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With one voice

Singing together helps raise pupils' confidence and self-esteem as well as teaching them music. Stephen Manning reports on how one school works in harmony

It's communal, it's exuberant and it includes everybody. It's gospel singing, and it's at the forefront of the campaign to get music back into primary schools. Maybe even the stragglers might be inspired.

That's the view, at any rate, of Lisa Butcher, deputy headteacher at Tidemill Primary School in Deptford, south-east London. For the past year, her Year 5 and 6 pupils, 56 in all, have had weekly workshops with tutors from igospel, a small company visiting schools mainly in and around London, funded by local authorities.

"Though gospel music derives from the church, how we use it doesn't really have any links to religion," says Lisa. "It's about the uplifting lyrics and positive messages that come out of the music, saying that you can do anything, or you should turn away from violence. It's something very different from the hip hop that they would otherwise be listening to."

The repertoire is a mix of originals composed by igospel and more familiar songs, such as a medley that includes Burt Bacharach's That's What Friends Are For and You're All I Need To Get By by Ashford Simpson.

"It might not appear to be like your normal school assembly, but what we do is all about encouraging singing in large groups," says David Levale, igospel's artistic director, who has tutored at Tidemill. "We get a real range of kids, from the very challenging children to the very talented, and we try not to exclude anybody."

This is not an easy feat Tidewell is a diverse school, with more than 80 per cent of the intake from ethnic minorities and 37 different languages spoken. But, according to Lisa, gospel is now at the forefront of the school's activities. "Some of the singers who were in Year 6 did a final concert and the Year 3s and 4s were excited because it meant they could join soon," says Lisa. Lisa regards David and his colleagues as strong role models, especially for the young boys. "They are successful men, and they are also poets. These songs show young children that it is cool to show love, or empathy, to other people."

The children are divided into alto and soprano, but as much as teaching about musical harmony, it's also about raising confidence and self-esteem. "They become a cohesive group who help each other," says Lisa. "I have seen some shy kids who have been transformed by the experience. One in particular had a speech impediment, but by the end, he was one of the soloists."

The workshops culminated with the school's participation in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, in London last July, put on by igospel, for 1,200 adults and children. Two Tidewell pupils were among the soloists. Lisa hopes that as the workshops continue this term they can liaise more with other schools

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