Challenging Voices

by Phil Mullen. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 18 Issue 3 (May 2012)  

The English organization Sing Up develops a voice network to work with children excluded from mainstream school.

In mid-February this year a group of 11 community musicians got together for a weekend in Birmingham in England to share songs and music games and to discuss what it was like working with some of the most difficult and sometimes most challenging children in the country.  They talked about the complexity of the challenges these young people faced and shared their own ways of engaging them and helping them find motivation to make music.

Together they worked through a song and creative activity resource for children with challenges, called ‘Sitting in the classroom?’.  

The music leaders talked about the need for a highly flexible yet carefully planned approach, one that incorporated structured reflection. They also looked at material that would be intrinsically engaging and interesting for these children, some of whom might otherwise be violent towards each other and the staff.

This was the inaugural weekend of a primary (elementary) school PRU voice trainers’ network set up through Sing Up’s accessible learning programme.  

What is a PRU?

A pupil referral unit (PRU) is a type of school set up and run by a local authority for children who are not able to attend mainstream school. Quite a number, but by no means all, of these children have been excluded from school because of challenging behaviour.

Some children in PRUs are school phobic, some have autism, some have other medical conditions, some are newly arrived in the country and so on.

Some PRUs will cater for mixed groups of students while others will cater for a specific group. Currently PRUs don’t have to deliver the full national curriculum or even a full timetable of classes. Most cover Maths, Literacy and perhaps Science and ICT as well as emphasizing personal, social and health education (PSHE).

Quite a large number don’t have any music classes (music is compulsory in UK mainstream education) while even fewer have singing or voice work. Some PRUs steer clear of performing arts altogether, perhaps seeing the creative freedom as an invitation for chaos and bad behaviour in the classroom. In truth, without a thought-through approach tailored to the specific needs of these children, this criticism could indeed be justified.

Most PRUs will have small numbers of children, both in the whole school and individual classes, and the staff/student ratio will tend to be much higher than in mainstream. Many of the staff utilise a high level of specialized skills in working with these students. They understand the need to be very clear in dealing with the children’s needs and maintaining appropriate behaviour.

While many children going to PRUs will go on to achieve well in life, a significant number will have a less positive course mapped out from childhood. One dedicated PRU teacher told me that these kids used to end up either in prison or in the army but that the army doesn’t take them anymore.

Not only do many underachieve academically but they suffer from the types of problems typically associated with social exclusion.

Children with emotional and behavioural disorders (EBD) are likely to have more challenges in social adjustment than other groups of individuals with disabilities (Wagner et al., 1992). They may find it difficult to develop relationships with those who can help them, including professionals such as therapists.

When they grow up they are likely to have significant employment difficulties and are likely to earn less than others with or without other disabilities (Wagner, D'Amico, Marder, Newman and Blackorby, 1992; Malmgren et al., 1998). In my own work in PRUs I see children who find it very difficult to give eye contact, who can’t seem to say anything good about each other, who are always on a short fuse. On occasion students have had to be physically restrained and removed from the classroom, kept isolated until they have calmed down.

Why singing in PRUs?

Doing research for Sing Up in 2008 I came across much anecdotal evidence of the power of music and voice work for personal transformation in PRUs. My own experience over the last couple of years does a lot to confirm this. Working together creatively with the voice can support innate psychological needs for relatedness, competency and autonomy as outlined by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (Deci, Ryan 2000).

Singing and voicework can help develop a range of soft skills such as co-operation, listening and creativity. For children with difficult histories and sometimes chaotic lives outside school, being vocally creative can help them give vent to what are often deeply submerged feelings.

Through rehearsing and slowly improving they can build their own sense of resilience. One of the things we found with a lot of children in PRUs was that they found it very hard to be comfortable with getting things wrong, more so than in mainstream, and that music was a way for them to build this idea of temporary failure into their lives, getting it wrong in order to have the ability to get it right later. For many this fear of any kind of failure can destroy their willingness to experiment and try things out. They can then operate with a very restricted mindset with little room for nuance and ambiguity. Music can help provide them with these subtle things that are so crucial to achievement and happiness in life.

Deeper breathing for singing helps calm children and enables them to move out of fight or flight mentality. Integrated music (singing across the curriculum) provides motivation for what might at first be harder to access subjects such as Maths.

For the children who are unable to be in mainstream school, singing and voice work may be the first place they find their own sense of excellence. It allows them to be in a high performance group and to celebrate their own achievements through performance and recording.

Importantly, initial anecdotal evidence from PRUs involved with the Sing Up programme indicate that this work can have a slow, but noticeable, positive effect on these children’s behaviour.

Sing Up

Sing Up, the UK’s national singing programme for primary age children, was launched in 2007 as a result of the UK Music Manifesto, a collaboration between the then Department for Children, Schools and Families and then Department for Culture Media and Sport, in partnership with a number of organisations and individuals involved in British music and music education.

