Since returning from Finland a week or so ago, I had a couple of days back home in the UK, before traveling to the USA. Last Thursday I flew from Heathrow to San Francisco - a ten hour flight, although the plane remained on the tarmac for two hours once we'd boarded. This was frustrating as there wasn't much legroom - and I was basically sat down for almost 13 hours! I managed to pass the time by watching some films and listening to music (with the odd nap too!).
California is eight hours behind the UK, so it's taken a couple of days to really adjust to the new time zone. When I arrived at my host's house on Thursday evening, I'd been up for nearly 24 hours by that point!
I'm very much looking forward to my stay here. I'm so grateful to Cheryl Keller, who I met a couple of years ago at the Piedmont Choirs' Camp, for putting together an amazing itinerary for the week, including home stays at her house and a colleague's.
My week includes visiting the wonderful Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, which our own choirs met up with in June 2017 as they toured the UK. I shall also be visiting several other choirs and school music classes, in both state and private sectors. I've already had the pleasure of witnessing some high school choirs at a weekend choral retreat which was brilliant! The sun has been shining, and the forecast is good, so here's to a great week.
I'll leave you with a profound statement that one of the young singers conveyed to me on visiting the camp:
'Being able to connect with what you’re singing about, and being able to spill your soul to an audience, is such a personal & intimate thing. It helps you listen to each other, love each other and make each other laugh.'
It's another sunny (but cold!) morning here in Finland. It's a morning tinged with sadness as I'm flying back to the UK today - albeit briefly - after spending two and a half weeks in this gorgeous country.
If you've been reading my posts you'll know that I've learnt so much whilst I've been here. I've also met some wonderful people. I shall be sad to leave Finland behind, but I feel sure that I'll be back soon. I'm also looking forward to further digesting what I've discovered here.
Three words stand out for me: trust, respect and creativity. As I start to compile the Finnish part of my report, I'll be reflecting on these words! How can the UK learn from a education system that encourages creative learning - one that embraces subjects like music? What effect does this have on the child?
This is a short post for now as I head to the airport. My next destination: the USA! I'll be looking at some huge choral organisations and projects that transform the lifes of young people. I can't wait to continue this journey!
I'm now well into my second leg of the journey in Finland. Having spent the first nine days or so in Helsinki, I've now moved much further north to a city called Jyvasklyla - not disimilar in size to somewhere like Lichfield.
Finland is somewhere that feels very homely and very safe. It's been an enlightening journey so far; a journey that has taught me many things! For example, did you know that there are 89 Music Institutes scattered across Finland that are part funded by the government? Ordinary schools usually provide 1-2 lessons of music per week, but these music institutes provide an extension to the school day (which ends early at 1 or 2pm). The funding received from the state and municipalities signifies that music is held in high regard here.
Then there are 'music play schools'. Attending these is the one most popular activity for pre-school children - again, supported by the government. Funding per pupil generally works out at 57% from the state, 25% municipality and 18% fees from parents. There is no equivalant to this system in the UK.
Finland's population is around 10% of the UK's. Around 67,000 Finnish children attend music schools, with about 36% of these attending Early Childhood Music classes (age 0-7years). Research here in Finland shows that a musical education, that starts with singing, makes a huge difference to how the brain works and learns.
In my last blog I mentioned the word 'trust'. This is a big thing here - and although there is a core curriculum for both music institutes and ordinary schools, teachers are given the flexiblity to deliver lessons that are based on the child's needs. It's incredibly child-centred. This means that the child's motivation to learn is high - it's not simply that they are being told what they need to know. The reason teachers are able to be so flexible is because they are free from much of the 'red tape' that chokes many of our own UK teachers. Some primary school children as young as 8, can apply to attend 'extended music classes' - which form part of an ordinary primary school, not a specialist one - where they develop their musicianship further, alongside other topics.
There are no tests and no inspections in Finland - but every teacher music have a masters degree to be able to teach. It's difficult to get in to! The UK government places so much importance on testing and inspections that teaching has moved away from the child in many ways in order to tick boxes and reach targets. The UK spends £40M on the SATs tests evry year - and an astonishing £207M every year on school inspections. Imagine how that money could be distributed to schools in areas that really need it, like music education.
Lastly, the Finnish approach demonstrates that fact that everyone is seen as equal: there are no unecessary barriers. All children call all teachers by their first name, including the head teacher; there is no school uniform; all children (and staff) take off their shoes on entering the classroom and there are regular breaks to allow children to stay focused. It's interesting that all of the above seems to work well here - there is a lot of respect for one another in an environment that makes learning fun and where kids are motivated. Titles and hierarchy seem unimportant. People have roles, yes, but respect isn't expected; it's earned!
By the time you read this, I'll have been in Finland for five days. It kind of feels longer. It's certainly been a packed few days so far!
One thing that has struck me about Finland is that, although the weather has so far been a bit like the UK, it seems an altogether very efficient place to live - at least, it is in Helsinki. The public transport is very reliable, so much so that one weekly ticket can get you on any train, tram, bus or underground ride. And no one checks that you even have a ticket - they just trust that you have. Which neatly brings me onto this very point. Trust.
Although my remit is to look at music education through singing (though it's more than this) and the effect that this has on the children here, one thing has struck me. All teachers in Finland, whatever they teach, are respected highly and are trusted to get on with their job. There are no inspections and so no teacher pressure. This lack of pressure then transfers down to the pupils: there's no testing here, no league tables or any regimented timetabling, which means the children learn freely. Music is seen as an important part of this. It certainly isn't marginalised or seen as an 'add-on', as it is in the UK.
Discussions with teachers and music education experts have been an inspiration and so refreshing. The system of 97 Finnish music schools, or 'institutes', is also fascinating. The short school day means that pupils are encouraged to take up hobbies like music and pursue this extension of their school day. School finishes at 1pm or 2pm, allowing time to build these pursuits into the schedule.
Before moving north to Jyvaskyla on 15th September, I'll be visiting some choirs and also ordinary primary music classes to see how they work. I can't wait to continue this journey!
After months of planning it's finally here! My Churchill Fellowship begins at the end of this week, when I fly out to Finland. I'll be stopping at Helsinki, Espoo and Jyvaskyla looking at choirs, schools and instititions that deliver top quality music education. After a short return to the UK on 23rd September, I'll then fly out to America and Canada where I'll be visiting the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, the Kodaly Centre at Oakland University, Indianapolis Children's Choir, Anima Singers, Chicago Children's Choir, Toronto Children's Chorus and Hamilton Children's Choir.
I can't wait to learn from these various organisations and schools to see the effect high quality music education has on children, be in schools themselves or in the community. What can the UK learn from this? Should we really be cutting one of the most important subjects a child can learn? How do we stop it being for only those who can afford it?
I have mix of emotions right now. Excitement, yes - this is is something of a lifetime opportunity, and one that will extend into the future after my return. I'm also a bit nervous about the whole thing - and also tinged with sadness: my dad's illness is hard to comprehend, so being away for some time will not be easy. I know I have both my parents' suppport and hope that this trip will provide plenty of positive opportunities for them too.
Thank you to everyone who has given to my Just Giving page. So far it's raised £1500 for MND Association!
You can still give here if you're able.