In praise of systematic enquiry

It is now some five years ago since I had the privilege of reading the doctoral submission of Leslie Linton of the University of Western Ontario. The title: Interpretive Reproduction and informal Learning in the Grade One Classroom. [1] And I have now read Leslie’s chapter in the book ‘Twentieth Century Music Education’: Informal Learning and Non-Formal Teaching, Approaches in School and Community Contexts’ published by the Canadian Music Educators’ Association in 2016.

Leslie worked for six months mostly as a non-participant observer alongside a class music teacher developing an informal pedagogy, which brought together the research findings of Lucy Green [2] and Kathy Marsh [3]. Leslie’s was a planned informal learning. (‘In at the Deep End’ just didn’t work!) 

Leslie designed three units of work, each having its own set of informal learning principles.

Unit 1 Listening and copying vocally
Unit 2 Playing familiar melodies by ear
Unit 3 Listening and copying vocally and harmonically

The research was carried out in the context of Canada’s adherence to Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze concepts, methods and principles, chiefly Kodaly. These ways of working are well established in North America and fit well with the curriculum goals set out by the province, in this case Ontario. [4]

Leslie’s approach disrupted the teacher-led, sequentially prescribed curriculum and adherence to a Kodaly approach. [5]

Underpinning the planned informal learning approach was the recognition that the children’s musical experience beyond the school (their musical enculturation) was vast and it was through YouTube clips, for example, that the children learnt to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy so well in tune. This was a revelation to their class teacher. 

What became clear was that the established school music programme underestimated the pupils’ capabilities. This was chiefly the result of disregarding the pupil’s well-developed processes of musical enculturation. 

The step-by-step approach (simple to complex) offered by ‘Kodaly’ showed no appreciation of the pupils’ capacity to work with what were complex rhythmic and melodic musical materials in their own musical lives, their immediate social heritage. In this respect the formal curriculum was regressive and oppressive.[Late edit: regressive and oppressive is OTT, although regressive may have some credibility. Thanks to @WyHighPerArts for challenging my unreasonable use of language.]

In becoming agents of their own musical education with the teacher as partner in this, these pupils were developing understanding of what learning music and becoming a musician involved. The data arising in response to Leslie’s third research question: How do Grade One students describe their experiences with informal learning? showed the emergence of what Lucy Green refers to as ‘critical musicality’ or what others more generally identify with critical pedagogy. 

In all this there is a way of thinking about childhood, not as a state of immaturity where the child is moved step-by-step up a ladder but as abounding with agency and social maturity. 

In recent weeks I have written blogs on learning to think critically about music as it works in tandem with learning to think in sound. There is no doubt that these children were doing both in abundance and out-striping curriculum expectations.

Leslie’s research, of which only a taste has been given here, raises important questions about our conceptions of childhood and how we think children learn and develop, and for what purpose. More research like that reported here is urgently needed if we are to better understand and develop planned informal pedagogies in music. At the moment practice is running ahead theory. While this is exciting it may be counterproductive.


[1] Grade 1 equates with Year 2 in England i.e. 6-7 year olds.
[2] Green, L. (2008) Music, informal learning and the school: A new classroom pedagogy. London: Ashgate.
[3] Marsh, K. (2008) The musical playground. London: Oxford University Press.
[4] North American music educators appear to be less eclectic in forming pedagogy than is the case in England.
[5] Both Leslie and the class teacher were trained in the Kodaly concept.

Singing and those silent corridors

Yesterday news came of the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, endorsing an initiative to tackle unruly behaviour in our schools. The endorsement included the practice of silent corridors, pupils moving between lessons in silence as a mark of disciplined behaviour. Such an idea inevitably gives rise to debate or rather the forming of polarised positions attached to deeply held values. And I won’t pursue the debate here. Instead simply tell about a practice I had heard of a good number of years ago, one that had lingered in my ever curious mind. Yes, here were children going between lessons, not in silence, but singing their repertoire of national songs. This was in Switzerland and under the influence of the reforming educator Johann Pestalozzi. I find the image appealing in the light of some of current debate.

