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Back to Thailand

We are going back to Thailand for another contract but at a different school. For the first time for many years I will be teaching every year group Music from Nursery to Year 6.

I’m going to spend more time this coming year on Book Reviews and developing Orff in the classroom. I’m finding that teachers are becoming very reliant on the internet for resources and don’t know where to find sheet music for a song or activity. I will be making more backing tracks using Logic, more arrangements on MuseScore and I am also going to make some quality class assemblies. I think all these things will be practical for teachers worldwide.

I will also be sharing some of my own experiences using the Model Music Curriculum. I have started making a set of PowerPoints for assemblies that use the MMC. There is great repertoire in this document and I will be trying to get the best out of it.

Finally, I will be finishing off my musical Aethelflaed. I have about four songs left to go but a script to write. I am also hoping to join a choir and a band – two things I have missed in the last two years.

I hope everyone has a great start to a new academic year!

Electro Rondo

I’ve been playing around a bit on Logic and I have made some backing tracks for my Year 3 Rocking Rhythm lessons. The children move around in a carousel learning to play four different rhythms that we learn to read using standard Western notation. They start easy with just one bar ostinati but then progress into two bars. We use normal classroom percussion instruments, about 6-8 children in each team and when we have played the music we move to the next station and learn a new rhythm. It’s a fun way to play and learn the basics of reading and performing rhythms from notation. Watch this video to give you an idea of how it works.

Leaving China

After four years I have left China at short notice. I had a new job lined up at an IB school in China starting in August and was excited to start this new curriculum. But after sixteen months of not seeing my family and being told that the authorities were not going to even consider letting dependents in until February, I decided our Chinese adventure was at an end. So I am writing this post on the plane back to Vancouver.

It was a great four years but honestly the first two were the best. The things we achieved in those first two years were quite amazing. I wrote a pirate musical for Year 1, we put on loads of shows, events, competitions, bands, recitals – basically we made so much music. The last two years with a different manager were not as satisfying, as the focus switched away from performance to curriculum but that did mean I was able to finish my Key Stage 2 scheme where we have six units for each year group with a workbook, six powerpoint files and a medium term plan. These 24 units meant we moved away from presenting a Music curriculum to the children doing a Music curriculum. In the past, some children could coast through without paying attention, but the addition of the workbooks meant kids had to think harder about what they were doing.

I have no idea what to do next. I have a young family who need me and it looks like I will need to do something different. Currently its looking like remote piano teaching so we are looking at moving to New Brunswick where the time zone could make this possible as most my clients would be from China. I would consider another international Music job but realistically in the current climate it is going to be very hard to find one where they can afford to hire a teacher with three dependents. If you can, get in touch!

The last thing I will say is how much I love China, the language, the culture and the people. This place is absolutely fantastic and I know I am going to suffer from reverse culture shock when I get back to West. I hope one day to come back.

Multitrack GarageBand Project

Our students have finished their multitracked GarageBand project. I have permission to use this piece by one of our students and his parents so we can see how he has got on.

This child is ten years old and previously, like the rest of the class he has done a sequencing activity on the iPad multitracking a medieval melody. So he has had a bit of experience multi tracking. So I think it is safe to say that this is his second or perhaps third multitracked piece.

The task was to make a 24 bar multitracked piece of music with at least five different parts. One is a drum part which he didn’t have to do much for as the loops automatically write themselves! He then had to make a chord sequence using the chords C, Am, F and G and using the autoplay, put this onto guitar, bass, keys and strings. He also had to make a live ukulele part using the four chords that we have all learned. Finally he had to create a pentatonic improvised track using a keyboard synth sound. And to finish he had to mix it, do some panning and then upload to Class Dojo as a screen recorded video. Here’s how he got on:

It’s not bad for a ten year old beginning to use GarageBand. I gave him so feedback on Class Dojo that I think he needed to work on the beginning and ending and tidy it up. I haven’t taught the children about quantising yet. In fact I would prefer not to so they can play things in more accurately! He gave in about three drafts before running out of time so the ukulele part is a lot better than it was – his first attempt resulted in a quizzical look from myself and an acknowledgement that he was going to have to do it again! He also had forgotten the pentatonic melody the first time. I think he did quite a good job of this as he is using the keyboard function on GarageBand and not an external keyboard. It could definitely do with a bit more accuracy, especially with the timing.

