Children chant a chorus of approval : EDUCATION

Diana Hinds finds out why pupils at a London primary school are singing for joy, and how classroom discipline has improved as a result
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A class of eight-year-olds at Oxford Gardens School in west London sits in a ring on the floor for a music lesson. There is no piano, no tape-player, no songbooks or chime-bars. Instead, concentrating hard and all eyes on their teacher, the children sing a simple three-note rhyme "I, I, Me oh my, how I love my apple pie", taking it in turns to sing alone. Each child changes the pitch of the song, and the others follow suit. The sound they make is sweet, strong and, save for one or two stragglers, beautifully in tune.

Four months ago, making music like this would have been an impossibility. The school spent little time on it because of the staff's lack of musical expertise, and for many of the children - the boys especially - singing was something embarrassing and unnatural. They would certainly never have consented to sing a solo in front of the whole class.

But with regular guidance from the recently formed Voices Foundation, an organisation dedicated to improving the way music is taught in schools, these children are suddenly finding their voices. Already they have built up a repertoire of 40-odd songs, specially devised by the foundation to help them to develop an understanding of pitch, rhythm, pulse, the intervals between notes.

Not only is solo-singing now as easy as pie to most of them, but also the effect on school life has been profound. The school was previously a "music-free zone" (apart from instrumental lessons for a tiny minority), says the headteacher, Liz Rayment-Pickard. Now it hums with music. Two choirs have been set up, one for pupils and another for teachers - who readily give up Friday lunchtimes in order to sing.

Most strikingly of all, the children's behaviour has shown a marked improvement, says Ms Rayment-Pickard, who admits she was initially sceptical about the project.

"Conflict, for children in this area, is often based on people not listening to what their difficulties are. Music gives them a sense of discipline, a skill in listening - a skill that they can transfer to their classroom or playground arguments. Behaviour problems have improved quite dramatically: they don't shout at one another so much. I think teachers are also listening more to pupils."

Karen Egginton, a year three teacher, says several of the more difficult children in her class have responded particularly well.

"It's partly the success element," she says. "They have learnt the song and been able to join it with the other children."

By extending singing beyond music lessons, she has adapted the "call and response" format of the Voices Foundation songs to help with classroom disciplining, singing to get the children into line, or to be quiet. "Are you listening?" she will sing (to the tune of "Frre Jacques"): "We are listening," the class sings back.

In the playground, too, the songs and clapping games they have learnt have increased the children's social skills, Ms Egginton says.

Such testimony bears out the central belief of the Voices Foundation that learning music through singing can be hugely beneficial to a child's emotional, intellectual and social development.

Susan Digby, its founder and director, has been much influenced by the Hungarian method, which is based on the teaching of the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, and uses folksong and techniques like the tonic sol-fa system. Most five- and six-year-olds in Hungarian schools have already memorised 500 songs, and can sing perfectly in tune.

A carefully structured approach is important, Ms Digby says, involving simple but high-quality songs. Too many traditional children's songs, such as "Hickory Dickory Dock" or "Happy Birthday To You", are impossible for young children to sing in tune because of difficult intervals, she says.

Even more crucial is that the class teacher - who need not be especially musical or have a brilliant singing voice - should receive appropriate training. To this end, the Voices Foundation is working with teachers from 50 schools in London, Dorset, North Yorkshire, and East and West Sussex.

It provides training days, and then works alongside teachers in the classroom several times a term, for two or three terms. Two terms for a group of six schools costs around £l,000, raised jointly by the schools, the local authority, and outside sponsorship.

Singing, the evangelical Ms Digby emphasises, should be for everyone: "There is no such thing as tone-deafness. A child who never finds his or her singing voice is a deprived human being."

The Voices Foundation can be contacted on 0171-370 1944.