This silent obedience being called for in schools at the present time provides an image at odds with the joy often associated with singing, singing playgrounds and the contemporary call to Sing Up and for singing to permeate the whole life of the school – indeed a stark contrast to the Swiss children of two hundred years ago,

Of course, the silent corridor could be populated by pupils singing silently but it would likely result in body movement thought to transgress the behaviour expectations of the silent corridor.

Presumably silent corridors expect docile bodies.

The deep dive that turned out to be a shallow disappointment

The headteacher had nominated music as a place for the inspector to make a deep dive. And the music teacher felt just a little flattered at being selected. The inspector appeared in the music department just as the school choir were singing Seal Lullaby. It was sounding good. Did he want to listen?

No. Where is the department office? May I see your curriculum planning document?

Lesson observed. Questioning of pupils. Then the conversation with the music teacher.

And this revealed an inspector out of his depth. For it seemed he had no knowledge of the variegated nature of musical knowledge. Rather, for this inspector, musical knowledge corresponded to words. (Scroll down for last week’s blog.)

That grasp of a concept about music might take time to grow in a way that would give it meaning was not understood.

Is it fair to expect inspectors to go on deep dives and get out of their depth?

Some problems with conceptual understanding in the case of music

Using the so-called ‘elements of music’ was helpful at the time, that is, in the early 1980s.  We had found a fresh way of structuring what we did.  There they were – pitch, timbre, rhythm, pulse etc.  These were thought to be the building blocks of music. And we could see how this was paralleled in visual art: colour, line, perspective, composition etc. And even better, these elements could be thought of as ‘concepts’. Yes, music had a conceptual framework of sorts and something was needed in order to replace the ‘Theory of Music’ as a legitimate framework. (How can a theory be a conceptual framework?)

But as Keith Swanwick pointed out, music doesn’t have elements, it has features, and it is these features that give music character, interest and stylistic distinction and that get noticed. Not elements. These are abstractions, monster words and some distance from our musical perception. No wonder then that for the last thirty years music teachers have been coercing children to say them without much success. In fact the key words movement seems to have achieved very little.

The distinguished Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky had something to say about this.

‘Pedagogical experience demonstrates that direct instruction in concepts is impossible. It is pedagogically fruitless. The teacher who attempts to use this approach achieves nothing but a mindless learning of words, an empty verbalism that stimulates the presence of concepts in the child. Under these conditions, the child learns not the concept but the word, and this word is taken through memory rather than through thought.’ [1]

Vygotsky compares this empty learning with ‘living learning’ implying that the concept needs to be internalised and in some sense personalised before it is useable. In the case of music, itself being non-verbal, while allowing concepts to be formed about it, the distance between experience and concept appears especially great. Thus we attempt to place conceptual musical understanding in a relationship to existential musical understanding. That is, what this means to me in relation to what this means more generally.

Of course, musical features can be thought of as concepts as well as elements. But at least they are what strike us about the music we encounter; a characteristic rhythm, a facet of melodic movement, a sharply articulated short sound, for example. End Licks, Snaps, Turn Arounds … these are the features that contribute to our sonic meaning making and that are everywhere to be sensed, perceived, felt, cherished and that inspire emulation. These we could refer to as first order concepts, although I am bit unsure about this. One thing that I am clear about is that in music our concepts need to be open and dynamic rather than closed.

So what might count as second order concepts?

Oh no! Please not the elements of music.


[1] Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Thinking and Speech. In L.S. Vygotsky, The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1, Problems of general psychology (pp.39-285) (R.W. Rieber & A.S. Carton, Eds.; N. Minick, Trans.) New York: Plenum Press.

Breadth and balance post 14.

I recall, somewhen about 1985 in my Basingstoke comprehensive school, the question being asked by a parent at a year 9 options evening: why don’t pupils continue their study of all subjects in years 10 and 11?

This question was asked in the public forum and alongside other parents who questioned the compulsory ‘aesthetic option’ requiring all pupils to study an arts subject post age 14. The next day teachers of art, ceramics, music, film and drama were called to a meeting with the head and deputy. We sensed that our highly prized aesthetics option was under threat. We went to the meeting armed with chapter and verse on the value of the arts. At the time there was no shortage of philosophical enquiry into aesthetic and artistic knowing and the uniqueness of this way of understanding the world. We presented the head and deputy with reasoned arguments supporting our place in the curriculum. We deployed the weight of intellectual authority with confidence and conviction.

