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Music and Makaton at Richmond Hill Primary Academy

Many people will be familiar with the BBC children’s television programme ‘Something Special’ and character Mr Tumble, who uses Makaton to communicate with viewers. Makaton is a language programme designed to support speech by using signs and symbols in spoken word order. It is particularly helpful for those who find verbal communication difficult and provides users with a means to connect more easily with those around them.

Our home, The Point, is currently Doncaster’s only registered Makaton-friendly venue – one of only five such venues in Yorkshire – and many of darts’ artists are trained in the use of Makaton.

Richmond Hill Primary Academy identified Makaton as a potentially useful tool after a child entered their reception class having used it in a previous setting. Linking a desire to develop their knowledge of Makaton with a need to increase music provision in school, darts collaborated with Richmond Hill to develop a unique project.

Musician Dyzelle Sutherland worked with two classes of reception pupils aged 4-5 to address the question ‘Can the use of music and Makaton increase the understanding of verbal instructions by SEN pupils?’

Dyzelle created a bespoke ‘welcome song’ performed at the beginning of each session designed to teach staff and pupils basic signs and assess how everyone felt that day.

As the weeks progressed, Dyzelle then began to introduce numerous musical concepts including beat, melodic rhythm, notation, pitch and texture and demonstrated how Makaton could be applied to teaching. The content of each session reinforced and enhanced classroom delivery, as learning was linked to curriculum topic work. Children were also given challenges to complete at home.

By the end of the ten weeks, the focus of the project at Richmond Hill Primary Academy had evolved beyond simply answering the original enquiry question and had not only achieved but exceeded anticipated outcomes. SEN pupils are now more likely to reach their potential and are achieving above their age related expectations. All pupils have benefited from improved access to the curriculum and a more enjoyable learning experience.

Music and Makaton were useful vehicles to peak the children’s interest. They enjoyed having a visitor in school and looked forward to their weekly visits. They were exposed to new subject matter and different experiences, including unusual musical instruments that the school would otherwise not have access to.

The use of Makaton signs and symbols resulted in greater focus and better concentration, as pupils paid closer attention to staff in order not to miss the signs. They retained the information they had learned from week to week and easily absorbed new concepts. By the end of the project teachers told us;

You could see the difference in concentration span. It was in the afternoon as well, which has a big impact with young children at the back end of the week.

The project lead to improved confidence and communication in all who took part. Both teachers and pupils went on a learning journey, developing their skills in music and Makaton together. Teachers told us that their subject knowledge increased greatly over the course of the ten weeks, primarily due to having access to a specialist who could model techniques in the classroom setting:

I would never have felt confident or comfortable teaching things such as pitch, rhythm or musical notation accurately before the project.

Children were also provided with a unique opportunity to see adults as learners; making mistakes, getting things wrong and trying again. This created an environment where children felt safe and happy to take risks:

She is a child that is not forthcoming, but she has gained confidence throughout all the subject areas. She has brought beat and tapping into counting and that was her idea. She is not frightened of getting things wrong.

The visual and verbal nature of Makaton enabled those who struggled with communication for whatever reason to take an active part in sessions and find their own voice;

She used to sit and stare at you when you asked her to join in. She would put her head down and not do anything asked of her. [The project] enabled her to connect and respond and we saw this change.

The use of Makaton proved such a useful tool in reinforcing classroom teaching that by the end of the project it had become embedded in school life:

Makaton must be used throughout the day to make it meaningful and embed it. It is an essential string to children’s communication bows.

Children sign ‘hello’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and to express their emotions on a daily basis. They use Makaton without being prompted and are keen to add more signs to their repertoire in order to better express themselves. As well as signing with their peers and class teachers, children have also shared their learning at home;

Parents and childminders have commented on it. Parents have been saying ‘We are really impressed with the Makaton work you have been doing’. Parents have said they are doing it all the time, teaching aunties, uncles and grandparents. So it’s created a buzz.

The project has also sparked interest amongst the school community more widely and teachers aim to carry on using Makaton with the children as they move up through the year groups. One reception teacher is about to embark on the Makaton foundation course, the learning from which will then be shared with other staff, and the dedicated Makaton sessions for one afternoon per week will continue for the foreseeable future.

Following on from the success of this project, Grange Lane Infant Academy will begin a one year programme in September 2016, examining the impact of music and Makaton with their early years and Key Stage One pupils. Our learning from this project will also be used to support a three year funding application to Youth Music, focussing on the development of communication skills in children and young people in Doncaster’s special schools.

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