It’s definitely a task I would like to keep in Year 6 – the six week unit was called “Chordal Chaos” and the students responded very well to the instructional videos that I made. We have one more unit in six weeks time on the Blues and we will do one more similar task to this and I think that will be the one we will give into his secondary music teacher so she can see at least one of the creative tasks that he has done in Primary School as part of our transition. I think we will spend a bit of time on texture and form as that was the weakest feature of all the students. But to be fair to them I never specified that as success criteria for this task.

If you would like any more information on how the students did this task then have a look at the instructional videos here, here, here and here.

Transition

I work in a 2-18 school and currently teach 6-10 year olds Music. The main transition point for us, like most other schools is between Year 6 and Year 7.  I have had many great secondary Music colleagues but interestingly not one has asked for any data about the kids I have taught, even though I have been teaching them for about five or more years.  This isn’t because my colleagues don’t care but because they are totally unused to receiving anything in the past.  When I do give them information they are normally taken aback and they feel I have gone above and beyond. I just want to share what instrument each kid plays and a bit about whether they were in the choir or orchestra.  It’s great when colleagues are interested because I love talking about our kids musical achievements.  It’s why we became Music teachers in the first place!

On Twitter yesterday one secondary Music teacher was mocking the Model Music Curriculum’s transition ideas.  As far as she was concerned, this could jeopardise a successful start to the year as it would label children to who were the “musical ones”. I find this really hard to understand.  Surely if you are a secondary Music teacher you would want to know who plays what instrument, what standard they have got to and see some of their creative work?  But I think there are still many colleagues who have this reductive attitude that I experienced in my first secondary school twenty years ago that “they don’t know anything so we start again in Year 7”.  It was only when I left that school and went on supply that I saw some fantastic things going on in primary schools and some of the great opportunities that music services were doing. So good I ended up joining one.

I don’t want to make extra work for anyone but I really think we need a better transition in most places.  It is expected that in most schools something will be handed up to colleagues on their ability in Maths and English. We need something in Music.  The Model Music Curriculum’s has this:

This seems relatively sensible and uncontroversial. The practicalities might be a bit more difficult as many secondary Music teachers could have 120 or even more pieces to listen to.  That’s an awful lot of “Ode to Joys”!  But I really do believe that something is better than nothing.  The advocates for a fresh start in Year 7 are being quite disrespectful to the work we do in primary schools. We know these kids can play and compose and it would be good for you to know what they have already achieved.

Some other ideas that I have seen work are concerts where the secondary Music teacher was invited. However, almost every time that I have seen this mooted it has ended up in a cancelation. I guess it’s either negotiating cover with leadership teams or going to evening concerts. As some secondary schools have over ten feeder schools that would be a lot of concerts!  It therefore makes sense to record something or encourage the children to show something musical that they have done in primary school when they first arrive in Year 7.

My school is affluent and has iPads for every Year 6 student and what I am going to suggest to the boss this year is we share the children’s Year 6 Garage Band sequencing projects and get them to record themselves playing or singing anything on their iPad either as a solo, as a duet or small group. I will encourage them to make it the most challenging thing they can do, not just Twinkle Twinkle! The children are used to uploading their work to Class Dojo so all I need to do is make a folder and save the projects for the handover. I will also share my markbook with the new teacher if she wants it, which includes all the instruments they play and what groups they joined. Hopefully it will ensure a smoother transition.

I really do feel that this transition is extremely important. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen the numbers but I remember the horrifying statistics on those children quitting instruments in Year 7. Hopefully things are better now but I think it is fair to say that there was a big dropoff between Year 6 and 7. Let’s try to do something for transition but please don’t mock the Model Music Curriculum for actually having the guts to suggest something. Let’s get behind the spirit of the idea, if not the letter – what we have now is far better than the vague and unambitious one page A4 document that we have been dealing with since 2014.

Repertoire Lists

The Model Music Curriculum’s biggest controversy seems to be the repertoire lists in Appendix 2. There seems to be many people who dislike the idea of a repertoire list for a number of reasons. There are those who think it is authoritarian to have a list; there are those who are politically suspicious that a repertoire list is a method to enforce a certain style of cultural politics on young children; there are those who think there are serious omissions on the list and there are some who disagree with certain choices of music on the list. There are also a vocal group of people who think that the curriculum should just be about skills and any repertoire is at the discretion of the teacher. Repertoire shouldn’t even come into the discussion as far as they are concerned.