The aesthetic option lived on and in end of course evaluations pupils expressed great satisfaction with the ways in which the uniqueness of the arts had enriched their lives and how the experience had been sharply different to other subjects. It was part of a comprehensive comprehensive school education, a result of progressive 1970s thinking reviving a liberal education and saving education from a lazy form of traditionalism.

Now, some thirty years later there is the EBacc and the arts are excluded and only a few enlightened headteachers feel confident enough to sustain an argument for an entitlement to a post 14 arts education.

Some point to the compulsory nature of English and English Literature and all that is offered there in the cause of an arts education. But many will have noticed a general shift in discourse towards a certain view of rigour, competence and functionality. The idea of an aesthetic dimension to education is now unheard of and long silenced to be replaced by reductionist notions of knowledge.

Pupils between the age of 14 and 16 will be wanting to give meaning to their lives through artistic expression and aesthetic experience and there should be a broad range of options available across a school’s offering.

Did you know that a first DfE proposal in respect to the formation of the current GCSE examination in music was that 80% of the marks should be allocated to a written paper and that the ABRSM graded theory exams were considered as a model?

Interestingly, in the final reckoning there is a component of the exam referred to as ‘knowledge’, not aesthetic knowledge, not the wonder of occurrent knowledge. personal knowledge or embodied knowledge but, you’ve got it, propositional knowledge.

Alas, our current political masters have a poor grasp of the order of things.

Progressive differentiation in the singing class

The teacher noted that:

‘As their vocal skills developed pupils exercised greater informed choice about the best approach to learning. They came to realize that working in smaller group settings allowed for more individualized selection of singing repertoire and greater scope for individual voices to claim a space of their own. Pupils who requested to work in ever smaller groups reasoned that this would allow them greater attention from the teacher and would also enable them to better self-assess their singing progress as it would be easier to distinguish their own voice from others.’ [1]

In this we see an important principle at work. I call it ‘progressive differentiation’.

The singing class starts as a cohort but little by little space is created for individual voices to be recognised and nurtured.

In the ‘The Story of Music Education Now’ Fifty Blogs 2012-2013, chapter 5 (blogs 32-37) is devoted to Key Stage 3 singing:

  1. Year 9 boys singing
  2. Mary’s secret
  3. Faye reports from the secret garden
  4. Listening with the voice
  5. ‘You can’t make me sing’
  6. Singing and the protection of masculinity
  7. The voice in a broad and balanced music education

‘32. Mary’s secret’ provides a model of the differentiated singing class where each voice is known and nurtured.

But this is in the classroom, in the school and bounded by the formalities of the school. But what about beyond the school and in another place?

Alresford is a small country town in mid-Hampshire with its watercress beds, steam railway, and since 2013 a community choir now some 130 in number. The choir meets on Monday evenings in the parish church of St John under the direction of Keith Clarke. [2]

The choir is ambitious and this has been recognised by the Hampshire Music Education Hub by awarding the choir its Certificate of Appreciation.

How then does a choir of 130 ‘progressively differentiate’?

From the choir’s website:

‘All of us have the capacity to improve. Our Director is often telling members that they have everything that they need to become great singers. In the future, we want to be able to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to take up the challenge of developing individually, as well as within the choir. To that end, we are beginning to look at ways and means for supporting the training of members in small groups, or as individuals, to help them even better than they already are!’ [3]

The late Janet Mills HMI once wrote a short article for the Music Teacher Magazine titled ‘Differentiation and Integration’ (lost in the Music Teacher Magazine archives alas). Janet set out a simple yet immensely valuable principle of music education. [4]

Both in the case of Year 7’s singing pathway referred to above and the Alresford Community Choir the principle of differentiation and integration is being harnessed ensuring individual development while serving community.

