Returning to School

So the UK government want children to return to schools.  They cite educational reasons and worries about disadvantaged children getting left behind and a gap widening.  I am sure there are educational reasons for this policy but I will explain why it simply isn’t a good idea for Primary Schools morally or practically.  There are all sorts of reasons why schools should open or stay closed, this blog post is about social and academic reasons and the truths of how schools work.  If for you it’s all about free childcare, stop reading now.

As far as the social side goes, the main problem is that the government don’t seem to understand the reality concerning how schools work. They seem to have this rather romantic idea that schools are full of children who will abide by rules and diligent parents and teachers who will enforce them.  One of the government advisors suggested yesterday that kids won’t share their lunchboxes with one another or don’t chew their pencils. Have they ever met a six-year old child?  They suggest that children will be fine with social distancing. They won’t, especially in the UK. It’s a dreadful anti-child, unnatural, amoral policy. Kids need to be back in school when they can have a normal school life without chalk circles, quarantine zones, forced masks, two metre distance rules, assembly bans, football bans, swimming bans, band bans, choir bans, hugging bans, playtime bans and ending up with sore hands from rubbing them red through constant hand-washing. They can’t even play chess unless it is a two metre board.  They don’t deserve to be continuously frightened, don’t deserve to see their teachers, cleaning and dinner time staff in scary masks, and they don’t deserve to be continuously reprimanded for doing what all children want to do – play with their friends.  The idea that teachers are so mechanistic they will implement all these measures shows what a stupid policy this is.  The majority of us are kind people who like working with children – that’s why we became teachers.  So either the policies will be enacted and we will be responsible for installing an anti-child environment or it won’t be enacted, which will make it a farce.  Schools are some of the last places where social distancing can possibly work.  Perhaps boxing might be worse but even this only affects a few people rather than hundreds of unhygienic, grubby fingered darlings who eat dirt, flick snot and are fascinated with poo.  

As far as academics goes, the idea that children can catch up on academic work in eight weeks after being off for eight is barmy. Teachers will take about two weeks to work out where all the gaps are and what has been forgotten. They will be teaching new things and then realise, oh crap they don’t know this after all and then go back to basics. We will get them back to about what they were doing just before Easter and then it will be the summer holidays, when they will forget half the stuff as usual.  I am not saying they will learn nothing at school.  I am saying children will learn at school or at home but the idea they are all on track is nonsense.  There are going to be so many factors preventing kids from learning with all these social distancing measures. Kids who don’t feel secure in school do not learn. We have known this for decades. And if you think this environment will be good for learning, think again. Whatever happens, I bet that most schools will be filling in gaps for a long time to come.  Any decent school will stop and take a few steps back rather than ploughing down a path where children vaguely know what they are doing in the hope it will all sort itself out.  What the government need to be doing is getting remote schooling to work – this is their chance. Oak Academy is doing some fantastic work. Class Dojo is super for submitting work. There is a role for Zoom but trying to make it replicate a normal class environment isn’t it.  They have eight weeks to actually train the workforce to become properly computer literate on the job – they will probably never get that chance again. We can train teachers to use video learning properly and introduce some to excellent online resources.  Long term everyone will win.  But in the rush to try to get kids to as normal an experience of schooling, all they will do is miss this opportunity and we will still have to go back to the drawing board in September. 

We don’t know if kids spread the disease.  We don’t know if the lack of antibodies in their system is because they are immune or asymptomatic.  We don’t know if sending them to school will cause many parents and grandparents to become sick and possibly die.  And we don’t really know if many of the children themselves want to go back to school in these circumstances with these anti-child policies.  Adults have a choice to quit their jobs but as usual we don’t give kids this choice themselves – whatever their feelings.  In the meantime, political parties are arguing, devolved governments are arguing, trade unions are arguing, newspapers are arguing, everyone on Twitter is arguing (some things never change) and the reality is that it won’t make the slightest bit of difference; as when September arrives what I do know is we will end up going back and picking up the pieces. But hopefully in September, these children will be able to learn, hug each other and walk hand in hand.