I really like the list, not because I am trying to indoctrinate children into a political cult but because I respect the people who have made the list and I know how much work and discussion has gone into many of the choices. I am now listening to the Australian contemporary composer Elena Kats-Chernin and her ballet “Wild Swans” as a result of the list. I posted one piece called “Glow Worms” on Wechat Moments (similar to Facebook) and my Australian friends were delighted because they thought she was only known in Australia. I would probably never have come across her music if it wasn’t for the MMC. I would have been one of those people who hear it and remark it is from a famous bank advert, rather than know anything about this beautiful work.

My biggest problem with those who are venemously against the repertoire list is that without consulting others, any content becomes quite a selfish endeavour. We should listen to experts who work in the cultural sectors and it does not just need to be those who work in schools or in the universities to choose good repertoire. I am all in favour of a grassroots sharing of good practice but it does not mean we have nothing to learn from composers, radio presenters, famous performers or even the head of an examination board.

The repertoire list is useful, not harmful. Let’s get behind the Model Music Curriculum.

Model Music Curriculum

The Model Music Curriculum has arrived and already sparked debate. I want to talk a little bit about curricula in general and why this curriculum is practically useful.

To start with we need to be mindful that in primary schools, the majority of music teachers are not specialists. Everything we say about this curriculum needs to be understood within this context. The reason we have this new model curriculum is because what we had here was not working for many schools. It wasn’t working because there was no content and was incredibly vague. Here is the entire curriculum for Key Stage 1.

Compare the National Curriculum of England and Wales with the Alberta, Canada curriculum and you will see two completely different approaches. The Alberta curriculum carefully lines out what needs to be taught and when. This is just a snapshot of one element, rhythm and there is much more that I have not included.

Now I can understand the Alberta system because I am a trained music teacher. But for many teachers in the UK – much of this is specialist knowledge. This sort of curriculum is simply not going to work with non-specialists who probably have no idea what a fermata is. What the teachers in the UK were crying out for was content.

Because they needed content, the market provided. Music Express was the market leader and you probably have these books somewhere in your school.

There is nothing wrong with these books and I still use quite a few ideas from them myself. But children were coming out of the system into secondary schools who knew very little about music. It was not uncommon for secondary teachers to say that they had to start from scratch in Year 7. The majority of children did not play a musical instrument and Music was certainly not considered an important subject, more as a relief from the pressures of the big two – literacy and numeracy. And the government has rightly realised that schools should not have to buy into the market and so has specified content in the Model Music Curriculum. This seems to be the most controversial aspect of it but to me it seems to be very practical help for a workforce crying out for guidance.

And it is not only non-specialists. I work in a large school and we have multiple teachers teaching the same year group. So when we plan lessons, I plan Year 2-4 and my colleague plans 5-6 but we teach classes lessons we have not planned ourselves. Having done this for years with multiple people over multiple schools, I have found that they rarely read the medium term plans – what they want to know is the content. They love the workbooks I have made and they make their own themselves. Often they ask for PowerPoints for each lesson or to know what the end goal is and work backwards from there. The only person who has asked me for a lesson plan in the last ten years is my boss who I am sure rarely reads them carefully – there is so much more to have to do in a busy department. This isn’t because we are all lazy – it’s simply that the content is a lot more important than people have realised.

The Model Music Curriculum spells out the knowledge, skills and suggested content and so is a great document for specialists and non-specialists alike. For myself, what I will take from it is the huge repertoire list of Appendix 2 and see how I can broaden my existing curriculum. One thing I will criticise about myself is I can end up teaching the same content in multiple years because I know it works. This document will give me the confidence to explore some unfamiliar music and try to bring it into my curriculum to give children more breadth. It is also reassuring to know that we are on the right lines, as so much of what we are doing is in the MMC. It can also give me the confidence to defend our curriculum. Every now and then when the boss changes they want to put their own mark on what we teach or to try to tell us how we should teach. This document is empowering because I can tell my boss we are actually doing things in a perfectly acceptable way.

The word “model” in this context means “a possible and good example”. This curriculum is certainly better than anything we have had in my memory but more importantly it is practical. I don’t think the people who have drawn this up are that bothered if we don’t replicate it in its entirety; where they want to help is to get children learning, playing, creating and listening to a wide range of music and if we can think of alternatives that result in happy musical kids I am sure they won’t get angry. That is why it is non-statutory.

