ed boarding and day school is home to around 180 students aged 10 to 18 years with a shared passion for music. Students audition for places. Annual fees range from £26,775 for day to £34,188 for boarding students, but very few here pay the full fees; the majority of places are funded by the government's Music and Dance Scheme.
Wells Cathedral School
Wells Cathedral School is a co-ed day and boarding school offering some of the very best training in music across a wide range of disciplines and instruments. Wells has a large student community of non-specialist musicians; specialist musicians can receive a well-rounded education from academia to sports, drama and the creative arts, while non-musicians can benefit from the excellent music tuition on offer here.
One of the oldest schools in Europe, Wells was founded as a school for choristers. Around 30% of Senior students here are enrolled into its specialist music programme; this covers a variety of disciplines from brass to popular music, choristers to woodwind. Leavers are offered places at leading music conservatoires and colleges including the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music.
Yehudi Menuhin School
Founded by the late violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, this small, specialist music boarding school in Surrey offers musically gifted children the opportunity to fulfil their musical potential alongside their academic studies, irrespective of nationality and the ability to pay.
Located in Cobham, the prestigious but charming school of just 80 students aged eight to 19 years continues to deliver Menuhin’s vision of enabling musically gifted children from all over the world to pursue their love of music. The Yehudi Menuhin School is popular with international students – just under half come from overseas (Ireland, Europe, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Mexico and Brazil). The majority of the school's students are boarders, either weekly or full.
Elmhurst Ballet School
Elmhurst is a specialist independent school for classical ballet students aged 11-19 years. Founded in 1923, Elmhurst was one of the UK’s first vocational dance schools. It has a close association with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and is based in a purpose-built campus in Birmingham.
In the Lower School (Years 7-11), there's a broad and busy timetable of classes in classical ballet, pointe work (girls), contemporary technique, choreography, jazz, tap and coaching. As students move into the Upper School they also learn flamenco and choreography while studying for a Level 6 Diploma in Professional Dance alongside A Level academic subjects. The school also gives students the opportunity to stay on for Year 14, a graduate year when they focus entirely on dance and prepare to join a dance company.
The Royal Ballet School
The Royal Ballet School offers talented young dancers aged 11-19 years the opportunity to train full-time in classical ballet alongside their regular academic studies. One of the world's leading centres of classical ballet training, the school is divided between two sites in central London. The school has close links with The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, offering students many opportunities to perform with both companies throughout the year.
It's a full boarding school with an international community of students; girls and boys comes from across the UK and more than 15 countries worldwide. Students aged 11-16 attend the Lower School at White Lodge, where they complete full-time classical ballet training while taking academic classes, which later include GCSE/IGCSEs. Entry to the Upper School is by audition and entry is fiercely competitive for the 100 places available.
The Hammond School
This school for talented pupils in the performing arts offers full time courses from the age of 11 in dance, drama, and music, alongside GCSE and A Levels. The Hammond Dance programme includes training in classical ballet, tap, jazz, modern, street, and contemporary dance.
The Hammond School is not by any standards an academic school, but it does not market itself as such. It is designed specifically for parents seeking a performing arts focused education for their children. It does not offer the academic fail-safe of its closest peer, Tring Park, or its prestige, but it does offer instead a very different boarding experience, off campus. It also offers a very open welcome to international applicants by inviting DVD auditions.
Tring Park School for the Performing Arts
Tring Park's curriculum focuses on dance, drama, music, musical theatre, and theatre arts, balanced with a focus on high academic attainment at GCSE and A Level. Nevertheless, as Tring Park advised us, “we are primarily a performing arts school with an excellent academic education [second]."
There are very few performing arts schools anywhere in the world where children seeking a performing arts based education can board. There are even less schools, if any, where children are able to succeed academically quite so well whilst, at the same time, realizing their non-academic potential in dance, music or theatre. For internationally based parents seeking a UK-based, world class performing arts centred education for their gifted children in dance, theatre or music, Tring Park is a must-consider.