Without progressive differentiation serving whole class community, singing at Key Stage 3 may well continue to be an ‘aspiration outstripping actuality’ as it was in 1989. [5]


[1] Man, E. (2013) Developing Positive Attitudes towards Singing in Year 7 through Dialogue and Negotiation, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education. Bloomsbury, p. 124.

[2] See

[3] See

[4] Janet was a mathematician as well as a musician. Differentiation and integration is a mathematical concept.

[5] See Swanwick, K. (1989) Music in schools: a study of context and curriculum practice. British Journal of Music Education, 6, pp. 155-171, in which secondary school teachers claimed the centrality of singing in the curriculum yet in practice found little time for it.Advertisements

Assessment in Music: some thoughts

I once pointed out, and this was fairly recently, that there were no agreed standards in our curriculum 4-14. This was a surprise to some. Mention of standards and thoughts about assessment arise.

I sometimes wonder why in books on music education assessment comes to be considered later rather than sooner.

‘Assessment consists in evaluating or judging the value of something, or someone, in accordance with certain expectations, an idea or a reference, related to personal and/or shared values.’ [1]

In this view assessment is about valuing and we usually enter into teaching music with value intentions.

I often lament how profligate we are with the past, with those good sturdy ideas that have been thoughtfully established in the past forty years. In the case of assessment we might well turn to Derek Rowntree’s book ‘Assessing students: how shall we know them? first published in 1977. [2]

Recently reading the book I am struck by how little has changed in the way assessment is thought about. Rowntree sets out systematically, chapter by chapter, the nature of assessment, its purposes, the question of what to assess, how to assess and so on.

In Rowntree’s chapter ‘How to assess?’ there is a section titled:

Idiographic vs. Nomothetic Assessment

Idiographic is about the individual while nomothetic is about the making of general laws. [3]

So in the case of assessment the idiographic is concerned with understanding the uniqueness of the individual, how the individual is thinking, how they are making music and what value they are seeking to give to their endeavour.

Set against this is nomothetic assessment that collects data about individuals aiming to understand people in general and this means measuring them against each other and against standards.

In England there are no agreed standards pertaining to the music curriculum 4-14. Music teachers are wary of going down the path of standardisation and there are good reasons for this. Yet, standards are what has driven education policy in England in recent years with standards no longer a matter of the local or national but a matter of international comparison leading to what for music teachers in the UK can be an overbearing and barley tolerable audit culture.

It is this culture that pushes against seeing the individual pupil and their musical work as ‘sui generis’ – in a class of its own. It is the audit culture that exasperates the long-standing tension between valuing the work of the pupil as sui generis and some external standard.

Rowntree cites William James on the tendency to classify and label the pupil.

‘’The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it would say; ‘I am myself, myself alone.’’’

Writing in 1993 Ross et. al. noted that:

‘For many children assessment means enduring a form of mental and emotional derangement, the morbid exchange of a warm, living experience for a cold, dead reckoning.’ [4]

For Ross et. al, the radical solution found was to ensure that judgement in the arts ‘’must be and always remain ‘suspended judgement’’’ and thus provide the pupil with an experience that was uniquely freeing and empowering.

In this view assessment is quite simply a matter of sensitive conversation in which the personhood of the pupil matters greatly and far removed from being a unit of accountability.

‘Assessment consists in evaluating or judging the value of something, or someone, in accordance with certain expectations, an idea or a reference, related to personal and/or shared values.’


[1] Beauvais, M. (2011) Assessment: a question of responsibility. UNIVEST. Retrieved from

[2] Rowntree, D. (1997) Assessing Students: How shall we know them. Kogan Page.

[3] Greek words adopted by German philosophy.

[4] Ross, M., Radnor, H.,Mitchell, S. and Bierton, C. (1993) Assessing achievement in the Arts. Open university Press.Advertisements

Occasionally, some of your visit

What is knowledge rich? From forms of knowledge to social practices

‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’.

(Hirst, 1993)

This was Paul Hirst’s conclusion arrived at after a lifetime’s dedication to philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge and the curriculum. I thought that it might be a good way to begin looking at the provenance of the current interest in the knowledge-led and knowledge-rich curriculum?

So let’s go back fifty years.

