Power of positivity

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Tom Deveson welcomes a book that turns transition phases into opportunities for growth and development

Rites of Passage National Association of Music Educators, pound;9 (members), pound;11 (non-members) Telfax: 01629 760791

Email: musiceducation@name.org.uk www.name.org.uk

Within its 72 pages, this excellent booklet manages to clarify a set of related problems and to offer a batch of convincing solutions. The problems derive from what is sometimes called "curriculum continuity" - the way in which children's musical learning can be disrupted as they move from one part of the education system to another. It's a striking achievement that the book makes us think seriously about how this seeming disadvantage can also be treated as a positive opportunity, and how "planned discontinuity"

can be a stimulus to new achievements.

The evidence comes from many people and many places. There are case studies, extracts from diaries, examples of arguments and theories, reports on pieces of action research, programmes for professional training days and outlines for model projects. They describe work carried out in poor London districts, such as Barking and Dagenham; in Cumbrian villages; in Cornwall and Coventry, Devon and Doncaster. The common theme is that children are treated as if their developing identity as musicians is worth taking seriously.

Some of the projects that bridge the gaps between play group or nursery and key stage 1, or within the primary school itself, sound inspiring.

Grandparents, parents and older siblings are involved as participants and observers; children's urge to dance and sing and their natural capacity to notice very small changes in pitch and timbre are used to good purpose.

"Unspecial" occasions are as valuable as Christmas to mount events where tiny performers can sense their own autonomy.

The transition from the primary to the secondary phase is often more challenging. A music teacher meeting pupils who may have come from 50 feeder schools can be tempted to treat them all as a "blank sheet". There are some fine examples here of imaginative alternatives. Some involve teachers working together on a big dance, drumming and mask-making project, ensuring that everyone finds something new..

We also hear the voices of young people themselves - some bored with still singing nursery rhymes in Year 6, others inspired by starting to read notation. One of the book's many virtues is its honesty about where current methods fail as well as succeed.

Some of the evidence that teachers are changing their habitual ways of thinking and working is especially welcome. Steve Block from Enfield describes how he and colleagues have devised bridging units for Year 7 that don't set students exercises to be completed, but rather offer problems to be explored. Musical occasions after school and during holidays, often undertaken with a range of professional performers, also sound valuable and exciting.

It's never easy to strike the balance between challenge and reassurance, but a sentence quoted here from music educators Jo Glover and Sue Young is worth pondering: "The child, after all, is the continuity; children like everyone else, carry their learning with them."

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