2 June 2017


In 1978 I gave up teaching to become a ’folk singer’. I thought I’d never set foot in a school again!

About half of my 10 years as a teacher had been at a school in Nottingham where I was very happy, I got on well with the head and wasn’t restricted as to what and how I should teach. But one day he took me aside and advised me that it was time to think about promotion and as there was no chance of anything coming up internally in the near future I should start looking and applying elsewhere.
I applied for a job at a school in Luton and, although I didn’t get the job I’d applied for (I can’t remember exactly what it was) the head created another post especially for me. On paper it was ‘the correlation of art and drama’. But in practice it wasn’t. The school cared nothing for art or drama or music or any of the things I was interested in. It was also a school ruled by brutality. Corporal punishment was still allowed then and it was used. I saw the head throw boys across the room and at least one member of staff would stand in the corridor and whack children with a slipper as they went by just for the fun of it! 
Pete and Sue 1965: trainee teachers!

I don’t know why they employed me. Eventually I was told that I could use my arty-farty methods if I agreed to have the remedial class. So I did. I suppose  they were already beyond harm! It was a class made up of ordinary not very academic kids, a few with genuine learning difficulties, some naughty boys who weren’t a bit interested in school, and a variety of children who had just arrived in this country and couldn’t speak a word of English. There was no help and no special facilities. But my arty-farty methods worked as well as any others would have and for the few years I was there the same number of children were promoted out of my class into the regular classes as they always had been. I couldn’t live in that atmosphere though. It was absolutely the opposite of everything I’d learned at college when I trained. So I opted out.
The Mansion, Bretton Hall
I trained at Bretton Hall College of Education in Wakefield from 1965-68. It’s now the site of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. All that beautiful landscape was the college grounds where we worked and played. (Some years after I left it was decided that it was surplus to requirements and it stood empty for a decade or so. Now the old Georgian mansion is being transformed into a hotel and conference centre and the more modern buildings are in the process of being demolished.) 

Bretton Hall has a tremendous reputation. Everyone who went there loved it and most of us took on the philosophy of education we were taught. It specialised in Music, Art and Drama and all kinds of well known names, particularly in the acting field, went there over the years.
One of the major things I came out with was the idea that education was for life not just something to get you a job. I remember discussing the idea that by the end of the 20th century working hours would be 2 or 3 days a week for most people—so they needed to have a love of the arts, or crafts or some other creative thing to do in their leisure time. The future then looked very rosy.

Bretton lake where we walked and worked... and courted!
How wrong could we be. Working hours are now longer than ever and education has become a box ticking, target achieving way of getting or keeping a job. Young people’s choice of subject at university often depends on what will earn them the most money, not which subject they love and want to do. The 'arty-farty' has definitely gone.

So I became a wandering minstrel, an itinerant musician going from one gig to another, mainly folk clubs in pub rooms but the occasional weekend festival.
And then one day one of those serendipitous things happened. I played at a folk club near Brighton and the organiser happened to be the head of a local primary school. He put me up for the night and asked whether I had to rush off in the morning and, if not, whether I fancied going in and singing some songs to the kids at his school. He would pay me. It would more or less double my club fee. So, of course I did and I really enjoyed it. Going in as a singer was much different to being a teacher.

From then on it was something I did regularly. 
Pete and Bing Lyle 1995
If I was going to be in an area for a few days I’d contact several schools and see whether they’d like to have me. When I confirmed bookings with clubs I’d ask whether any of their regulars could organise me a school gig as well. I was able to get a lot of work in that way and built up a repertoire of songs, and later stories as well, which went down well. I didn’t set out to teach anything particular, just to give them a memorable experience. Live music, particularly folk music, was something most wouldn’t experience normally. Over the years I built on this and did several long term residencies, and regular visits to particular schools. As well as singing I taught country dances, produced mummers plays, got the children writing songs… all kinds of things. As well as solo work I worked for many years as a duo with Bing Lyle and later with Keith Kendrick. There was a time, around 1990 I guess, when there was so much schools work going that I deliberately downplayed it because I didn’t want to become known as ‘a children’s entertainer’. 

And then it stopped.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Creativity

The government suddenly interfered in education and laid down rules. The National Curriculum was introduced. Before you could present something to a class of children you had to write down what Attainment Targets would be met; what the children would learn; what your aims were… It was the exact opposite of how we worked at college. Freedom of thought and creativity was definitely out, a child could not be allowed to make a mental leap and connect a song I sang with something they’d heard about in another lesson, no, they had to learn something I said they were going to learn and nothing else. Plans could not be open-ended.
It’s got steadily worse because funding is now so tight that a school often can’t find the money to pay a visiting artist unless s/he comes with a ready made funding package from some outside source, so work in schools has almost dried up. I could definitely not just phone around as I did in 1978 and arrange to drop in for a morning or an hour.

And who suffers?
The kids, of course.

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