A singing-centred education
As a passionate music educator and conductor, I was over the moon when I was awarded my Churchill Fellowship in 2019. The opportunities ahead excited me. It’s fair to say that my two months away, which took me to Finland, the USA and Canada, changed my life in so many ways. The musical practises I witnessed abroad clearly demonstrated the power, importance and impact that high quality music education has on young people.
"The pressure from testing and a data-driven approach to education in the UK need to change." - Richard Jeffries, Fellow
I had an educational focus, and my project was entitled Harnessing the Power of Singing and its Effect on Learning. Music education – and in particular singing – has shown a worrying decline in recent years at both primary and secondary levels, and I wanted to really raise the profile of its importance. Whilst some schools do provide excellent music education, it’s very patchy across the UK. Every child should have equal access to it, but this is simply not the case.
Not only was music education in decline before my trip, but the pandemic has made matters worse. In the past year, 68% of primary schools and 39% of secondaries have reduced their music teaching, and more than one third of primaries have dropped singing altogether.
Music education has a huge impact on learning as a whole, and singing is a crucial element of music itself. Music with no singing is like teaching maths without numbers. Musical concepts are deepened, embedded and internalised, with language, listening, concentration and general wellbeing significantly raised too. If children are not receiving their music entitlement, they are being denied fundamental aspects of their learning and development.
Through my report and my videos, I have outlined a number of recommendations following my return.
Firstly, singing should be at the heart of all primary schools and central to all musical teaching if musical concepts are to be fully realised and internalised. This also applies to instrumental teaching: musical concepts learnt through singing are naturally applied to the instrument in question.
Secondly, head teachers and senior managers must endorse this as a culture within their schools so that it becomes the norm and isn’t perceived to be ‘uncool’. The wider benefits of singing not only bring the school community together, but also raise self-esteem and improve mental health. This should begin young and continue throughout children’s time at school.
The pressure from testing and a data-driven approach to education in the UK need to change. In Finland, there is not only excellent music education but, crucially, no national testing until age 16. I’m not suggesting we can simply change our system to the Finnish one, but their approach was incredibly child-centred and there’s a lot we can learn from them. It starts with schools being brave enough to ensure their pupils receive a very broad curriculum. Music is the one subject that enhances everything else in school and can be drip-fed through the school week. It doesn’t need to be a one-hour slot every Tuesday afternoon, for example. This also means that non-specialist music teachers in primary schools can have smaller, bite-sized musical activities spread out through the week. This is less daunting for them.
Which brings me onto my last recommendation: teacher training. In the UK, the average non-music specialist will receive no more than one session on music as a teaching student. This simply isn’t enough and, unless this changes, music will continue to be seen as just an ‘add on’.
How am I addressing some of these points? The pandemic, with all its restrictions, has meant that many of my plans have been either on hold or slowed down which has been very frustrating. One of my objectives is to use my role as Artistic Director of the Singing Community of Choirs to work closely with schools to raise the profile of music education. Once schools were closed, we decided to do this virtually. My team and I produced 40 videos in total, which included weekly lessons for early years students and children in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Virtual singing assemblies were part of this project too.
As we move into a new term and school year, hopefully with no further restrictions, we already have a number of schools signed up for in-person music support which is very exciting. This support aims not only to deliver music lessons with singing at their heart, but also to train the class teacher at the same time, making it much more sustainable and cost-effective. This, in turn, benefits every pupil and teacher we work with – and the wider school community too.
Over the coming year, my plan is to grow this project further, expanding the work we do with schools and their staff. I also look forward to leading more presentations to head teachers, music hubs, as well as local and national organisations. We need music in schools now more than ever before.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.