In 1965 Paul Hirst set out his ‘Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge’ thesis. [1] This and its subsequently revised version of 1972 [2] were to prove highly influential. [3]

Hirst writes:

‘Whatever else a liberal education is, it is nota vocational education, not  an exclusively scientific education, or a specialist education in any senses.’ [4]

In avoiding what a liberal education is not, Hirst moves to considering the nature of knowledge and the forms it could take, each discipline with its own criteria and set of principles. Each has its own interconnecting concepts and its own way of testing for truth. Hirst proposes: mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, religion, literature and the fine arts, philosophy.

Within the literature and fine arts comes music.

These forms of knowledge were not intended to be the whole curriculum, rather its essential core.

Beyond the forms there were what Hirst called ‘fields’. Engineering, education studies, for example, are ‘held together by their subject matter, drawing on all forms of knowledge that can contribute to them’. [5] They lack the purity and internal coherence of the forms.

The argument went that it was this breadth of human understanding offered by the forms that was the entitlement of all children. Hirst, as a mathematician, had himself experienced a narrow scientific education. Now education was to be an induction into intrinsically worthwhile knowledge conceived of as having both breadth and depth. Here was a basis for curriculum planning.

Education could be distinguished from training and ensure that all children would be acquainted with what constitutes unique and significant ways of understanding human experience in making the rational mind and in pursuit of the good life.

Hirst’s thesis was to come under sustained criticism in the years that followed its presentation. It became clear that not all the privileged disciplines were logically distinct as Hirst had proposed. Maths and science, yes. Beyond these there were problems.

One particular criticism came from arts educators. Music, for example, existed not as a rational entity centred on statements of truth, sets of propositions, abstract formulations stated in linguistic form or interdependent conceptual schemes. Rather, it existed as a non-verbal entity where its value lay in a particular form of direct, intuitively personal and social experience. It was this that explained music’s cultural significance in the world and its role in the education of mankind. [6]

By 1993 Hirst is reviewing his thesis and responding to criticism:

‘The rationalist approach to education was dependent on a high doctrine of the powers of detached reason to both determine and motivate the good life.’ [5]

It is this claim on the power of detached reason that Hirst is now ready to concede. Reason, he notes, is always directed by our interests and its nature is practical. Knowledge is developed in practice.

He writes:

‘The knowledge that is thus developed in practice is however also practical in that it is from the start not simply or even primarily propositional knowledge or ‘know that’. It is rather a matter of ‘know how’, of skill and judgement, that is in major respects tacit or implicit rather than consciously recognised.’ [6]


‘ … if we stick with the notion that education is concerned with developing the good life then it follows from what I have said that we are mistaken if we conceive that purpose as primarily the acquisition of knowledge. What is required rather is the development by individuals of the overall rational practice of specific rational practices. There is, however, no way in which this can be begun or continued in education except by pursuing the satisfactions of given wants and exercise of given developing mental capacities in substantive specific practices available in existing social groups. The content of education must therefore be conceived as primarily initiation into certain substantive social practices. Such practices, as I have used the term, are centrally patterns of activity engaged in individually or collectively which have been socially developed or constructed. [7]

Music is of course first and foremost a substantive social practice, a rational human discourse, and certainly not a body of knowledge.

Hirst leaves us to select what are thought to be substantive and worthwhile musical practices through which to educate and that expand mind and enrich human discourse.


[1] Hirst, P. H. (1965) Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge, in Archambault, R.D. (ed) Philosophical Analysis and Education. Routledge and Keegan Paul: London.

[2] Hirst, P. H. (1972) Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge, in Education and the Development of Reason, (edited by R. F. Dearden, P. Hirst and R.S. Peters. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.

[3] For example, the adoption by HMI in the 1980s of an approach to curriculum planning based on areas of experience and understanding (See and the subsequent making of the National Curriculum based as it was on subject disciplines.

[4] Hirst, P. H. (1965) Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge, in Archambault, R.D. (ed) Philosophical Analysis and Education. Routledge and Keegan Paul: London. Page 391.

[5] Ibid, page 46.

