A recent controversial report from the University of Buckingham found that UK schools specialising in music produce better physics results than those specialising in science. And then education watchdog Ofsted reported that half of the schools it had inspected lacked adequate provision for music education, that music teachers felt marginalized or isolated and did not receive the developmental opportunities they needed.

A couple of years ago Howard Goodall — who in this country is fast becoming to music what David Attenborough is to natural history — was given £10 million to expand the use of singing across the curriculum in primary schools. It was highlighted then that singing could be instrumental in the learning of a variety of subjects but that many teachers lacked confidence to deliver any musical experience at all for their students. A further £40 million or so seems now to have gone into the Sing-Up campaign.

Where teacher confidence is absent, I understand there are cascading techniques to spread music from older to younger children. Perhaps the Sing-Up promotional video hints at that:-

When something’s not working, or some kind of competitive differentiation is needed, there is a strategy (described by Scott Page) called “do the opposite“. So here’s a wild idea. Why don’t we give Howard Goodall the entire national education budget, not just £50 million, and then see what happens? I’d bet things would not get worse. And there’s an outside chance we’d solve many more of our educational difficulties than our current pragmatic approach, in particular the social problems that arise from the inability of barely literate children to take their proper place in an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy.

A whole chapter in a book of knackeredness could be devoted to the brokenness of modern musical experience. Music tends these days to be consumed rather than practised. The neat thing about Sing-Up is that it seems to be using technology to reverse this.

The institutions for participation in music are rightly or wrongly mostly organized by the classical music tradition, because that is where the majority of skills to perform and teach resides. But there exists now a kind of philistinism that has separated this world from the bulk of the population, as parents (and I suspect many teachers) prefer something more familiar and accessible (to them) from the world of pop. But in the past, whether it was colliery bands, or church choirs, quite serious music could be a source of social cohesion and, for the able person, a technology for social mobility.

Teaching children songs is a gift they keep for a lifetime, but the repertoire on offer seems to be diminishing. Sing-Up has its own Song Bank of high quality musical assets, which parents as well as schools can draw on. No matter how much music of whatever genre gets played at home, when a child really learns a song so that they can sing it out loud, and with others,  something more than just notes and words are rehearsed: a whole neurological, physiological and social complex gets activated. (Don’t tell anyone, but computer games, even I suspect Guitar Hero, don’t do that.)

When I was in primary school, the very flamboyant cathedral organist cruised in once a week in his rather incongruous metallic lime green Ford Mustang Mach I complete with thunderous tailpipes. We crowded his arrival, and believed, apocryphally, that this exotic vehicle (for small-town Yorkshire c1972) contained its very own mobile phone. He taught us folk songs from across the centuries, and from a standard school songbook. What a breath of fresh air if every child these days could sing the following paean to human fragility; it was my favourite.You wouldn’t catch a self-respecting pop musician touching that material these days, now would you?

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6 Responses to “nothing compares”  

  1. 1 jayprich

    It is a shame Howard Goodall’s CH4 “How Music Works” is not available on DVD, its a great cross genre introduction. Agreed he deserves David Attenborough’s ubiquity and may well be skilled and inspirational enough to lead a big budget …

    … however, the government don’t govern, democracy never gave that sort of absolute mandate; voters are realising centralisation and targets in the Major and Blair years were a big mistake. Despite that, state education remains mostly devolved to local authorities and the DCSF budget is largely consumed by teachers and administrative salaries rather than trendy initiatives.

    I hope Sing-up _can_ inspire and motivate many children, however politically it seems to me, like the “dance yourself fit” initiative, based on hope it will appeal to the Strictly/X-Factor gene we seem to have.

    If I were appointed as a benign dictator of schools in the way you suggest Goodall should be; for the mid-ranking areas I’d focus on staff/pupil ratios and make staff accountable through team peer review led by the head not by exam results. For communities that seem to struggle, there is usually an underlying social problem that cannot be fixed in the schools alone … maybe here the DCSF makes some sense.

  2. 2 knackeredhack


    There was a time when you could buy the DVDs, for educational purposes, direct from Howard, but I can’t now find the link. I’ll check with his office to see if that is still possible.

    I much prefer your idea of localized team-based peer-review. In my experience of that, you do get improved performance management, if it is done well.

    You’d also hope that best practice these days could spread wiki-style from such a cellular structure of performance. The combination of mistaken theory, targets and check-box management, as you say, has manifestly failed. Perhaps also it has slowed the spread of discussion of Tommy MacKay’s success in West Dunbartonshire, which takes the whole community approach you’re alluding to.


  3. 3 Raimundo Díaz

    “A recent controversial report from the University of Buckingham found that UK schools specialising in music produce better physics results than those specialising in science”

    Reminds me of a documentary on Richard Feynman where he plays conga (or) djembe drums:-)

  4. 4 knackeredhack

    Was it the one about Tannu Tuva? Saw it years ago and it seems to be here:-

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  5. 5 Ken

    Sinead O'Conner's look is a contradiction to her voice which is so beautifully feminine….she can sing a times article and make it sound good. Natural talent is social mobility in all ages, which can be screwed up; in music as well as other things. Nothing compares to being able to do a thing well, and learning a musical instrument teaches the unfathomably valuable skill of discipline. Why spend money on music indeed. There is way too much time between your emails Tim.

  1. 1 Richard Feynman, Confusion and Curiosity » knackeredhack

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