Hannah may not get very close to an actual hymn sheet, but I’ve done my time with them. I’ve been around schools for such a long time I’ve done hymns in assembly and hymn practice as a punishment. From Victorian doggerel to fancy modern jobs reeking of substitutionary atonement Ive shouted ‘Louder!’ with the best of them. Having a full set of the same hymn sheets was a luxury. Some partially eaten, many illegible. Some had hymns under different numbers, others unpredictable new words. Hymn sheet rustling was another irritant: rehearsals for cathedral events involved training hordes in picking up and putting down a hymn sheet QUIETLY. We moved on to projectors, overhead then digital, with a trusty child to move the words on while everyone looked upwards angelically to sing from one glorious hymn sheet with ginormous writing.
If you’ll bear with what’s obviously a metaphor extended beyond endurance, there's a further complication on Sundays. Hymns have been rewritten or adjusted to improve or take out the gratuitously offensive. A lucky congregation has a full set with the same words, but people remember the old words and sing them instead. Or do it from memory and ignore the hymn book altogether. I may be one of those people. Then there’s the curve ball of Right Hymn but Wrong Tune.
Singing from the same hymn sheet with up-to-date and acceptable words to the right tune is obviously the harmonious way to go. The Geographers above will do it naturally. Doing it across school is a sine qua non of effective leadership, every procedure clear, everyone knowing what they're doing. I love an agreed procedure, but only where necessary. If all of life is scripted, when do we write our own lines?
Single hymnsheet-ness is big in schools. We are trusted to look after the nation’s young, so we shouldn’t do it randomly. We’re paid by the state so we should plan it carefully. We’re highly educated so so we should do it effectively. We're human, so we should do it humanely.
There’s been a bit of a to-do this term about schools with fixed rules. One was about trousers in Houghton-le-Spring. I was Head of RE there for 3 years, and once had a conversation about lecterns with a child that I still can’t fathom. (How exactly do they run up and down the street all night, banging on doors and windows?). Uniform in most schools is the uber-hymn sheet, but you’ve heard me on that before. The second, Great Yarmouth, story which has attracted so much interest it could almost be upgraded to a hoo-hah, is about the single hymn sheet for everything. Uniform, listening, pencil cases, walking, going home, bed time, coat hangers, sitting up straight. It's a bit extra, but schools have always had different ways of going about stuff and what appears oppressive to one child may be liberation to another.
However, given that the unexamined life is not worth living, we have to be prepared to live with the examining. Where is the line between wanting to enable children to escape generational poverty, and denigrating the efforts of those who have loved and supported their children despite it? If a school wishes its children to transcend their parents lives, what are we saying about our fellow citizens’ choices? If uniform is exposed as being all about conformity and conservatism, what to do with the child wired as a rugged individual? Is the single hymn sheet always a good thing? What if the words don’t make any sense? What if there’s another tune?
I'm a tidy soul and can see that purity of heart is to will one thing, but I struggle when that becomes a red line. We all have our fancy rules to keep one another safe and make it possible to teach and to learn but further than that, what? We can’t claim we’ve learned anything about social justice, that’s for sure. Or defeating poverty. Or making children happier. How is a zero-tolerance hymn sheet riffing on conformity and conservatism the answer?
The best school hymn was written in 1931 by the agnostic Jan Struther to a folk tune called Stowey, a three-verse metaphor requiring no faith assumptions. When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old ends with
And let me set free with the sword of my youth
From the dragons of anger, the power of the truth.
It’s a hymn worth learning off by heart to sing on your own no matter what everyone else has on their hymn sheet. What kind of school enables children to embark on battle and adventure to understand the world and change it for the better?