[6] See, for example, Schrimshaw, P. (1973) Statements, language and art: some comments on Professor Hirst’s paper, Cambridge Journal of Education, 3, 3, 44; Reid, L. A. (1986) ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’, Heineman Educational Books.

For a broad discussion of the issue see Chapter 2 of Charles Plummeridge’s ‘Music in Theory and Practice. The Falmer Press. (1991)

And for a full investigation into the nature of musical knowledge see Swanwick, K. (1994)  Musical Knowledge: Intuition, analysis and music education. Routledge.

[6] Hirst, P. H. (1993) Education, knowledge and practices. In (eds) Robin Barrow and Patricia White. Routledge. Page 191.

[7] Ibid, page 195.

A music teacher’s professional development and why cognitive science might not be of much help

It was in the early 1990s that I made an application to my school’s deputy head to attend a weekend course at Dartington College. The course was on music and special needs education. But would my school fund my attendance? There was a period of deliberation and then two questions were presented to me: ‘how would the course enhance my teaching’ and ‘how would it contribute to the school’s priorities for development’?

I had taken the course to be self-evidently valuable to both my own and the school’s development. However, I made the case in writing and was duly funded. Whether the course had any long term impact I can’t say. It was certainly an enriching weekend.

It was at this time in the early ninties that the culture of education significantly changed. While teacher control of the curriculum had been taken away by the mid eighties there now came the terror of performativity. The new managerialism was beginning to bite and with it the teachers’ struggle for agency.

CPD was now a means of serving a culture of accountability, unremittingly generic in nature and  linked to accountability measures derived from whole school improvement agendas involving the silencing of what teachers might see as beneficial to both their professional and personal development. But in 2016 headteacher Tom Sherrington writes:

‘CPD should be teacher-centred (as opposed to school-centred); it needs to be designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers: their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes or skills need to change as a consequence in the long term. In the same spirit, appraisal or professional review systems should be geared towards supporting teachers in their career development – rather than serving accountability processes as the prime objective.  Teacher-centred appraisal can still be rigorous at the same time as being developmental and positive for all concerned.’ [1]

Tom was opening the door to fresh possibilities. CPD ‘designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers.’

I was interested to hear from a music teacher whose school has exemplified just this principle. I have invited the teacher to tell her story of change and this is change for the long term.

On singing and changing a culture: reflections on a year as Head of Music

I teach Music in a large mixed comprehensive academy in Kent, with ten classes of about 26 pupils in each year 7, 8 and 9 cohort. This year is my tenth at the same school, which I joined as an NQT, and where I am now completing my first year as head of department.

Despite my (excellent) PGCE training course which included a strong and varied focus on the teaching of songs, in the early years of teaching I found singing in the classroom an uncomfortable challenge. I found pupils were embarrassed by the very idea of singing in front of each other, and looking back I was overwhelmingly anxious that they should enjoy Music lessons and be instantly engaged by them. Most of us have experienced as new teachers the cringingly awkward moment when a class proves very reluctant to sing, or refuses completely, and I either moved on from singing activities quickly with relief or, increasingly as terms went by, avoided them altogether. My schemes of work used to have a diligent little tick sheet at the front, with the old KS3 Programme of Study so that I could show to anyone who cared which parts of it would be covered. The first of its “Key Processes” used to read “Pupils should be able to sing in solo or group contexts, developing vocal techniques and musical expression”. This always seemed a ridiculous impossibility if I’m honest, and this tick box always remained blank, as I preferred to do without the embarrassment, hassle and (I assumed) poor results that would ensue. Nobody ever commented or even noticed.

I had a choir, which contained in those early years about fifteen girls from a range of year groups. Never any boys – what boy would go to that? – except for the occasional year 7 who’d perhaps sung in choir at primary school, came for a few weeks and soon lost interest. I suppose the sound my girls made was adequate, sometimes good, and we went on the department’s first Music Tour in 2010, also taking the Jazz Band and the newly formed and popular African Drumming group, but the choir was the smallest ensemble and I felt pretty powerless to do anything about it.