Safety of Teachers

Why are teachers worried about going back to work?  Look at the diagram above.  There are two kids to a desk all facing the front.  The teacher is on the desk in the middle facing a barrage of potential coughs and sneezes each containing potentially millions of viral particles that could kill their elderly parents.  “This is normal!” cry the masses.  “No it’s not” reason the teachers “This one has no vaccine”.  Many teachers will teach up to 150 children a day – they have a massive chance of catching a virus.

The train driver has a carriage for himself.  The bin collector is outside with a colleague or two.  The businessman has a boardroom of about a dozen.  Even the hospital worker will not have 150 patients a day breathing into their face.  Who else has a more risky job?

I have read some appalling articles of people saying that teachers aren’t brave enough or are worried about nothing.  There is no other profession that I can think of which is more risky than being a teacher.  Please support them.

Video Feedback

In our rush for Zoom and synchronous teaching, we have forgotten the power of feedback. You can do feedback via Zoom but in a video lesson it really comes into its own. I hope to show in the following lesson how you can use children’s prior work to engage learning and move children on to the next step. I don’t think I could do this very well via Zoom with huge amounts of children in a class.

In this lesson I start off with a recap of last weeks lesson and then I play compositions that the children have written and sent in via Class Dojo. I then use that learning to scaffold compositions using three notes and then using a five note scale with lots of worked examples. The objective is to create five note compositions and score them using bunny pictures. I hope you like the lesson and it might inspire you to make your own lessons using feedback from the children as a starting point.

Missed Opportunities

Covid-19 has caused chaos everywhere, including amongst our schools. But it has also created some opportunities and this blog post is about a few of those missed opportunities and a plea to think longer term about the situation we are in.

Firstly, we are all Teaming and Zooming but really we ought to be Videoing. There is a big conversation about Zoom including privacy, connectivity, reliability, latency and security. But it’s a choice to have lessons live or not and we should be choosing not. There are many reasons – one is that video teaching can help EAL students by using subtitles. You can’t do that with Zoom in live time. Also, you can access the video at anytime or in any location. If you download at another time, you can take your learning offline. Asynchronous video has more reliability, more connectivity, no issues with latency and has better security. We don’t need to worry about “Zoom-bombing” or what happens in real time. But most usefully for teachers and schools, if we just focus on video teaching we will have ample cover resources and with some forethought an entire Virtual Learning Experience for any student that needs it in the future. But we are sacrificing these opportunities for live online lessons which have no lasting impact. Parents want live, I get that and the social aspects are important but unless we think this situation is going to last a very, very long time it is temporary and video teaching is what we really need. Just think – no more worries about cover, just put on one of the videos, with a task. No more desperate searching Tesresources and Twinkl.

Secondly, the government is missing a trick here. All it needs to do is move the school year. There aren’t any exams so it doesn’t matter. Start the school year in January and end it in December. Stop the crazy six week holiday in the summer and finish this school year in December after relaunching the summer term in September. GCSE and A-Levels to be when the weather is cold in November. Then universities can open in January, hopefully with the international students they desperately need to keep financially afloat. The kids still do their exams, just postponed. And then keep this system going. Finish the school year on 1st December and make the holiday season a real holiday. No more predicted grades, there will ample time to get the exams marked and returned and offers made based on real results.

Finally, we are missing the opportunity of widening the curriculum. If we take my advice and basically postpone the end of this academic year to the end of this calendar year then we have four months now to focus on something different. And most people are already doing something different. This is the time for project work, cooking, instrument practice, drawing and reading. If we postpone the year let’s use this pause time to do something different. Everyone has been crying out for this but now it’s happening, we seem to be incredibly confused.