Let’s get behind this curriculum.

Houses

There has been quite a bit of outrage from Lee Hill’s decision to rename the houses in his school after contemporary activists instead of historical figures. Lee Hill, as a headteacher, is completely within his rights to call the houses whatever he likes (within reason … Continue reading Houses

Creating a Keyboard part in Garage Band

In this fourth instructional video into creating a twenty-four bar multitrack composition, we create an organ part along similar lines to the strings and guitar but also spend a little time on adjusting the volume of each track.

One mistake many children make when mixing is they want to hear their favourite part so often ramp up the distorted guitar part and turn a relatively good composition into something frightening and terrible! A good thing to do in preparation to this is to listen to a few modern pop songs and ask what children hear the loudest. It normally goes as follows – vocals, bass, drums, guitars, keyboards and then backing vocals in that order. So for this project I try to get them to take the guitar and strings part down by about fifty percent. This step is quite important because when you have so many layers of sound it can be difficult to hear the part you are concentrating on.

Creating the organ part is relatively straightforward and shouldn’t be too difficult as it goes along the same lines as the strings and guitar. The end of the video shows mixing the organ part so it is about the same volume as the guitar and strings but lead the drums up high ready for the next part which will be the bass.

Creating a string track in Garage Band

This is the third video in the series on creating a multitrack recording in Garage Band for Year 6 students. The aim of this lesson is similar to that of the last and is basically more practice in opening tracks, choosing sounds, choosing good combinations and recording accurately to a click track. The video is 4 minutes long and students should be able to create something decent in about twenty minutes or less.

Creating a Drum Track on Garage Band

I am making a scheme of work for Year 6 using Garage Band to create a simple four chord song. It uses quite a few of the functions of Garage Band and requires students to have an iPad with Garage Band connected. I have made some instructional videos that go with the scheme and this is the first on how to lay a simple drum track. The objectives are to make a 24 bar drum track and play with the functions to become familiar with simplicity, complexity, dynamics, percussion instruments, fills and timbre. This lesson should only take about 10 minutes to explain and less than 10 minutes to complete but I also have the following video that students can refer to if they are struggling.

We will be doing this in January so we will see what the results are like in mid-February when we finish this five week unit.

How to create a drum track in Garage Band

Pentatonic Workbook

I have written a workbook called “Pentatonic Fun” for Year 3. It is about pentatonic scales and Chinese music. Children have quite a lot of work to complete in the workbook: Learning the words – scale, pentatonic, guzheng, pipa, dizi, erhu, molihua, ostinato, drone, solo, … Continue reading Pentatonic Workbook

Why elemental music (Orff) works

A few things before I start this eulogy to Orff-Schulwerk. First, I’m calling it “elemental music” because Orff-Schulwerk has multiple problems in today’s society. It really should be called “Orff-Keetman” if you are going to name it after a person as Gunild Keetman was absolutely vital to its development and spread. Elemental music is not the greatest of terms either, but for want of a better word it’s what I’m going to go with. I’m not suggesting that elemental music is the best way or the only way to teach music well but I will be explaining why it particularly works in primary schools. Finally, I’m not setting myself up as an expert – I have done Orff Level 1 and have desperately been asking to do Level 2 but finding a course at the moment where I am is like gold dust. I am just going to write about some experiences doing this type of teaching and why I think it works well.

People are very confused about what elemental music is. They think it is something to do with playing xylophones and it’s a bit old-fashioned. That was my attitude up to five years ago and so the first thing I will say is that it is a tragedy that we have not been teaching about elemental music in Music teacher training. I heard the term “Orff” but that was as far as it went in the UK. Other countries have different systems and I think North America and Australia are quite successful but in the UK I learned next to nothing about elemental music. Even now, despite many attempts to convince Orff UK, there is still no accredited Level course. I had to go to Kuala Lumpa to get mine. What people call “Orff” can mean very different things but my trainer told me the main premises are singing using solfege, dance (both structured and free), recorder, tuned percussion and turning everyday objects into musical experiences. If I have missed any out please tell me! It is child-centred in that learning experiences are developed by children but there is a framework of teacher authority and explicit guidance. It is more sage on the stage to guide on the side at the beginning of lessons but the sage gradually disappears as the lesson develops. The basic idea is that you take a small idea and develop it, first as a whole class and then into more complex and creative ways individually, in pairs and in small groups. I have always been sceptical about the way we try to teach small group work in music as it is so hard to get right and at its very worse ends in a chaotic classroom. Orff is the only way I have successfully seen youngish children work in groups and this is due to the high level of direct teaching in the initial stages. So it both highly teacher-directed and yet highly child-led as what the children come out with at the end is often very different to each other.

