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Cable Street Songwriters

Link to project blog:


Project overview


Cable Street Songwriters (CSS) is an interschool songwriting project for Key Stage 2 children from 3 participating primary schools in East London, UK.

At a glance:


  • Project duration: 4 school terms

  • With: 3 East London primary schools

  • Who: 90 KS2 children participated across the project*

  • When: weekly sessions at each school + termly school meets

*NB project participation included a combination of whole class groups, and in-school-hours clubs as additional provision.




CSS takes place in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. As an area of acute inequality, in 2017 this local authority was documented as having the highest level of child poverty in the UK (see End Child Poverty, Stone & Hirsch, 2019). Cable Street has a history of migrant populations and anti-fascist protest. Today it is home to a large British Bangladeshi community. Ghettoization and segregation is a growing problem for this community as religious tensions, particularly regarding fear and sense of ‘other’ or ‘threat’, is attributed to those of Islamic faith – an issue spotlighted by Sadiq Khan, the current London Mayor (and practising Muslim) when he hosted the inaugural Social Integration Conference 2016, at City Hall. I developed CSS whilst teaching music at one of the participating primary schools prior to PhD study (2009-2014). Tower Hamlets is the borough in which I lived and grew up. When establishing CSS, I understood it to be a response to growing divisions in my home community and an attempt to create a space where different communities could come together.

Why this project for PhD study?

Since my PhD study is supported by a York St John University studentship, I was initially reluctant to undertake PhD practice in London. London is frequently reported as receiving disproportionate funding for the arts relative to the rest of England (for discussion see, Stark, Gordon & Powell, 2013; 2016), subsequently utilising Yorkshire funds in London felt wrong. At the same time, I felt a deep-seated tension in establishing practice for inquiry within a context that I was new to (see discussion of facilitator as outsider on the Musication PaR setting page). However, keen to undertake research as an extension of my professional practice, and since this group supported much of my early learning as a facilitator, I wondered what a return (Hughes & Lury, 2013) to this formative practice as a practitioner-researcher might offer. Moreover, having had some time away from CSS, which I identified as a critical incident (Tripp, 2011), or rather critical period of practice, I was curious to explore how my assumptions and approaches may have shifted through conscious effort towards critical reflection with the purpose to research, rather than reflection with the purpose of improving workshop practice, which could lead to ‘Technical Rationality’ (Schön, 1983/1991). I contacted schools that had previously participated in CSS and following initial meetings, whereby I outlined my research proposal and potential to collaborate, three schools agreed to participate in the study.



CSS, (formerly Cable Street Voices) originally took place as an after-school singing club for 75 minutes per week. The weekly workshops were held in the school that I taught at, with nearby participating schools supporting provision for c.10 children from their school to attend the club at this off-site location. Due to recent cuts to budgets and teaching assistant posts, at the initial meetings with participating schools each told me that whilst they were keen to participate, a weekly off-site meet would no longer be possible. Through discussion, and in attempt at a creative response, the teachers and I agreed to;

Weekly workshops at each participating school

To pursue a pass-the-baton songwriting process

Scaffolded by a project blog alongside termly ‘school meets’ whereby participating schools would come together for joint workshops

cable street songwriters blog


Recognising this as an act of responsiveness within a broader commitment to collaborative inquiry, and keen to explore what interschool collaboration across distance might offer to the research, I pursued a pass-the-baton-songwriting process with the children. This process was inspired by a Music in Detention approach to ‘music and messages between students and detainees’ (2015). Visiting each school separately once a week, I took the same songwriting scaffolds by way of a starting point to each group. Group agreed ideas were noted on a flipchart and taken to each school - this grew to a large role of paper whereby ideas were added, changed and removed through negotiation. Alongside focus given to lyric, melody and rap creation, each group articulated that they would like to play instruments. Instruments available to each school were incorporated in sessions guided by the context and with varying degrees of success.

The blog served as a space to add developing sonic ideas so that the children could listen to each other’s verse and chorus contributions. Some schools set-up ICT club provision to support access to the blog for children that did not have internet access at home. The school meets offered a space for the children to visit each other’s schools, generate ideas in interschool groups and sing through their joint songs. Alongside pass-the-baton-songwriting, it felt necessary to support the independent identities of participating schools. The project was opened out to children in different ways at each school; a lunch club, an afternoon club that coincided with ‘golden time’ and a whole class ‘lesson’. The group participating as a whole class were particularly keen to make their ‘own’ songs. This was perhaps indicative of misunderstanding the project for a music lesson. And since lessons are compulsory, this raised several points of tension regarding opt-in processes that required continual conversation with the children and teachers (see the ethics section of this portfolio for further discussion). In response to the children’s request to make their ‘own’ songs, each school was invited to create their own band identity and to make their own songs alongside the interschool collaboration. See: The Brilliant Banging Blues, The Crushing Keys and The Rocking Stars.

Song ideas and lyrics


Reflection for PhD PaR settings is made available through critical incident discussion within this online portfolio and the exegesis. Here, I offer some brief points specific to CSS. Undertaking community music practice within schools, and particularly when working with a whole class, often required directive and instructional approaches in my role as facilitator. This led me to question - when was I practicing as a music teacher or community musician, and what purpose does such distinction between roles and approaches to inclusive music-making serve? Moreover, how might longevity of commitment to communities from school based projects support possibility for community musicians to open spaces through which the ideals of cultural democracy might emerge? Despite working with each school across four terms, CSS felt like a relative toe dip compared to the engagements of my five years as a music teacher in the area. (NB 2 of the participating schools are to maintain a relationship through planned song sharing events at each school). Working with the intention to support participant creation of their ‘own’ music in large group contexts, led me to question the extent to which my work as a community musician in schools emulated democratisation of culture practices rather than cultural democracy. For discussion see critical incident We all like different things. 


Greater London Authority. (2016, November 14). Today Mayor of London hosts social integration conference. City Hall Blog.

Hughes, C., & Lury, C. (2013). Re-turning feminist methodologies: from a social to an ecological epistemology. Gender and Education, 25(6), 786–799.

Music in Detention. (2015). Strong Voices – The Harbour Sessions.

Schön, D. A. (1991). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Ashgate Publishing. (Original work Published 1983)

Stark, P., Gordon, C., & Powell, D. (2013). Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital: A contribution to the debate on national policy for the arts and culture in England. GPS Culture.

Stark, P., Gordon, C., & Powell, D. (2016). A Policy for the Arts and Culture in England The Next Steps? A contribution to the national debate in the context of new arrangements for local government. GPS Culture.

Stone, J., & Hirsch, D. (2019) Local indicators of child poverty, 2017/18, Summary of estimates of child poverty in small areas of Great Britain, 2017/18. Loughborough University.

Tripp, D. (2011). Critical Incidents in Teaching. Developing Professional Judgement. Routledge.

Related critical incidents
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