Some of these decisions can be taken by schools and others by governments but one thing I can assure you of, we will look back at this time and think “why didn’t we do … when we had the time?”

Online Learning

We are now into Week 4 of Music Online Learning. They are calling our experience in China the biggest and longest experiment into online learning ever. Researchers will be examining this time for years to come. I am living a nomadic existence and am currently … Continue reading Online Learning

The Sea

I have made a new workbook for my Year 4’s on “The Sea”.  It’s a five or six week unit on sea shanties.  It is mainly using recorders, some xylophones and lots of singing.  There are three listening reflections -“10,000 Miles Away” by Bellowhead, “Skye … Continue reading The Sea


My first musical experience was listening to “Macavity” from “Cats” on vinyl. My second was the frustration with the note G when playing the recorder, resulting in me playing A with my right hand and my left pointy finger making the G. But my most profound and lasting musical experiences are directly from the church.

I had a rather strange religious upbringing – my grandparents who raised me were atheists but I loved going to the local farmer’s evangelical church where there was lively worship, people danced and clapped, spoke in weird angelic languages and it all got quite intense and some people strangely fell over. I remember this cool new song that had just come out called “Shine Jesus Shine”, which was totally awesome and we sang it over and over again with the overhead projector showing us the verses in red and the chorus in blue and a lady called Glynis playing enthusiastically on the guitar. Graham Kendrick the songwriter was my hero – his songs were the dog’s bollocks.

But I was also sent to boarding school when I was 10, where I was a treble in a high Anglican chapel where we sang every Sunday and had choir practices three times a week. We had warmups that were designed to get us to sing everything in headvoice and we were given a diet of the rich British choral tradition with early music by Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, as well as European classics like “O for the wings of a dove” by Mendelssohn and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”. There was a large variety from different ages spanning close to 500 years of music making where we learned about musical forms such as motets, anthems, psalms and sung responses. We had incense which added to the spiritual experience and a vicar who would do that thing where you sing the gospel on a monotone with a bit of a change at the end of line followed by an “Amen” plagal cadence. I basically learned to read music from the New English Hymnal – that green book was full of gems like “Tell out my soul” and “Hills of the North Rejoice”. I had no idea what most of the words were about but crickey they were stonking tunes. We used the little green book for the trebles and then the massive one when I was an alto and a tenor. It’s really that book that taught me harmony as well. Advent was the best time of the year, I loved parading in with a cassock and a surplice and a lit candle. We thought the choirmaster was mad to give us candles but no one set the chapel on fire, although I do remember Harriet Humphrey’s frizzly hair got burned by some prankster.

One of my first compositions was inspired by the chapel bell. As it bonged away I remember whistling a tune that fit nicely and later working it out on the piano. I also heard some fantastic improvisations from our organist as he played for time during communion. I experienced some playful creativity like singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” and the time when the organist put themes from “Star Wars” into our procession out of the chapel. At the evangelical church I also heard great improvisations from Glynis on the guitar as everyone started singing banana backwards. This really is a heavenly language – I never spoke in tongues myself, but it is beautiful to listen to. I also sang a song composed by one of church members called “Light of the World”, I can still remember the melody and every single word. Composition and improvisation were normal, regular things that I experienced every week no matter which church I was in.

Later on, at university I learned about how to play in a band with our worship group in a Pentecostal Church and how not to muddy the waters on the keyboards if you had a bass guitar in the band. Leaving space for other band members and playing with a variety of different people is something I learned from church worship where you can end up with a band of ten or sometimes a band of two with little to no notice. I learned about instrumentation and when the brass section and saxes are most effective in a song. Another important skill is to learn when not to play or when to play minimally – you have to be very sensitive when playing in church. Flexibility is vital like when you turn up late and the worship leader moves from the keys to the bass so you can slot in on the keys in the middle of a song without stopping. I learned about vocal harmonies, guitar solos and how to sight read from chords. My sight reading was terrible until I started playing at church, within a year it was pretty good. I also learned a huge amount about harmony when I started singing in our University’s gospel choir. This gospel choir also gave me my first experiences in conducting and arranging music. I was also in a Christian progressive rock band (we are still on Spotify) and that was great for learning about rehearsing, composing with others, writing lyrics, creating riffs, recording, sequencing, sampling religious speeches and playing in ridiculous time signatures. And collecting gear. And getting into debt…

