Memo to Michael Gove: the next time you need a break from the debilitating intensity of the tuneless trilling that goes on in Westminster, take a clear-the-head trip up the M1, hang a left at junction 38 and point your car in the direction of the Lindley Junior School in Huddersfield. Once there, make a beeline for the office of school head Pat Thompson. While you’re waiting – you may have to, because she’s a very busy woman – listen out for children singing. Not just in the school’s dedicated music lessons, but in maths, history and French. In fact, wherever there are lessons at the large, multiracial primary, you’ll hear beautiful singing. Then, as we did, listen to Miss Thompson explain both powerfully and passionately why Lindley’s approach to learning through music could be written into the DNA of schools across the country.
“Music is a huge part of everything we do,” she says.
“The beauty of learning to sing is that it’s a fantastic method of developing concentration, focus and memory. We ensure that every one of our 16 classes has a dedicated music lesson every single week, and we start our week with a whole-school sing. It’s about collaboration and a sense of belonging that you gain from coming together.”
From the moment they step into the 485-pupil school as nervous seven-year-olds, the children of Lindley Junior are immersed not just in the three Rs but also in a world of music and song. It’s the soundtrack to much of their schooling and, says Miss Thompson, helps them to grow as individuals.
Evidence of that development can be seen on Sunday when the children take part in the primary-school heat of the Songs of Praise School Choir of the Year competition. The metaphorical hymn sheet she is singing from today could just as easily have been drafted by one of the competition judges, choirmaster- to-the-masses Gareth Malone. She’s talking his language.
“We pull music into pretty much every lesson,” she says. “We sing a lot in French, because learning a foreign language is something that some children find very difficult to do and can be quite embarrassed about because of difficulty with pronunciation. But a song is a brilliant way to develop your vocabulary. Every time there is a French lesson going on around school, I can hear the children singing as part of that. We also sing in Spanish or Latin and have just learnt a piece in Serbian. It’s brilliant for them to discover languages this way.”
But there’s more to it than just a bit of Frère Jacques franglais. Miss Thompson and her staff use music and song to build self-confidence among the pupils, 30 per cent of whom are from ethnic-minority backgrounds. These kids prosper, she cites as an example, from being given choral responsibilities. New Age faddism? Not when you hear her explanation.
“From the age of seven we teach children two-, three- and four-part songs. They have to learn their own part, they then have to listen to the other parts and fit theirs within it. This enables them to develop their listening skills. In any social conversation, you need to be a good listener and you need to be thinking about what you’re going to answer or say next. But you also have to be conscious the whole time of the other person. It builds those skills and the collaboration skills for group work.”
Head teacher at Lindley Junior for 26 years, Miss Thompson describes her own musical interests as “classical, ranging from the Renaissance to the 20th century. But I do have fairly eclectic tastes. At the moment I’m listening to an album of Baroque music from Latin America.”
The songs her children learn are equally varied. “We do a whole range of things. We do hymns, some of which will be modern, some of which will be very traditional. We also do songs that bring out strong moral values; they might be about wars or reconciliation. We will pick a theme and it will be beautiful, high-quality music that the children will enjoy learning and singing together.”
This evangelical approach to putting music at the heart of the curriculum means that the school now supports four separate choirs, including the performance choir you’ll see on Sunday, a boys’ choir and a 120-strong community choir that has attracted mums and dads, grandparents and siblings.
But it has not, Miss Thompson insists, compromised the school’s pursuit of academic excellence in the important core subjects such as English and maths. On the contrary, it has, she says, helped the school deliver these lessons in a more digestible way.
And if she had a message for Mr Gove, should he embark on a Damascene road trip from Whitehall to Huddersfield, it would be to encourage more schools to use music as a way of fulfilling the potential of their young charges.
“The issue in primary schools is that whenever teachers or heads talk, it’s always about how full the curriculum is and how much work children have to do just focusing on English, maths, science and computing. The trouble is, that’s a very narrow curriculum. I think children learn best when you offer them the highest possible standards within those core subjects, but you also offer a really broad and balanced curriculum, so you don’t forget the arts, you don’t forget sport, you don’t forget all those things that can get knocked out if all you’re focused on is English and maths.
“What you’re doing through things like teaching music and singing is developing all of the learning characteristics that children need. You could fill the entire day with nothing but English and maths, but children wouldn’t make the quality of progress. I have just been out in the playground this lunchtime and I can hear children singing together. It underpins everything we do in this school.”
Songs of Praise, Sunday at 5:00pm on BBC1