Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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A song a day is Howard's way


Imagine something that’s free, has no negative side effects, is great for team-building, and does wonders for self-esteem, concentration, morale and behaviour. Then imagine the effect if every schoolchild were to get a daily dose of it.

Well some already do, and many more soon will, if Howard Goodall gets his way.

The exhuberant composer, well-known for his television documentaries How Music Works and Big Bangs: five discoveries that changed musical history, was this year appointed ‘singing ambassador’ by the Government, and is now heading up a campaign to rekindle singing in schools.

There is no doubt that it is a brilliant appointment. Goodall is a natural enthusiast and terrific communicator. With his curly hair and choir boy good-looks, not to mention his Tiggerish bounce, and his deeply ingrained passion for music, he must seem like a blast of inspiration to any dispirited music teacher or turned-off schoolchild. If anyone is going to get today’s pupils singing again, he is surely the one.

And he is already vigorously putting himself about, promoting the joys and rewards that come to children who sing.

Yet the really hard work of getting singing going in schools -- as he is keen to point out -- will still be done by those who have long grafted away to get music moving in the classroom. And his arrival on the school music scene is nowhere as novel as his latest appointment might suggest.

For eighteen months before taking this job, Goodall was involved in developing the singing strand of the Music Manifesto, a general push to promote music in schools. And for years he has been a rousing compere of the School Music Proms, held annually at the Albert Hall.

Because of all this it is perhaps not surprising that when he is asked, yet again, about why schools should bother to beef up their singing, there is the sound of buttons being pushed, and familiar phrases being wheeled to the fore.

“Well, the thing about singing” he says, sitting at the kitchen table in the Chelsea mansion flat that he uses as his working base, “is that it’s non-competitive, involves no losers, and is thoroughly enjoyable -- and how many other things do you know that are like that? It also enhances memory and performance, and it has huge power in terms of behaviour. There aren’t many solutions to bad behaviour, in terms of cohering large groups of people, but singing is something that has that power.”

And, he points out, singing’s as natural as laughing. So to expect thousands of pupils to get through a whole week at school without doing it even once “just can’t be right. It’s like saying you’re not allowed to smile for a week.”

“Although singing is definitely most powerful is when it is in the culture of the school, and not just 10 minutes at the start of the day. So part of what we have to do is to is to get heads enthusiastic in the first place. They have to see the effects it has on behaviour and morale, and that’s not always easy when they are so harassed and busy.

“Some of the best people to tell them are other heads. They are far more powerful than me. For instance, there can be two ways of looking at how you go about tackling special measures. You can strip the school down to its bare essentials, and devote yourself to the core of maths, English and behaviour. Or you can go a different way. I’ve seen schools come out of special measures by using music as a way of to improving memory, concentration and behaviour.”

This new push for singing is being centred on primary schools. and what is most important, says Goodall, is not to train more specialist teachers, but to train the ordinary classroom ones to feel they can teach singing with confidence.

What’s also needed are good songs for children to sing, “so we’re going to put together a song resource for all schools.” In the past, he says, children have been forced to sing songs which don’t work on several counts. Firstly, children can’t always sing the same songs as adults do. Their voices don’t yet have the necessary range. At the same time, our national song stock seems to have become stuck in our Imperial past. “There are a lot of things about our national life that are no longer very appealing to today’s young people, and singing songs about Napolean being defeated is one of them. Although, actually, this is a unique problem in Britain. It’s not something that seems to have occurred to the Scots or the Welsh, or indeed not to most nations on earth.”

Goodall believes that, while most children will quite rightly resist being forced to warble out ‘On yonder hill there stands a creature…’ they are more than willing to embrace all kinds of other musical traditions. So the new national song book will draw from a very wide range of sources.

However he will not be directly involved in this or any of the other planned developments, such building links between choir schools and other schools. Specialist music organisations and others will be bidding to deliver the work. His job is strictly to keep the campaign in the public eye, which he does with relentless positivity and calculated optimism. After all, as he once memorably pointed out, schoolboys don’t go around the playground recruiting for their bands by saying ‘Do you want to be in my band? It’s rubbish.’

So he is keen to emphasise how school music services are now bouncing back, after a bad dip at the end of the last century, and that there are already plenty of brilliant singing programmes in existence. There is Manchester’s Music Service Singing Schools Initiative, for instance, which now reaches almost all primary schools in the city, as well as all the good work being done out of the Sage, in Gateshead, to involve boys and families in music, and to promote whole-school singing.

So does he genuinely, truly belief that in our secular age singing can come to play the same part in children’s lives as it did in the hymn-singing past?

Yes he really does. For one thing, he says, at least three ministers – Alan Johnson, David Lammy and Andrew Adonis -- have personal musical connections and are right behind the aims of the campaign. For another, there’s the £10m that’s been ear-marked to help it happen. Then there are all the fantastic schools that are already showing others the way.

“What we’re doing is slightly different from the Jamie thing with school dinners. We’re not saying that what’s in place is not good. What we’re saying is what’s done in some places is really good and that we want every school to enjoy that level of training and resources.”

The comparision is telling. Goodall is, after all, very much a telly person. Although a profilic composer, it is his television and film tunes he’s best known for -- with top of the list, by far, the theme to Blackadder. His documentaries are carried along by his own verve and enthusiasm as a performer, and he’s also something of a glamorous A-list celebrity, counting other celebrities such as Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson as among his best mates.

So is there a “Howard’s School Singing” documentary already in the pipeline? He can’t really answer that, he says. Except to say nothing has yet been signed and sealed. But it is pretty probable it will come about. And if that were to be the case, the best way to put what he’s trying to say over would obviously be to try and take a school that doesn’t have singing in its culture and show just what can happen when it starts to acquire it….

“Although, of course, we’d never do anything that couldn’t be sustained afterwards. It couldn’t be like having a great cultural build-up to the Olympics, and then there’s the opening night, and then that’s that. It would have to be something you would leave behind you to continue.”

Visions of a school singing its way straight out of special measures and into Ofsted’s ranks of excellence leap to mind, and, at the thought, Goodall’s irrepressible optimism breaks through again.

“You see, the thing is, it does work. I really do believe it works. It transforms children and schools, and I like to think there is a tipping point where it all starts to take off and then becomes self-sustaining. Of course, doing it in secondary schools will be a much bigger task, but even there all kinds of things are possible.”

He tells a story about a recent visit to a secondary school in Guildford, where a boys’ choir of 90 sang Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol in remembrance of a fellow pupil who had recently been killed, and how heartfelt and vocal was the girls’ appreciation of the boys’ performance. And how the whole event had completely turned on its head any notion that singing was cissy, and not something that cool boys should ever get involved with.

“I’ve had hundreds of great moment like that, and they always make me cry,’” he says. “Of course what we’re trying to do is a very great aspiration. And this is an awfully big country, with a lot of people in it. We aren’t going to be able to do it overnight. But let’s at least set out hopefully towards it.”