On returning from maternity leave in June 2012 I noticed that the upcoming year 10 class for the following September contained several boys who had sung quite willingly in pop bands that my maternity cover had organised. I decided to grab this opportunity and make the choir compulsory for all GCSE Music students from that point onwards. The events that followed this decision are another story entirely, with resistance (including some tears) from many and even some letters of complaint from parents, but we stuck by the decision as a department and by and large we had a choir which now included boys and girls.

Soon after my appointment as Head of Music last year I met with the leaders of our local Music hub (Bromley Youth Music Trust, an excellent Music Service which has always provided us with peripatetic instrumental teachers). I asked for a new singing teacher to be provided, as I had noticed dwindling numbers of singing pupils and wanted to be able to recommend a teacher to any potentially keen pupils, something I’d not felt confident to do with the existing teacher. Almost as an afterthought, I mentioned that I had never had any singing lessons myself, wondering vaguely if some instruction on vocal technique could be passed on to benefit my newly reformed choir. The deputy principal of the hub happens to also be the head of vocal teaching there, and he offered to help. My school agreed to pay for four lessons as CPD; I never intended to have any more than this as I was not particularly interested in singing for myself at that point.

I was completely unprepared for what happened in those four lessons. Completely amazed at how many things I had been doing (and teaching) wrong in my own singing in the classroom, and at the difference in both the sound and the physical sensation of singing with an improved technique. I had always assumed that you could really only sing well if you were gifted with a nice voice, which I was not, and I had absolutely no concept of technique. Looking back I’m embarrassed by my own naivety in going into those first lessons. I know there are different ‘schools’ of singing teaching and do think I was particularly lucky in my teacher, but from what I discovered I was able to do things immediately with my choir that helped improve the sound. I was hooked! At the end of four lessons I persuaded my school to pay for another ten – they were happy to, as ten lessons costs around the same as a single day’s inset normally would. I’ve had about 20 lessons now and, following the events described below, the inset coordinator at school offered of his own accord to fund another term of 10 at the end of this one. I’ve joined the Music hub’s adult choir, attending as and when I can fit it in around work, and also auditioned successfully for a local chamber choir, relishing the challenge of the required sight-singing that this has presented. I always thought I was an alto, but it turns out I’m actually a soprano and, although I’m still only very much at the beginning, I’m thoroughly enjoying the journey and the learning process.

It might sound a bit trite, but I’ve found singing to be of huge benefit to me personally as well. I suffered from post-natal depression following the birth of my second child in 2013, and am still prone to bouts of anxiety and feeling very low. Singing, though, really does help. I don’t understand why, but I am happier and more relaxed when I’ve been singing – just teaching it in the classroom sometimes now as well – and my family have commented on the change. I’ve even been inspired to practise the piano again after years of not really touching it. Small children have inevitably been the main reason for this of late, but somehow I now feel like a musician – and a learning musician – again, instead of an often exhausted mother and teacher with little time, energy or enthusiasm for new ideas.

The principal of the Music hub suggested in our initial meeting that I put on a concert in the autumn term involving the whole of year 7. I remember smiling politely, privately remembering my past attempts to involve whole classes in concerts, which were exhausting to pull off and had short-lived (albeit satisfying) results, and resolving not to attempt anything so ambitious in my first term as head of department. However, later following my first singing lessons, I decided to try it. I had read some material on project-based learning and was inspired by the idea of giving pupils a real performance to work towards, so with the agreement of my second in department I designed a scheme of work and we started in the first weeks of September.

Year 7 responded positively on the whole, with the inevitable few reluctant participants, but an explanatory letter home signed by myself, the head of year and the headteacher proved helpful in quashing most parental objections, and in fact we found the vast majority of parents to be very supportive. Each class was taught a separate song to perform, which were to be judged as a competition, in addition to a massed medley of “Swing low, sweet chariot” and Debbie Wiseman’s “No wars will stop us singing” – this one was added only in the final weeks before the concert, which happened to fall on Remembrance Day. I taught seven of the ten year 7 classes myself this year, and found teaching so much singing very tiring, but also exhilarating; my own singing lessons were continuing roughly once a fortnight, and my teacher was an invaluable help in showing me how not to over-use my voice, and suggesting ways of making particular phrases or parts of the songs easier. He also agreed to be the competition judge. I gave the concert the name “Everyone Sings” because I found myself saying this constantly to pupils (or anyone for that matter!) who said “I can’t sing”. The final event was something of a logistical challenge, which we simply could not have managed without the support of the head of year and the ten form tutors, but the Hall was packed and the sound of 260 pupils singing en masse was an extraordinarily arresting finale. Medals were awarded and pupil reports later written, allowing us a fascinating insight into their perception of the event, and showing how memorable it had been for them.

