Beyond a game of charts
Anyone looking for signs that the arts can thrive, and not just survive, against the pressure of league tables and the drive for literacy and numeracy might take a look at what is happening to singing in Warwickshire schools, under the leadership of a lively classroom singing teacher called Jeremy Dibb.
Three years ago there was no full-time singing or choral adviser in that county, school singing had slipped down the list of priorities and combined school choral events were largely a memory for older teachers.
Then, in September 1997, the county appointed - with major financial support from the British Federation of Young Choirs - a full-time choral adviser, Jeremy Dibb, previously a music teacher whose jolly choirs were regulars in the National Festival of Music for Youth.
He made a big impact. Schools began to buy his services at a rate which meant that after two years his work was self-financing, and the crucial early sponsorship by the BFYC was phased out. Now demand is such that the county has three full-time choral advisers working on the development of classroom singing and choirs, teaching children and training teachers. There are also two specialist teachers of singing who work with individuals and groups in schools on the same basis as instrumental teachers.
In those three years Jeremy Dibb and his colleagues have held one-off workshops in 100 of the authority's 200 primaries and 35 primaries have taken on the major commitment of introducing Dibb's Get the Singing Habit - a whole-school programme for teaching singing in the classroom across key stages 1 and 2.
In the secondary sector, 11 schools have pupils taking singing lessons and five are starting work on a classroom singing programme. In addition to all this there are area singing days and choral festivals and, underpinning the strategy, there is a programme of in-service training for classroom teachers.
It is a remarkable and heartening achievement, especially when set against the background of what has arguably been the most pressurised three-year period primary schools have ever experienced. Watching Jeremy Dibb at work (I saw a workshop at Bishop's Tachbrook primary in south Warwickshire) gives you an inkling of why the programme has been so successful.
Enthusiastic and full of energy, he stood in front of the children - 180 of them, aged from four to 11 - keeping them absorbed and working for a full hour. Importantly, there was nothing for them to worry about: no words to read, no instrument to tune in to.
All they had to do was listen to Mr Dibb and sing back the things he sang to them. They did some marching chants, went on to a gentle and flowing Tongan canoe song and finished with Pick a Bale o Cotton in two parts with actions.
The clear message for the teachers is, "You can do this. What you need is not specialist skill but confidence." Building confidence, Jeremy Dibb agrees, is the key. "Today's teachers have less social experience of singing than earlier generations and less training in it," he says.
His Get the Singing Habit programme is the most important part of the work. It requires primary teachers to teach singing to their classes, guided by choral advisers. Headteachers have to make a written commitment that all the staff and children will take part and the work will continue between visits from the advisers.
Everything else Mr Dibb and his team do - singing days, area and countywide choirs, the development of singing at secondary level - builds on that foundation. "It is the backbone of our work," he says.
Yvonne Jackson, deputy head of Keresley Newland primary in north Warwickshire, is full of praise for Get the Singing Habit. "Lots of staff have no musical training," she says. "We have regular in-service training, and it has definitely improved our knowledge and confidence."
Keresley Newland children, she says, look forward to Jeremy Dibb's visits. "It is presented as a fun experience and they retain excellent knowledge in a way that often surprises their teachers. The Office for Standards in Education has identified singing as a strength within the school."
Choir directors and teachers of class singing feel intuitively that singing together brings classroom and personal benefits to children that go well beyond the activity itself. Jeremy Dibb recognises that he will have to make the most of these links if his subject is to continue to make progress against all the other pressures of the curriculum.
He has signed on for an MA degree at Warwick University with a view to analysing the impact of the Warwickshire Choral Initiative on the children's intellectual and emotional development.
The Warwickshire approach is attracting interest in other areas. Jeremy Dibb's team act as advisers to Buckinghamshire county music service, which aims to go down a similar route.
If it can happen with singing, you think, then it can happen with other arts subjects as well.
Warwickshire Choral Initiative, 22 Northgate Street, Warwick CV34 4SP. Tel: 01926 412803. E-mail: jeremydibb@ warwickshire.gov.ukThe British Federation of Young Choirs offers practical advice and help with singing and with choirs. Devonshire House, Devonshire Square, Loughborough LE11 3DW.
Tel: 01509 211664. E-mail: email@example.com. co.ukNational Youth Choir of Great Britain, PO Box 67, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire HD7 1GQ. Tel: 01484 687023. E-mail: nycgb@compuserve. com Website: www.nycgb.orgThe Voices Foundation, 21 Earls Court Square, London SW5 9BY. Tel: 020 7370 1944. Website: www.voices.org