Getting the whole school singing

Written by: HTU | Published:

Becoming a ‘singing school’ can have a range of knock-on benefits. Penny Sheppard, headteacher of Queen’s Hill Primary, explains why and how she has embedded singing in every aspect of school life

Becoming the head of a new school is every headteacher’s dream – a blank canvas to create a school with a brand new team. When the dream came true for me and I became headteacher of Queen’s Hill Primary School in Norfolk, making it a “singing school” was high on my list of priorities.

Music has always been important to me and singing was a ‘given’ from the opening of the school. And I didn’t want just ‘formal’ singing, say at assemblies, I envisaged singing everywhere, from calling the register, to maths activities, English lessons and foreign language sessions. Teachers and other staff have accepted that with relative ease – everyone can sing and it is natural to want to join in, rather than be the one who doesn’t.

The school sits in the middle of a new and still developing housing estate in Costessey, about five miles from Norwich. Unusually it was decided to build the school before the development was completed, so it opened in September 2008 with just 29 pupils, aged between four and 11-years-old.

The roll has grown ever since as the housing estate was completed and the school now has 400 pupils and is in the process of adding two new classrooms. The estate has evolved to become a mix of privately owned, rental and housing association properties, which makes for a diverse socio-economic mix of pupils, with above average numbers of children with SEN and eligible for free school meals.

As well as accommodating increasing numbers in mixed-age classes, the school has above average numbers of pupils coming and going on account of a mobile cohort of families with parents employed at the two local hospitals and others from the travelling community.

Having signed up with Sing Up, a not-for-profit organisation which promotes singing in schools, Queen’s Hill is now the proud recipient of a prestigious Sing Up Platinum Award. This is given to schools that inspire and share their singing ethos with those around them and work hard to build links with their local community.

At Queen’s Hill, singing really is at the heart of our community and very much a focal point as it is currently the only community building on the estate and is used for many activities outside the school day.

We have had really positive feedback from a range of people and institutions – churches, choirs, businesses and, most importantly, from parents, who have seen their children grow in confidence, self-esteem and independence and tell us that they now sing all the time at home.

The first few times we sang were difficult and disappointing to say the least. But comments such as ‘I don’t sing’ and ‘we didn’t do music in my last school’ were ignored and we persevered so that singing is now an integral part of school life and opportunities to sing are never wasted.

By the time of our official opening, three months after we had started the singing, the children were enthusiastic and had already got their “favourite” pieces. When you walk through the corridors and hear The Punctuation Jive ringing out, or maths classes singing their own versions of doubling songs, you know it’s embedded.

When you see the children playing skipping games and chanting rhymes at play-time which you saw them learning the previous week during PE it reminds you that they enjoy the simple things in life. The sense of achievement among the children and staff when we “get it right” is fantastic and when we make our audience cry we know we’ve nailed it!

In terms of child development, the benefits of music education – and singing specifically – are well-documented. As well as supporting literacy and numeracy and increasing brain activity, singing also helps improve children’s skills in less obvious ways, including team-working, creative-thinking, organisational abilities, self-esteem and self-discipline.

Additionally, we have found that it has particularly helped those pupils from challenging home environments. Children arrive with gaps in their education, but also gaps in their social skills. Multiple school moves have often led them to have real social and emotional needs and a loss of self-esteem.

We have a number of children who find the school environment challenging, some with life experiences that many adults would struggle to come to terms with – it is often these children who benefit hugely from listening to and joining in with music. The words of a carefully chosen song can help them realise they are not alone and that there is hope.

It is acknowledged that sport is useful in building confidence and esteem, but we find singing equally as valuable and a huge factor in the cohesion we have been able to build in this new and evolving community.

When we are learning a new song we do spend a lot of time taking it apart, going over each line and getting that right before moving on. We also look at the lyrics and think about the emotions and phrasing that they need in a performance.

We also have two teachers who play instruments and this has enabled us to work on the children’s skills in delivering the melody with their voices, rather than the melody being “given” by an instrument which is followed.

As well as helping with lessons and personal development, Queen’s Hill also has good old-fashioned fun with song. The school camping trip is a popular fixture and children gather around the camp fire with a trough of hot chocolate, a teacher with a guitar or keyboard and off they go. The fact I play music and class teacher Denis King is a guitarist has certainly helped establish singing at Queen’s Hill, but even the “musically challenged” members of the teaching team have joined in, championing singing throughout the school.

With an ever-growing bank of songs and ideas both the most proficient and most musically challenged teacher can find songs to link with every curriculum area and an array of topics and themes.

Another headteacher once told me that “a singing school is a happy school” and with the current pressures in education we want all the wellbeing we can get. What better way to ride the wave than with a song?

Singing is a skill and as such has to be learned as well as developed. Aim for a milestone with achievable steps along the way, be it an award or an event. Put aside some set time for singing – so that it happens. And most of all – enjoy!

• Penny Sheppard is headteacher of Queen’s Hill Primary School in Norfolk and has worked with Sing Up, a not-for-profit organisation which offers an online library of 500 curriculum-linked songs and warm ups, teaching tools and integrated training and support. Visit www.singup.org.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.


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