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Poetry By Heart. Is it Smart?

January 10, 2013

Reading about the British Government's poetry recitation initiative for school children, Poetry By Heart, in The Guardian over the past few days brings to mind another recent attempt by the UK authorities to inculcate school kids with more sensitivity and smarts through cultural engagement.

The scheme I am thinking of is Sing Up!, which was a government-backed project that ran for four years from 2007 to 2010 to get school kids singing regularly.

Primary schools all over England received training and formed choirs. They learned songs from special songbooks that had been created for the program and worked to achieve various levels of attainment. To promote Sing Up!, the initiative was spearheaded by the composer Howard Goodall, who was dubbed the UK's "Singing Ambassador." At the height of the project, around 90% of schoolchildren in England were involved in Sing Up! according to Bridget Whyte, who was one of the key figures involved in planning and executing the scheme.

Poetry By Heart also has a dedicated poetry anthology as well as a public figurehead in the form of Andrew Motion. There's a strong competitive element to the initiative.

Sing Up! and Poetry by Heart both seem to be guided by the same positive impulse: that kids who get comfortable with activities like singing and reciting poems are more likely to be more engaged human beings.

But I wonder how much genuine good such initiatives really do? It's all very well running a national poetry recitation contest for a few months in 2013. But what about the sustainability that's necessary for truly inculcating the spirit of poetry in students' minds and hearts?

It took a while for Sing Up! to get off the ground. Bridget told me that things were slow to get going and only eventually snowballed their way to success. And even with a plan that continued on for several years, the good work that Sing Up! achieved seems challenged at this point in time owing to a change in business model. The government stopped funding the initiative after the initial four year grant and now it is meant to be self-sustaining through schools paying to be members.

But apparently -- and unsurprisingly -- many UK schools are not very happy about having to pay for the project's resources, which used to be free to them when they were government-funded. As a result, Sing Up! seems to be losing some traction as an agent of change in music education.

What does this mean for Poetry by Heart? I guess that what I am getting at here is that cultural initiatives in the schools can be powerful tools for developing young minds. But if really careful thought isn't given to the long-term sustainability of these endeavors, then their value must be questioned.


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