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National Schools Singing Programme Expansion

Jun 8, 2023


The leading choral education programme in the United Kingdom expands to tackle declining engagement with music at state schools.

Recently, the National Schools Singing Programme [NSSP], an ambitious music education initiative covering the majority of the UK’s Catholic dioceses and supported by £4 million in funding from UK charity, the Hamish Ogston Foundation, celebrated its second birthday by welcoming its first group of Anglican cathedrals to the scheme. It was a major expansion of the programme which has given thousands more state school children across the UK the opportunity for a deep and continuing engagement with music.

Founded in 2021 with £4 million in funding from the Hamish Ogston Foundation [a charitable organisation supporting heritage, health and music initiatives], the NSSP is widely considered the UK’s most far-reaching choral education programme. The programme offers funding to religious institutions across the UK, from Portsmouth to Aberdeen, to employ choral directors, who deliver whole-class singing sessions in state schools every week.

The aim of the NSSP is to combat declining availability of specialist music lessons for children at state schools, particularly those in the most socially marginalised and economically deprived areas, and to provide pathways for musically talented young people to go on to attend some the country’s leading universities and conservatoires. 27 of the UK’s 32 Catholic dioceses are now signed up to the NSSP, in a programme that has engaged more than 175 schools and over 17,000 children every week.

Until recently, funding by the NSSP was only available to Catholic dioceses in the UK, but with this latest expansion of the scheme, funding was awarded to six Anglican cathedrals. Cathedrals in Sheffield, Derby, Leicester, Liverpool and Newcastle, plus York Minster, joined the scheme upon the NSSP entering its third year. These cathedrals were selected so that the programmes can reach the most deprived regions of the country, bringing a musical education to those least likely to receive it. This latest expansion, which [in a programme first] includes non-denominational schools, means an estimated total of 20,000 children are benefitting from participation in the scheme, at over 200 schools nationally.

Commenting on the importance of access to high quality education, Music Project Director for the Hamish Ogston Foundation and former President of the Music Teachers Association, Simon Toyne said: “In every school in the country you will find children with great voices. The importance of the NSSP is enabling those voices to be nurtured, trained and developed by expert choral directors, empowering them to sing in well-run school choirs and connecting them to their local Cathedral choir. The British Choral tradition is unique in championing young people to make music at the highest level – it respects young people as professionals – but there is a danger that it is only accessed by those who already know about it. Our shared aim is to enable every child in the country to participate in this remarkable living tradition.”

Commenting on the potential of the NSSP, Ben Saunders, Director of Music at the Diocese of Leeds and Consultant for the National Schools Singing Programme, said: “The British Choral tradition is the envy of the world not just because we produce excellent music but because our way of working is unique and exceptional. As choral directors, we are transforming thousands of young lives every year and uniting them in the ultimate form of teamwork and community – the choir. The NSSP is key to enlarging the base of the pyramid of opportunity which is the foundation on which we secure our heritage and build for the future.”

School music budgets have experienced several subsequent cuts over recent years, with Primary school leaders warning that the government’s National Plan for Music Education will be impossible to achieve, whilst evidence elsewhere shows that children in many secondary schools also lack regular music lessons. These circumstances were compounded first by the pandemic and then by the cost of living crisis.

The rewards of a good music education are plentiful: it benefits mental health, supports social cohesion and furthers academic attainment. The National Schools Singing Programme hopes to address the decline in school music provision, making a musical education accessible to more children, enabling them to reap the benefits of deep engagement with music regardless of their background.

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