The Shakespeare Schools Festival proves local state schools are no “exam factories”

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.


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

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One thought on “The Shakespeare Schools Festival proves local state schools are no “exam factories””

  1. Thinking back to my own days at (comprehensive) school, it is this kind of experience that had real impact. Children can only learn when they’re engaged and you can’t engage them by teaching them to pass exams, which is becoming more and more like multiple choice. Someone told me the other day that English GCSE examiners don’t even have to have read the texts. This may be a vicious urban myth but the very idea that it can be bandied around is an indication of how deadened so much education has become.

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