If it wasn’t for church my musical experiences would have been dreadful as my grandparents just listened to Radio 4. I basically heard three pieces on the radio – “The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson for the News Quiz, “By the Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates for Desert Island Discs and “The Archers”, which really should be the UK’s national anthem. There was music on Desert Island Discs but you only got to hear about 45 seconds and they were normally pieces designed to make the listener think that the person being interviewed was high-brow and important so were incredibly boring. There really was no music in my house so I am very grateful for everything church taught me. Even my first metal experience was “To hell with the Devil” by the Christian metal band Stryper.

Many schools these days are moving away from religious music and I can understand why due to the expectations of the modern secular world that we live in. But a common theme on this blog is to caution us on what we can lose by going for the new and shiny. It’s one of the reasons why it is called “Traditional Primary Music”. It can be romantic and perhaps inaccurate looking backwards but it can also be inspiring and thought-provoking to consider what we could be losing or have lost. I am happy that I had a spiritual musical upbringing, against the wishes of my grandparents but in their favour, at least they allowed me to take part and follow my own path even if they thought it was poppycock. No one was ever saying that God was banned or it was inappropriate to sing songs about Him. Some people think an upbringing like mine would be woefully restricted but I hope I’ve been able to articulate how church helped me to listen, sing, play, improvise, compose and basically become the musician and person I am today.

Church Rocks!

The Dangers of Creativity

I have written about creativity before here and to summarize, I do believe creativity is important – it can be and is taught in music lessons, but I am very skeptical of the claim that it can be taught independent of context as there is little evidence to support it is a directly transferable skill. If it was I would be a good cook and could draw something better than a stick man. I also said in my previous post that the most musically creative people I have met had one thing in common – they had acutely listened to wide range of music for a long time. Just like the best writers have read the most books, the best composers have listened to the most music.

This post is about what we can lose in Music Departments if we are focused completely on creativity. The context is a point that someone made to me recently that if there is no creative task in a music lesson, we shouldn’t be teaching it. This is a dangerous idea because much of what we do in Music is not creative but does lead to creativity. Large parts of the curriculum are not intrinsically creative – for example, learning the violin or recorder isn’t very creative, singing songs isn’t creative and putting on a musical where you tell everyone what to do is not a creative task for students. I would go as far as saying that 80% of what we do in Music is not directly creative. So the idea that we should be providing more creative tasks is attractive, reasonable and fair-game. But the catch is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of how people become creative. The danger is that our string groups, orchestras, bands, and choirs can become undervalued and in our weekly lessons, whole class ukuleles, recorders, and learning to play keyboards can be considered “just performing”. My main gripe is that in the gallop for creativity we consider Performing to be the inferior and unattractive cousin to the relevant and cool cousin Composing. What some people forget is that most creative composers have spent years performing and without these skills they wouldn’t be any good at composing.

There is nothing wrong with a lesson where there is no creative task. I will repeat this shocking statement – there is NOTHING WRONG WITH A LESSON WITH NO CREATIVE TASK. There would be something wrong if we never did creative tasks at all but often we don’t recognize or value that many of our performing tasks result in creative individuals. This is why performing is indirectly creative.

What I want to do is reassure Music Teachers from the onslaught of what I call the “creativity police”. Don’t feel that what you are doing is inadequate because it is performance-based. These are things that matter deeply to students and are appreciated by parents who know the true value of what we do. Be confident in your programs and don’t let the CP stop you from teaching what you know your students need to become truly musical and creative people.