Elemental music can start with any small idea. It could be a short song, a dance move, some words, a musical idea, a rhythm or even a movement using a newspaper. It’s the development of the idea that makes it interesting, creative and musically educational. I have seen so many music lessons where many of these techniques are discussed or taught but I think the reason why they aren’t as effective for younger children is because they often deal in the abstract whereas elemental music certainly starts in the concrete. You would probably not do a lesson on “ostinato” in an Orff-based classroom but you would certainly have ostinato in it. There are learning objectives but in a typical lesson you would be developing so many at the same time it probably would not be beneficial to write them all down. This is one of the criticisms of this type of music lesson, as Orff-Schulwerk is not a curriculum but an approach to teaching music. It certainly does get progressively harder but proving it is quite hard – we can produce detailed lesson plans, intentions and predicted outcomes but when you are starting with a small idea and developing it, it doesn’t always come out the way you might expect or intend. And that is why it is creative and possibly why so many teachers and managers are scared of it in today’s classrooms with insane levels of teacher accountability.

I will try to go through a lesson I did the other day that was successful. I didn’t even teach it that well and mixed up some of the steps but the children still came up with some stunning performances. I used the Nigerian (or possibly Sierre Leone) peace song “Fungai Alafya” and we started off by singing it by rote. When they got the hang of the melody I moved onto a djembe and stopped singing so they were pitching by themselves. We then sang the whole thing using solfege and hand signs (that they are used to) and commented on why the two phrases end differently. I thought of using the words “cadence”, “perfect” and “imperfect” but decided not to – we will do that another time! We then moved onto playing the whole melody on tuned percussion. We are fortunate to have enough instruments for one each so this wasn’t a problem. Some practitioners would possibly have put an additional stage of body percussion in but one of my weaknesses is that I get a bit impatient so dropped this to get to the instruments quicker. We then proceeded to learn a type of drone using two notes, what we call a bordun. We learned three types of bordun where I played the melody and they played the bordun and vice versa. I then split the class into two (by houses as we have a four house system at our school) and had half playing the bordun and half playing the melody. The point of this is to get two parts working simultaneously without teacher assistance. The next step was to make up two ostinati that would fit the melody and bordun. There are two obvious examples and some children put up their hands to suggest them. I then had them in their four houses doing either an ostinato, the melody, the bordun or the other ostinato. Now we had four parts working well together we explored structure and played some different arrangements of the same piece, perhaps starting with the bordun, or repeating parts or having a symmetrical structure. This has all resulted in a very high level of teacher direction almost entirely led from the front. It is only then that I put the children into groups where they had to make their own arrangement of “Fungai Alafya”. Using the Class Dojo group function it immediately put the children into groups of four and they all made their own arrangements. The only new thing I added was that one of the members of the group had to play a djembe drum. All the different performances were all different but used similar material. There were no problems with keeping time with one another, they needed no assistance to play together and they all organised themselves with no teacher assistance. We listened to all the performances and gave praise for all the really good bits of each performance. The children were very encouraging of each other and I just loved how the whole class came together in appreciation of each other. This is community music as far as I am concerned. Next week, we will do the same activity but add improvisation and canon as well as recording and assessing. The task will be to make a longer arrangement of “Fungai Alafya” but it will need to have a new ostinato, a section for improvisation and a surprise. The surprise could be anything but it needs to be surprising!

It’s so hard to grade this type of work for each child and it really does not fit with many of today’s assessment systems. Yet children performed, created and responded to so much material in an hour’s lesson. I think the reason it went really well last week was because I just got the balance right between teacher direction and letting go. Too much teacher direction results in too much scaffolding, leading to less opportunities to be creative, Too much group work results in poor performances and lack of direction. And that is why I think elemental music is so powerful – when you get it right you have a balance that is truly creative and educational yet within a boundary enforced from the teacher.

I won’t just teach elemental music in my lessons. Children still need to learn theory, perform music, learn about music from different ages and different places, compose music on their own and use music technology. But in terms of learning, I would argue that what is known as “Orff” is probably the most effective way to bring musical creativity into the classroom for young children.