Sing Up is led by Youth Music, the UK's largest children's music charity working in a consortium with two other partners, Faber Publishing and The Sage Gateshead.

It promotes the idea that every child deserves the chance to sing every day. It believes singing improves learning, confidence, health and social development and has the power to change lives and help to build stronger communities. While Sing Up is a large programme, working mostly in mainstream primary schools, it has prided itself on its approach to educational democracy and inclusion, first through its ‘Beyond the Mainstream’ programme and now through its Accessible Learning strand. The concept of accessible learning is woven into every aspect of Sing Up and every thing it does, from programmes with specific groups such as children with disabilities or children in state care, through signed song videos on its website, through also to training programmes in assistive technology and the voice.

In addition to the PRU network Sing Up is also supporting five other accessible learning networks;
• Voice and Autism
• Makaton (a method of communication involving hand signs)
• Looked After Children
• Music and the Deaf
• Drake Music (Drake is an organisation that uses technology to enable disabled people to access music making)
Sing Up has a website which includes a 'songbank’ of over 400 recorded songs, many of which are suitable for SEN (Special Educational Needs) settings, some of which also have signed videos or other accessible learning adaptations, such as lesson plans for specific groups.

It also produces hard copy resources including a magazine and also song / voice books for children with mental health issues, children of refugees, children with autism to name but a few.

Sing up emphasises a whole voice approach which might involve singing and/or voice percussion, beatboxing, spoken poetry or more abstract work such as vocal soundscapes. They recognise that not all young people are comfortable with the idea of singing and are constantly looking for alternative ways into voice work.

Sitting in the classroom

In early 2011 singing leader Beth Allen and I produced a pack for singing and voice work in PRUs, commissioned and distributed by Sing Up. This pack was called Sitting in the Classroom? and contained 10 songs with actions and extension activities as well as ways into creative music such as graphic scores, songwriting and vocal percussion. It also contains background material on PRUs and tips for running a good session and sustaining engagement. The songs were quite varied from African American children’s singing games to English songs with actions that energise kids and bring them together.

This resource was sent to every primary PRU in the country and has been a good tool for getting PRU staff interested in singing /voice work.

There are now 73 of the 261 primary PRUs in England registered with the Sing Up website. At first look this doesn’t compare well with the fact that 98% of all state Primaries have registered, but after a slow initial period PRUs are now getting on board with the idea of singing quite quickly, with new schools added every week. A few PRUs are starting to enter for Sing Up’s awards programme which celebrates a passion for regular singing in schools.

In the resource we used material that had worked well for us in PRUs. Often this involved few words and a very quick way in. ‘Connect in 60 seconds or you’re toast’ was how a colleague had talked to me about the need for instant engagement. 

‘Singing in the Classroom’ will now be used by all the network members to train PRU teachers, teaching assistants and other staff to initiate singing/ voice work in PRUs.

The Network

The network, though small, consists of skilled, dedicated people with a lot of experience. Some have worked as freelancers in over 40 PRUs, some specialize in composition, some in technology and the voice. All are thoughtful, improving, passionate practitioners, who seem to have been somehow hooked by this always creative, often very cheeky, bunch of kids.

In the near future the group will share material on SoundCloud, up-skill themselves as trainers in various areas and make themselves known in the new culture of UK music education provision.

The Future

There is a sense among the network that they may be pioneering an area of music delivery that few others in the UK, or even worldwide, are focusing on.

The first priority in the future is to get as many primary level PRUs interested in voice and music work as possible. This will come through dissemination of the resource to all the primary PRUs in the country (already done), raising awareness of the online resources and also training sessions for staff.

It is also hoped that the approaches used by these music leaders and in the resource may also prove useful in those mainstream primary schools where they have some disengaged children.

In the future it would be great to track the effects of singing and voice work on these kids and, if appropriate, build a stronger case with government and policy makers for this kind of work.

The network will also be developing further resources including looking at the voice and technology with this particular group of children.


Allen B. and Mullen P. (2011) Sitting in the Classroom? A singing resource for PRU and EBD units working with primary aged children. The Sage Gateshead
Deci and Richard M. Ryan(2000)The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior; Psychological Inquiry Vol. 11, No. 4, 227–268
Malmgren, K., Edgar, E., & Neel, R.S. (1998). Postschool status of youths with behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 23, 257-263.
Wagner, M., D'Amico, R., Marder, C., Newman, L., & Blackorby, J. (1992). What happens next? Trends in postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities. The Second Comprehensive Report from the National Longitudinal Transition
Study of Special Education Students. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
  Phil Mullen is a freelance community musician who has undertaken a number of different projects and roles for Sing Up since 2008. He also lectures in Community Music at Goldsmiths College, London University and is a board member for the International Society for Music Education (ISME). Phil invites readers to get in touch if you want to discuss these issues further: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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