It’s difficult to imagine now, but four years ago, there was little singing at Benton Park Primary School. By Headteacher Alice Witherow’s own admission, staff were ‘keen but nervous’ about leading children in song. And yet, due to a Sing Up-inspired transformation, the school now boasts an impressive singing culture: it’s working towards a Sing Up Gold Award, and its pupils have been invited to perform with violinist André Rieu.
“A few years ago, we would never have dreamed we’d be where we are,” says Alice. “Children now learn songs as part of their work throughout the curriculum, and staff see singing as a very valuable tool for inspiring and motivating pupils.”
This turnaround has a lot to do with Miles Wallis-Clarke, Headteacher of nearby Platinum Award School Hotspur Primary, who suggested the idea of a showcase concert at Newcastle City Hall to fellow Heads in the Heaton Schools Partnership. “I’d been involved in organising many singing projects for young people,” says Miles, “and I know how difficult it is for schools to put on large-scale events of their own. But doing it together meant that more-established singing schools, such as Hotspur, could support the others.”
The plan was for choirs from seven schools to perform two songs each in the first half of the concert, and then come together in the second half for a massed performance. But first they had to create and rehearse a pupil choir …
For Benton Park, this was easier said than done. Alice recalls, “We had nine songs to learn – and for us that seemed like quite a challenge. I remember our first practice – a disillusioned set of Year 6 boys refusing to participate, and a slightly chaotic ‘round’ led by staff who weren't always clear about what they were doing.”
Fortunately, Miles was on hand to offer support. Alice says, “He was enthusiastic and made us feel we could do it – it helped that the children found him captivating.”
The children – “enthused by the promise of performing on a big stage, and some time out of school”, as Alice puts it – went on to perform in what would become the partnership’s first in a series of annual concerts at City Hall. Alice says, “Watching our new singers experience singing in the large choir composed of all the schools was very emotional. We were so proud of them and they were proud of themselves!”
“It started as a one-off,” adds Miles, “but the response was so positive that we’ve made it an annual event. People realised, after that first event, that singing brings something very special to a school – it brings children together, it’s a great way of focusing celebration, and something that everyone can do.”
Each school in the partnership now has a key staff member responsible for coordinating preparations and rehearsals. Barbara Powley, an HLTA , leads at Benton Park. She says, “The pattern we have developed is a joint staff session in January, with a CD of repertoire to take back to school. Each school choir rehearses separately, with just one joint rehearsal shortly before the performance.”
As the schools prepare for their 2011 performance, the impact on Benton Park is obvious. Sixty-five children attend KS2 choir practice, whole-school singing assembly is an established event, and children perform regularly for their parents in class assemblies. Several Benton Park children have also joined Ouseburn Young Voices, an extra-curricular choir that Miles set up for the most enthusiastic singers, up to Year 8, bridging the gap between KS2 and KS3. “I wanted to try to tackle the problem of children losing touch with singing following the transition from primary to secondary,” he explains.
Staff, too, have reaped the benefits. The event was cited in a recent self-evaluation exercise as something about which Benton Park staff were most proud, and 17 of its 40 teachers volunteered to sing in the joint staff choir at the 2010 concert.
In a clear sign of how far the school has come, its children’s choir was invited to perform alongside André Rieu’s orchestra on the Newcastle leg of his sold-out UK tour, in September. Unfortunately, the violinist pulled out of the tour due to illness, but the school may yet take part when performances are rescheduled. “It’s a wonderful honour to be asked,” says Alice.
A less glamorous, but ultimately more important recognition came during the school’s last Ofsted inspection, in January. “The inspectors told us they needed more evidence to be convinced that we were outstanding in the category of ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’. That Wednesday morning’s assembly theme was ‘talent’. The children, keen to show the inspectors how well they could sing, performed a song we’d learned for the first event, with staff confidently leading the round. We got the outstanding.”
You can collaborate too!
Benton Park and Hotspur Primary Schools know just how successful working together can be. Here, Miles and Alice share their top tips…
Make sure headteachers are seen to be involved
Leadership teams need to back the project in both schools – and they have to ensure that their support is ‘visible’ to staff and pupils. Once everyone else knows that the person at the top values and supports the project, they are more likely to get behind it.
Use music that suits a range of abilities
You need a good range of styles (to keep it interesting for the singers and the audience), and material that’s not too simple for the more advanced singers, while being careful not to pick anything that will prove too tricky for the lessexperienced ones.
Plan events to the last detail
When you’re putting on an event such as a joint concert, you needto be very clear about every school’s role, down to the length of time they are on stage for each section, and which side of the stage they walk on and off. This will help avoid last-minute stress and make for a more polished delivery on the night.You need a good range of styles (to keep it interesting for the singers and the audience), and material that’s not too simple for the more advanced singers, while being careful not to pick anything that will prove too tricky for the less experienced ones.