A trumpet call for more music in schools

18th June 2004 at 01:00
A few days ago, I put aside a couple of hours to join our primary 4 classes in Perth's Edwardian City Hall. They were not on their own. The hall was packed with 1,500 children from primary schools across Perth and Kinross who had risen early and, in some cases, travelled long distances to take part in a Day of Song.

"So what?" you might ask. Well, the last time anything similar was organised in our area was November 1990. Since then, unitary authorities have replaced regional and district councils, music advisers have been shunted into early retirement and our education leaders have become so hung up with our placing in international comparisons that narrow measures of attainment have come to dominate the curriculum.

Instead of confidently devising our own high-class curriculum model with expressive arts at the centre, we have tried to imitate the differently organised societies of the Pacific Rim.

Six years ago, one of our pupils, bright and able and with a globe-trotting father, spent his primary 4 year in Singapore. He became bored quickly, and when he returned the only advantage he had acquired was the ability to do long multiplication. He then spent his primary 6 year in Virginia in the United States and his family brought him home four months early, so alarmed were they at his backwards direction in school.

Not a scientific study, of course, but a small indication that we should be careful about our tendency to praise everything from abroad and ignore the good in our own schools.

During my visit to Perth City Hall, I heard a fascinating range of songs, from a beautifully evocative performance of "The Osprey" from Ruthvenfield primary to long-standing classroom favourites like "Jamaica Farewell" and comedy numbers like Oakbank's "Build Up". Even some of my pet hates surfaced such as "The Womble Song" and "Windmill in Old Amsterdam".

However, enjoyment and participation were the watchwords of the day, not competition and criticism. And what do I know - the only life-form in the universe to enjoy "Two Little Boys", especially when performed by Rolf Harris?

Throughout the day, the 1,500 children rehearsed their parts for a series of massed-performance songs which led to the event's climax when a band of instrumental instructors accompanied them in a large-scale sing. It was difficult to know if the children's delight was at their own accomplished singing or the thrill of performing with live instruments.

The Day of Song is the latest musical venture in our area since our education authority decided to catch up with teacher opinion and appoint an expressive arts co-ordinator to fill a glaring leadership gap. HMI might like to note that this appointment is, after only two years, making an "impact" on schools greater than any other appointments at this level.

The status of music, and expressive arts in general, is rising and it is reacquiring time and respectability in the curriculum. But there is a long way to go before it can achieve its most effective role - at the centre of the 3-14 curriculum. The offer of free instrumental lessons to all primary 5 pupils - if it can be accomplished - is a superb impetus to music education. But we need to give pride of place to singing and the human voice, the free instrument possessed by all of us.

I have a yellowing cutting of a letter to The Times written 20 years ago by Yehudi Menuhin. He advocates that children start each day with singing and dance as a prelude to good work in other studies. He further recommends that Members of Parliament sing a chorale or a Gregorian chant between sessions, to create the proper atmosphere.

Let's hope that our Day of Song will lead to more singing in schools and a healthier approach to the day's work. After that, it's on to the Palace of Westminster.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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