Hitting a high note: How pupils are singing their way into the history books

A campaign aims to boost young people's knowledge of important facts through song. But will it work, asks Warwick Mansell

It is a beautiful Monday morning, and in the sprawling grounds of a leading London tourist attraction, most members of a small group of seven and eight-year-olds are singing as if their lives depend on it. Could this scene be about to be replicated across the country? This is the hope of "Sing Up", the national singing programme now working with more than 15,000 English primary schools, which this week embarked on one of its most innovative projects yet.

The idea is to get children singing specially written songs before and after visits to educational attractions, with the combined aims of firing their interest, building their knowledge and of having some fun along the way.

Sing Up has gone into partnership with seven destinations, including Stonehenge, the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, Canterbury Cathedral and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which was the scene of that Monday morning chorus.

Each attraction has had at least one song written in connection with its educational theme. For example, "Moving the Stones" explores the origins of Stonehenge, while "Row in the Cathedral" refers to the assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

Schools are being encouraged to get their pupils singing the compositions on the coach to and from their visits, and use them as a springboard for teaching around the subjects. An open-top "singing bus" began travelling around the attractions on Monday promoting the project.

Sing Up says a new national survey it commissioned of people's historical knowledge demonstrates the need to think creatively in trying to offer teaching that sticks in the mind. The Populus poll quizzed 1,762 adults aged 18-24 and found that 47 per cent did not know that the Romans built Hadrian's Wall; that 45 per cent were unaware that Admiral Nelson led the British to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar; and that 28 per cent thought that that battle was part of the English Civil War.

It says that the tie-up with the attractions could help address some of these historical blanks, although some of the destinations, like Chester Zoo and the Eden Project, have more of a scientific focus. Baz Chapman, programme director for Sing Up, says: "This is not about saying education is falling short. It's about saying that there are different approaches to embedding historical learning within schools, in ways that generate more interest among pupils."

If the notion that singing can really be the key to transforming pupils' understanding of history might be a step too far for some traditionalists, Sing Up can point to the fact that the visit "singalongs" will be just the culmination of an educative process that, for some schools, may last several weeks.

Each song comes with lesson notes encouraging teachers to get pupils to practise singing techniques through the songs, and also to think about the story behind the lyrics. For example, "Row in the Cathedral" suggests schools talk about Thomas Becket and his murder, and also about the effects his death had on the cathedral in becoming a place of pilgrimage. "Vertebrate Song", composed for children visiting Chester Zoo, could be used to enthuse pupils into working to classify different types of vertebrates on the computer when they get back to class.

"We want to help teachers to embed the songs in their pupils' learning," Chapman says. Sing Up's website also features songs designed to build children's appreciation of mathematical and linguistic concepts.

Chapman can also point to research evidence exploring the all-round educational benefits that breaking out into song can have in schools.

For example, studies have shown that young children who receive vocal music instruction show significantly higher gains in phonemic awareness – the ability to distinguish different sounds in words – than those who do not. The latest official evaluation of Sing Up, based on a study of 155 schools, found a strong correlation between pupils' singing abilities and their sense of self-worth.

What's more, a 2009 study in the United States, carried out by Chorus America, found that parents of children in choirs were more likely to report that their offspring were better team players and had more advanced social skills than those who didn't sing.

Some teachers are certainly convinced. One fan is Emma Burnett, a Year Three teacher at Greenacres primary school, Eltham, south-east London, whose pupils performed outside the National Maritime Museum.

She says she prepared her charges for singing about the sea by teaching them lessons on pirates, Sir Francis Drake and on what ships were like in his time. Singing was employed in cross-curricular work at the school "all the time", she says, with another project recently involving a song about the artist Vincent Van Gogh.

"Singing does help the children remember things, and generally makes them enthusiastic," she says. Although a couple of pupils seemed slightly shyer than the rest in joining in with the Greenwich singalong, most seemed to love the experience, with "exciting" the word of choice to describe their day.

The Historical Association had a mixed reaction when informed about the scheme. "We recognise the value of singing, and there are some excellent examples of using music to help introduce pupils to areas of history," says Rebecca Sullivan, the association's chief executive. "My concern would be that teachers would think they have 'done' the history by singing a song about it, rather than as a specific part of an inquiry question.

"Very few primary teachers are history specialists, and history is very patchy in primary – a few songs and a visit is very nice, but it hardly helps with any meaningful, well-structured contextualised history."

Leonardo Rossetti, who teaches music at Greenacres, says that it takes commitment from a school to encourage singing, with support from the headmaster being a key factor. But he says he has seen it make a real difference to the pupils. For example, children educated in the school's linguistic improvement unit, who struggled with language before arriving there, had shown demonstrable improvement after taking to singing.

"You have to get over the initial shyness that many people have about singing," says Rossetti. "That includes parents, teachers and sometimes the older children, especially boys. Once you break through that, though, the effect on them can be fantastic."