Banning Songs

In the music classroom we regularly ban songs. If there is a single swearword we ban it. Sometimes we will change a word and get away with it, like a couple of years ago when we sang Radiohead’s “Creep” but making sure we used the radio edit version. Some secular schools ban religious songs and some religious schools ban secular songs. You won’t get many church schools singing “Imagine” by John Lennon and you won’t get many secular schools singing “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb”. Gameplan has banned a whole load of songs with racist connections recently and there are websites and Facebook groups telling you which songs are racist and which ones aren’t. Even if a song doesn’t have any words it can be controversial like the BBC’s decision not to sing the lyrics of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia” at “Last Night of the Proms”. So the first thing I will say is that if any school or institution is being blamed for “banning songs”, this is regular and normal. It’s not weird or woke – it’s standard practice.

So we go onto the argument from authority – who decides which songs get chosen and which get banned? Normally you would say it is the person who chooses the music. This is not always the case. Sometimes it is the class teacher, the headteacher, a director, parents, sometimes children themselves. Sometimes it does not have to be someone who is alive! We had an annual “Last Night of the Proms” concert at my old school in Thailand where the mainly Thai children sang the chorus of “Rule Britannia”, whilst waving Thai and British flags. It did seem a little bit weird to be doing this in Thailand but the authority in this regard is tradition. Tradition can be an authority that transcends living leadership. We can forgo our own authority and defer to that of what has been done before because it has always been done. As soon as the decision to put on “Last Night of the Proms” is enacted then you are faced with tradition as authority because in many people’s eyes if we did not sing those two songs then it would no longer be what it says on the tin. Without “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia” you don’t really have “Last Night of the Proms” because the songs and the event are one in the eyes of the majority of the public. If you decide to question this and ban the songs you will be chastised for being a kill-joy or a party pooper and setting yourself up as a higher authority. Sometimes you will be deemed guilty of arrogance because you have dared to question the authority of a hundred years of tradition. This is often an argument on why we shouldn’t ban songs that have been in the musical canon for centuries – why should we end this tradition, what gives us the right to be the final arbiter?

In almost every school I have worked in the issue of song censorship issue has reared its head. Class teachers are constantly asking music teachers to teach songs which aren’t appropriate that they have heard on Youtube. What a music teacher, a class teacher, headteacher, parent or child think are appropriate can be very different. Song choice is so controversial because our relationship to songs is emotional, can be passionate and because good songs come from the heart. I’ve nearly resigned from one school over Christmas song choice in the past and I have been criticised for certain song inclusion by Agnostics, Atheists, Christians, Jews and Muslims. It is not just about that divisive Christmas festival, should we sing songs for Diwali? Should we not sing at all during Ramadan? I’ve even been criticised for my Bonfire Night song by angry Catholics. (It’s a great song by the way – you can find it here.)

Personally I am just as likely to be uncomfortable and wishing to ban songs as the next person. I was very unhappy about teaching the song “Cell Block Tango” from the musical “Chicago” because it is about murdering men and feeling justified in the endeavour. “Blooming insensitive idea” goes through my brain. None of my female colleagues had any concerns about this song and actually told me that I was a misogynist for worrying about performing it in a secondary school. They used the “see the song in context” to justify its inclusion and I was won over with that explanation. We did “Chicago” and we did it very well and my female colleagues did a great job of changing the script to be a little more appropriate for secondary-aged children. Do I think we should have taught the children this song? I am still unsure – I’m not even sure we should have put the musical on in the first place!

However, my blood starts to boil when it’s the other way round and schools say they will ban “Joseph” because of its religious story. “How can you ban a story that is basically all about dreams and doesn’t mention God?” My head is now pink and my voice has started to go to eleven. “Because you can find it in an ancient religious book” is the reply. “Blooming woke kill-joys” is the murmuring comment of my indignant brain. The reality is that we are all guilty of censorship and our censorship differs because we are different. Some things affect us more than others. For me, it’s when song censorship appears in Early Years that I get most annoyed. Some schools have honestly banned “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (my daughter’s favourite song). She loves changing the colour to “green” or “pink” sheep, and as far as she is concerned it is the funniest and best song ever written. I think it even beats “Baby Shark”. Well I tell you now song-banners, the Black Sheep stays in the repertoire and if you disagree you have my three-year old daughter to deal with. And she’s cute with curly hair.

