Let’s Sing

By Pat Petrie

Date Posted: December 15th, 2011

Pat Petrie is professor of education at the Thomas Coram Research Unit where she researches social and educational policy and practice towards children in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, with a strong focus on the role of social pedagogues in continental Europe. Recently her work has been about play and childcare; services for disabled children and their families; and children in residential and foster care.

Let’s Sing!
‘I’m a great believer in singing and the therapeutic impact – also it helps you breathe better, it puts your brain in a different place and it gives opportunities to kids who’ve had fragmented and difficult experiences in their lives, gives them a chance to be somewhere else for a time, all the head, heart and hands stuff… For looked after kids – like other vulnerable groups – music as an art form makes a real bloody difference – invest in it.’

(Children’s services officer, partner to an NCB Sing UP project in the Midlands)



A group of looked after children from Leicester recently won the Arts and Culture Award at this year’s Children and Young People Now Awards. They were taking part in a singing project that was the result of a fruitful partnership between Leicestershire Arts in Education, Bullfrog Arts and Leicester’s Looked After Children Service. They were one of 11 projects for looked after children especially funded by Sing Up. Sing Up is a highly successful programme that has been running for 4 years which aims to get all primary school children singing. Mostly it has been school based, but in its third year the programme focussed on children ‘beyond the mainstream’ and last year Sing Up went on to fund projects especially for looked after children. This was managed jointly with the National Children’s Bureau – the NCB Sing Up programme.(1)

The value of working through the arts and creativity with looked after children is well understood in many other European countries. Because we thought that there was much to learn from this, Helen Chambers (2) and I made a study visit to Denmark to look at the training and practice of social pedagogues where a quarter of social pedagogues’ training is often arts related(3) and they introduce what they have learned into their practice.(4) The aim is not to turn the pedagogues into artists – but to put them in touch with their own creativity so that they recognise creativity in the people they work with and can be confident in working creatively with young people. Social pedagogues are concerned with the whole person as a physical, thinking, creative, social and emotional being – working through the arts calls on all of these aspects of human life. They are also a medium for building relationships.

Many social pedagogues refer to the ‘common third’ when they talk about working through creative activities. They mean that doing things with young people, rather than for them or to them, gives a common focus: engagement with the task in hand – the excitement and, sometimes, the frustrations involved in creativity and collaboration. But the pedagogues are neither arts teachers nor therapists. The approach taken is about doing things for fun – it doesn’t have to be deeply serious with an emphasis on an end product or a performance. At the same time being creative can have deep effects. Young people have a chance to experience the ‘wow, factor’- sheer wonderment at creativity and the enjoyment of being taken up in what is sometimes called going with the flow, and losing self consciousness. These are experiences that can be turning points in a person’s understanding of their own identity: an identity that goes far beyond being merely an ‘LAC’or a ‘YP’.

After our visit to Denmark, Helen and I consulted English arts practioners with experience of working with looked after children and, funded by CCE, devised a Learning Framework for Artist Pedagogues, that is for arts agencies wanting to work with looked after children and others difficult life circumstances. The projects in the NCB Sing Up programme were evaluated on the basis of this approach. After our visit to Denmark, Helen and I consulted English arts practioners with experience of working with looked after children and, funded by CCE, devised a Learning Framework for Artist Pedagogues, that is for arts agencies wanting to work with looked after children and others difficult life circumstances. The projects in the NCB Sing Up programme were evaluated on the basis of this approach. The projects were all outside school hours and took place in many different settings and were very varied. Leaders said that performance or the production of, for example, a CD or DVD gave children a sense of achievement – but the children’s needs came first and leaders should not put them under undue pressure to achieve a polished performance.There was an opera written by the children in collaboration with writers, musicians, foster carers and others, performed in the huge Colston Hall in Bristol, but there were also one-to-one song writing sessions, and singing with children with learning disabilities in a residential home.

Why was it important to make a special effort to include looked after children in the NCB Sing Up programme? Perhaps the most important reason was that looked after children shouldn’t miss out on the good things of life – and singing is one of these. Also there’s a lot of evidence that children, including those in disadvantaged circumstances, benefit from music and singing.(5) It improves their social skills and self esteem, not to mention school work. It’s also an opportunity for children to make friends – and many children and carers spoke of this. Their enjoyment is conveyed by what one group of children wrote on a ‘graffiti wall’ at the end of an NCB Sing UP session:


  • I enjoyed recording and completing a song
  •  I like my song what we did today
  • It was good fun
  • Writing the song, playing the drum
  •  Happy today – I wrote my own line
  • It was fab
  • It was so cool
  • It was fun because I love the songs
  • It’s fun, good to learn to sing. I love Voice Box!
  • It was awesome
  • It was really good and I enjoyed it
  • Today is the best session we had. Glad I came on my birthday
  •  I really enjoyed it today and now I am really happy
  • It was good songs. I did not know it but I know it now
  • I really tried my best today.


Elsewhere a 12 year old said ‘It’s really good. Really good music, it’s clever how they put it together.’ A child’s teachers reported he had come to school buzzing about what he had been doing and how good the musicians had been. Usually he had little to say about what he had done out of school.

