Voices of the valleys

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Two stories from recent news reports. First, research shows that an intensive programme designed to improve singing in primary schools has also raised standards of behaviour, discipline and attendance, increased pupil confidence and lifted academic standards across the board.

Second, the Government announces that the primary school curriculum is being slimmed down and that from next September music will have a lower priority.

Sir Simon Rattle, for one, is baffled and angered by Whitehall's apparent failure to see the link. "We are seeing music education cut at the very time when incontrovertible scientific evidence is proving that the more rigorously music is taught, the better the results in mathematics and languages. What's more, music has inestimable social benefits. We have seen so often how difficult kids come out of themselves in response to music," Britain's best-known conductor wrote in The Times.

Down in south Wales, Miriam Hughes, a part-time peripatetic advisory singing tutor with Carmarthenshire local education authority, is equally bemused by the Education and Employment Secretary's actions. It is mid-morning break in the tiny staffroom of Ysgol Gynradd Ffwrnes, or Furnace Primary School, and its staff of four are discussing David Blunkett's statement.

"Music helps children to develop socially, emotionally and intellectually. The results are particularly striking in schools with challenging social conditions. I just don't know what they think they are doing. Not everyone can afford instruments, but there's no excuse not to teach music, because we've all got voices," Mrs Hughes says passionately. This being Wales, no one needs convincing.

Mrs Hughes is employed by the Voices Foundation, a charitable trust whose patrons include Sir Yehudi Menuhin. Since it was founded in 1993, the organisation has piloted and developed a singing-based programme in more than 110 primary schools throughout England and Wales, most of them poor performers in league tables.

Carmarthen introduced the one-year programme in eight schools covering 1,230 children in September last year. Almost half way through the project, the benefits are already manifest, and teachers and education chiefs alike are hailing the experiment a great success.

The methodology was originally developed in Hungary by the composer Zoltn Kodly. Adapted for British use by the foundation's director, Susan Digby, it involves every teacher and pupil in a school chatting and greeting each other in song, and children are taught to read music by a series of simple hand signs representing the notes in the tonic sol-fa. In spite of the moves to cut music from the national curriculum, the Voices Foundation aims to enlist 2,000 schools in its programme over the next 10 years.

Furnace, four miles from Llanelli, is a small, red-brick school that was built in 1914 to serve the children of workers at the local colliery. With the mines long since closed, it has just 83 pupils. Three-quarters of pupils in Year 1 are on free school meals and many are on the special needs register. In recent years music has not been a priority: even in Wales a screen-dominated age has begun to mute the voice of the valleys.

"Not only are standards falling in singing, but many teachers and children are not aware of their own Welsh musical heritage," says Mrs Hughes. "This school is English language, but we use Welsh folk song as the main medium for musical education. It addresses the decline in the language, and the director of education nominated this area because it is socially deprived. There was very little music going, instrumentally or vocally."

Mrs Hughes spends her time touring all eight Carmarthen schools in the programme, concentrating on building the musical skills of the teachers. By the end of the year she hopes that all pupils will be able to read music on a simple pentatonic stave.

This morning she is observing a class of nine-year-olds playing a musical continuity game under the instruction of Catherine Lloyd, the deputy head. One child stands in the centre of a

circle holding a ball, while the others walk around the child singing. As they sing, the ball is handed over on a split beat to another child, who takes up the song. The exercise teaches pitch-matchin g and keeping rhythm.

When Mrs Hughes intervenes to lead them in a folk song called "John the Blacksmith", in which they must identify the notes following only her hand signals, she sings in a fine soprano: "Are you ready children?" Later they move on to "Bells in the Steeple", sung first in two parts, then three, four and five. It is followed by a Welsh song - "Dau Gi Bach". "That was lovely. It's hard work, isn't it, because this is real music now," trills an enthusiastic Mrs Hughes. The lesson ends with her showing a series of flashcards as the class claps full and half beats in spirited fashion, the first steps towards reading musical time signatures.

Afterwards, the two teachers discuss the lesson and the progress of the class. "Learning music by rote is so boring. At this age using games and play to develop musical skills is so much more effective," says Mrs Hughes in one of those Welsh voices that sounds as if she is singing even when she isn't. "The change since we started is really appreciable," says Ms Lloyd. "They all now want to join in. Three months ago a lot of them thought they couldn't sing. It's built up their confidence and it has been particularly good for those with special needs."

Music now permeates the school. Peter Eyre is the school's head and his class of 10-year-old English speakers begins the afternoon with a "singing chat" in Welsh. He uses the hand signals to indicate the different notes he is singing on the scale, and the class respond in kind. They move on to an exercise in rhythmic patterns based on an African stick game using the Welsh song, "Pussi Meri Mew", before Mrs Hughes introduces a new singing game for them to work on until her next visit.

Back in the staffroom she writes up reports on each class, with notes for the teacher on how to move on to the next stage. Few of the teachers working with the programme have any training in music and one of the objectives of the year-long exercise is to equip teachers to carry the methods forward without input from the Voices Foundation, freeing its tutors to move on to new schools. "Some teachers keep it up and some don't.The changes in the national curriculum don't help, but you will never be able to tell Welsh schools that singing isn't important," she says.

If the methods sound eccentric, the results prove that they can be effective. A three-year research project by London University's Institute of Education found that the Voices Foundation programme "substantially improved overall standards of behaviour, discipline and attendance" as well as helping to raise standards "through its effect on language development, articulation and even mathematical skills". The Office for Standards in Education reports have also recorded the knock-on benefits.

The foundation likes to quote the words of its inspirational source, Zoltn Kodly: "The aim of the primary school is to build the foundations for the complete personality. There is no complete person without music. "

David Blunkett and those devising the new national curriculum, please note.

Voices Foundation can be contacted

at 21 Earls Court Square, London

SW5 9BY, tel: 0171 370 1944

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