The list of racist songs that has been circulated recently is pretty incredible and long and you start thinking that every song must be racist as some are so standard in our repertoire. I shook my fist when seeing “Land of the Silver Birch” is now the musical version of “Tintin in the Congo”. Boo hiss. I hung my head at the realisation that “Do your ears hang low” is now the “Mein Kampf” of music education. Noooooooo. Sometimes I think some of these choices are justified – I personally don’t think we should be singing “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo” – I heard the racist version in the 80’s and now when a child sings it to choose someone in the playground my heart always skips a beat until I can breath easier when they use the word “chicken”. Why do I have a problem with this even though the words are changed? It’s simply because I know the racism concerning this song – I wouldn’t teach it even with changed words because in my mind it is too soon. Perhaps when I’m retired they can bring it back.

But I am a total hypocrite. Two of my favourite songs in the school music repertoire have changed lyrics – “John Kanackanacka” and “Jump Jim Joe”. Both of these are now on the banned list because they used to be racist. That is what I think has changed in the last few years. What is new is the idea that because a song used to be racist, in today’s world that makes them racist now even if the lyrics have been changed. However, in yesteryear a song was racist if it had racist lyrics. And despite my uncomfortable reaction to “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo” I think we had it right before – a racist song is simply a song with racist lyrics. I don’t want to live in a world where we can’t play “Jump Jim Joe” but I also don’t want to live in a world where our hearts skip beats with “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo”. Most the time I will just avoid controversial songs or seek out an alternative but I’m still not happy because I simply don’t like banning songs. Banning songs feels extreme and it feels illiberal. I know some people will disagree with me here but I think we have to make a distinction. For me if a song has 100% of people not knowing it was originally racist and it doesn’t have racist lyrics now we can sing it. Let’s call it “Dan’s Law” after me – I’ve always wanted a law named after myself!

In all this politicking we lose the focus of what we should be doing – teaching children to sing well. Let’s not stop children from enjoying songs that may have been racist in the distant past but no longer are. Just like a racist person can change and be rehabilitated into society, a racist song can too.

Assessment and Algorithms

The A-Level examination crisis has been a disaster for so many young people. This really is the first entry to many careers and I would not be surprised if there was real resentment and anger to what has happened. In the end, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of your ability in March, it’s when you do those exams in June that you prove what you can do. For my Maths A-level many moons ago I got a D in my mock just before the Easter Holidays. It was fair and it was accurate and it was a good indicator of my ability. But then I worked incredibly hard, I did every single past paper for the past twelve years, I asked for help from friends and teachers, I did not go out in the Easter Holidays and I worked till midnight many nights. And I got an A. And that was fair and accurate and a good indicator of my ability. The difference was I worked crazy hard. These students have not had that opportunity and it is so unfair that their grade is based on an algorithm on how other people worked in the past at their school or college. And that is unfair, even if it is an accurate predictor. Algorithms should not determine your life.

Some people are commenting that if we went back to the old modular examinations then we wouldn’t have had this problem. But there were two main reasons that we moved on from modular assessment. Firstly, coursework was getting gamed especially from overseas and those unscrupulous students with big bank balances. A whole industry of people writing essays for you and tutors doing coursework were undermining the system. Secondly, a modular system doesn’t always lead to good learning – some people like myself take a bit longer to learn things but it all comes together at the end after a lot of work and practice.

Like in my previous post, the answer I believe was to postpone everything just like they did in China with the gaokao. Most of the A-Levels courses had already been completed by March. All we needed to do was give students a bit more time and then complete their examinations normally. If you can’t socially distance an examination there is no hope for us all. You would then instruct universities to start a month later and finish a month later. It was not a massive problem in China and I don’t think it would have been as hard as we think for the A-Levels.

What will probably happen is many students taking a year out so they can retake in October which is going to cause chaos for universities in the next few years with less people going now and then a massive spike in years to come. The government will be under huge pressure to reform the examination system so we will probably see more chaos for schools, as every time government reform the system it has created chaos. And the annoying thing is that all of this could have been avoided. I guess we didn’t know how long the pandemic would be so cancelling seemed more sensible to postponing. But I think it was the easy option and now we are suffering the consequences of students not being able to progress because they were not given the opportunity to prove what they really were capable of. There is no point of an examination system where students do not take an exam. Our students deserve better and no-one wants their mind to be replaced by an algorithm taking other people’s minds into consideration. It’s not human.

What a mess.