Foster carers with children attending another project said:


We have seen a huge difference in J [foster child] – he’s a totally different boy … he’s fully involved

You should see the joy on her [foster child] face – she is very quiet and withdrawn – as soon as you put a song book in her hand, she’s totally different

Their body language says it all! Before they wouldn’t stay in the [singing] room, perhaps [they were] a little disruptive, now they are really involved


A 12 year old girl said:


Before, I didn’t want to sing because my heart was hurting. I was really angry but I really wanted to sing. When you sing you can show how you feel. I didn’t feel shy anymore about singing at the end.


Although the programme was aimed at primary school children, looked after young people in their teens were often included as young singing leaders. For the young leaders there was the possibility of using their experience as a means for obtaining an Arts Award (these awards dovetail with other qualifications, for example a gold Arts Award is equivalent to an A level). Often the young leaders had been involved in the music agencies earlier work, so musicians were building on established relationships and known territory. For example, a 14 year old girl had developed multi-media skills by taking part in activities with the same agency over some years. She could make films, take photos, write poetry, sing and write songs. In a different project, a 17 year old young man said that what he really liked was the way the project leaders communicated with people:


It’s warming how they (the project leaders) are with people. Whatever you look like they’re on your side… It’s a good thing to take with you, I’ve never been in this position, it’s shifting the boundaries


He liked it because he wasn’t the main leader but part of the leadership team and always felt safe and comfortable. He said he would certainly use the leadership skills he had been learning with his own band.

Almost always the activities were very warmly received by children, carers and children’s services staff, as one music leader said:


I’ve mainly noticed the growth in confidence in the kids because to start with no one wanted to sing out – there was a lot of mumbling going on – so we started with getting them to sing songs they might already know and they might like. We had a few teething problems about the best choice of song. The artists were trying to choose something and there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing but now we’re into them creating their own songs and performing to the rest of the group. And now we have some children every week desperate to sing a bit of song by themselves to the rest. So we have a lot of solo singers which is amazing and week by week, people singing out a bit more and performing rather than looking at the floor and pretending they’re not there. Now they’re more proud of what they’re doing.


For social pedagogues, people working with looked after children in many European countries, these comments would not come as a surprise.

The evaluation report of NCB Sing Up ends with a summary of learning points drawn from the projects. Here are a few of them:


Where they work well, partnerships developed to deliver looked after children’s singing projects can have a positive impact on the wider practice of the organisations involved as well as on the arts agency itself.

It is helpful for project and singing leaders to understand that looked after children may be especially vulnerable because of their life experience. They are, nevertheless, children first and foremost. Workforce development activities should stress this, and avoid stigmatising and labelling looked after children, for example by over emphasising behavioural problems.

The experience of being a young leader can be interesting and useful in itself, as well as opening up areas of interest, education and, for some, career development.

Young leaders, especially those who are themselves looked after, need the support of the rest of the project team and their carers if they are to make the most of their opportunities. For some this may extend to reminders about attendance and help with transport arrangements. The principles of social pedagogy were seen to benefit singing and music making because they set a social context where children could enjoy themselves, feel safe and accepted, and risk making their own valuable contributions to activities.


Lastly and of great importance:


One of the biggest learning points of the Sing Up NCB looked after children project was children’s capacity for creativity, singing and enjoying challenging music, both from the Western tradition and from world music. This should not be under estimated.



1. The projects were jointly managed by NCB and Sing Up. They were evaluated by myself and Abigail Knight, members of CUSP at the Institute of Education, University of London and the quotations in this article all come from our report (Petrie and Knight, 2011).

2. Helen is an associate of NCB and of CUSP, she was also joint manager of the NCB/Sing Up looked after children’s programme

3. A minority specialise in sports and outdoor activities

4. Peters and Chambers, 2010

5. e.g., Hallam, S. 2010; Dillon, L. 2010; President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, 2011



Chambers,H. ( 2008) People with Passion: Getting the right people around the table, London: NCB.

Chambers, H. and Petrie, P. (2009) A Learning Framework for Artist Pedagogues, London: CCE and NBE.

Dillon, L. (2010) Looked After Children and Music Making, An evidence review, London: Youth Music.

Hallam, S. (2010) ‘The power of music: its impact on the intellectual, personal and social development of children and young people’, International Journal of Music Education 38(3), 269-289.

Petrie, P., and Chambers, H. (2010) Richer Lives: Creative activities in the education and practice of Danish Pedagogues. A preliminary study: Report to Arts Council England, Institute of Education, available at http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/6415/

Petrie, P., and Knight, A. (2011) I Want to Sing. Sing Up/NCB Looked After Children Programme Evaluation Final Report available atwww.singup.org/fileadmin/singupfiles/previous_uploads/Sing_Up_Looked_After_Children_full_report.pdf

President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, (2011), Reinvesting in Arts Education, Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools available athttp://www.pcah.gov/sites/default/files/photos/PCAH_Reinvesting_4web.pdf