Last night, I was delighted to watch four state schools perform the socks off Shakespeare at the Unicorn Theatre. They were all taking part in a nation-wide initiative called the Shakespeare Schools Festival (SSF). My son’s school, Bethnal Green Technology College, was participating in the festival for the first time; he was lucky enough to have a role in their shortened version of Romeo and Juliet. A dynamic young English teacher at the school had worked incredibly hard on the production, working with her actors exhaustively, sometimes until late into the evening. The result was brilliant; a hard-hitting, beautifully staged production of the play. I know all the actors learnt a great deal from the experience; improving their literacy skills, their social skills, their dramatic skills and much else. You can really put a price on the value of these sorts of experiences; they can’t be quantified by an exam grade. These “hands-on” experiences are where true learning takes place.
It makes me cross that certain private schools think that they have a monopoly on these kinds of experience. The headmaster of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon, accused state schools of becoming exam factories at the expense of educating the whole child. I think nothing could be further from the truth. The SSF shows this very clearly; here are state schools from all over the country performing the Bard’s work in professional settings — often in top-class theatres — and doing a great job. The other performances last night were very good as well; here were children from very diverse backgrounds rising to the challenge of making Shakespeare accessible. The audience genuinely laughed at Bottom’s antics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Malvolio’s misguided pomposity in Twelfth Night, and were shocked at Hamlet’s mad rampages in Shakespeare’s most complex play.
As the SSF website says: “Since 2000, 4,248 schools have taken up the challenge to become a Shakespeare School. SSF is the largest youth drama festival in the UK. For the last ten years we have worked with teachers to challenge the preconception that studying Shakespeare is difficult, dry or dull through a combination of teacher training, workshops and student performance in a local professional theatre. In the process we have enabled over 90,000 young people to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare through a creative, hands-on approach to the texts.”
The amazing success of the SSF proves that our state schools are the opposite of “exam factories” and are, in fact, enlightened places of active, “hands-on” learning. Above all, it shows that we have some amazing teachers and pupils who are willing to work above and beyond the call of duty because they love learning.