Back to the compulsory GCSE choir for a moment. I am now in the second year of insisting on this, and also made a point last year of explaining to year 9 pupils considering GCSE Music that this would be required. The current year 10 class of 17 pupils (6 boys, 11 girls) contains several confident singers and many reluctant ones, but I have tried to be relentless in getting them to sing not only in the weekly choir rehearsal but in lessons too. When we studied Handel’s “And the glory of the Lord” we spent several lessons just singing it, working through each part in turn and singing along to the recording in whatever register was comfortable. They sang a gospel version of “Joy to the world” in the Christmas assembly for a week (although some bribery in the form of chocolate was needed for this) and I have a stash of quick rounds and simple part songs that I pull out for moments when they are doing something menial – putting resources away in their folders or waiting for computers to load, for example. They will now sing anything and at any time – on several occasions I’ve returned from a last-minute dash to the photocopier at the start of a lesson to find them singing, sometimes in several parts, whatever happens to be on someone’s mind at the time.

Year 11 complained, by the way, at the start of the year that “choir had got too big” because of the influx of year 10s, as well as the growing number of lower school pupils who come along (I don’t think I mentioned that everyone who comes on the Music Tour now has to sing in the choir) It’s actually now called “Big Choir”. I was really surprised, but suggested half-heartedly that we start another smaller group for them. Chamber Choir was born and now comprises 6 girls and 6 boys, mostly in years 10 and 11, who are able to access harder songs with a greater focus on reading music.

Although we left singing with year 7 for a while in the term that followed “Everyone Sings”, to focus necessarily on other skills (including whole-class keyboard lessons) I wanted if possible to rekindle some of the enthusiasm the concert had generated, before the summer and the start of year 8. So this term we have embarked on an Africa project, which will culminate in an afternoon concert given by each half of the year group, to an invited audience of years 4 and 5 from the Junior school down the road. Each class will perform a piece of West African drumming and sing an African song, and then join in a massed performance of “Shosholoza” in (hopefully) three parts. I have drafted in my year 10 class to boost the part singing and demonstrate that boys and girls higher up the school are also singing (and because I tried out teaching the African songs to them ahead of starting the project, to see what would work, and they were intrigued!). So far, year 7 have accepted it without complaint – watch this space!


[1] See

It was the year of curriculum intent

2019 in England was the year when our schools re-set their curriculum statements. You see there are the three Is – Intent; Implementation; Impact.

These are the markers set down by Ofsted, the school’s inspection body in England.

Ofsted is the piper that calls the tune in England. [1]

Sean Harford HMI, National Director for Education at OFSTED clarifies what is to be understood by the three Is.

‘The curriculum is a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage (Intent); for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (Implementation); and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations (Impact.achievement)’ [2]

Knowledge and understanding. No mention of skills. 

Just think about the wonder of what we understand as a musical skill. The crafting of a musical phrase, the placing of a sound within a sea of silence …

And what kind of knowledge will Ofsted have in mind?

And what of musical understanding? 

Musical understanding is defined by cognitive psychologist John Sloboda as akin to getting a joke – music understood without the mediation of language.

Perhaps behind the scenes is an ideological conflation of a narrow conception of culture with a narrow conception of knowledge.


[1] Many of my world-wide readers may find it difficult to comprehend how it is that a school’s monitoring body can be such a powerful agent of change, acting as the chief re-contextualiser of the field. (See Basil Bernstein on the Official Re-contextualising Field ((ORF)))

Ofsted operate without fear or favour creating fear and trembling.

[2] Source not known but taken from a consultant’s powerpoint slide.