Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Right to Play, and to Be In One - by John Dougherty

I was going to write a frivolous little piece about something-or-other today, but then I read this in the Telegraph - not my usual paper of choice, but it was there and I'm a textoholic (in the sense of finding myself compelled to read text, rather than having to send them...).

Anyway, for anyone who can't be bothered to follow the link, the gist is that a new campaign group, Action for Children's Arts - including such luminaries from the world of kidlit as Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and Dame Jacqueline Wilson - is arguing that the UK government is failing to ensure certain rights of children (as enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) are met. These include the right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. ACA has produced a manifesto, which is worth a look.

There's some - to my mind - obvious stuff the government could do straight away that would help. Getting rid of those useless SATS things would be a start, as would giving teachers and schools a bit more responsibility for deciding what to teach and how to teach it. However, that aside, there's one thing that could be done immediately which would increase children's participation in cultural life and the arts: Bring Back the School Play.

Some of you will say, 'I didn't know it had gone away,' and it may be that your kids are the lucky ones. But when I was a lad (cue: extract from Dvorak's New World Symphony), every year we had at least 2 proper public performances - usually a nativity and a concert. And we spent hours on these; coming up to Christmas the focus was on making sure the play went well, and all the other stuff had to be fitted in around it. 

During my own teaching career, though, I was aware of a decline in the amount of time that sometimes went into school plays, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. I know of one school round here that, a few years back, cancelled the Year 6 Christmas play on the grounds that the children needed to concentrate on their SATS; whether it's since been reinstated I have no idea.

I'm not going to spend time here expounding the reasons being in a school play can be good for children; it just can, okay? What I am going to say is that the school play has suffered because it's not one of the government's official measures: no school is going to get marked down by Ofsted for not doing one, whereas they will if they miss out on Literacy or Numeracy Hour during the week of inspection, even if it's the last school week before Christmas. And no school is going to slip down the league tables if their plays are a bit rubbish.

It's no good blaming the schools - which the DCSF is likely to do, given half a chance, based on previous form. If you measure people on narrow targets, and punish them for failing to achieve them, who can blame them if they aim for those and let the rest go hang? But if culture and the arts are important - and they are - the place we give them must be bigger than the little corner that's left after all the targety stuff is fitted in.

3 comments:

Nick Green said...

Well said. My absolute fondest memories of primary school revolve around various plays... and I never even had a major acting role.

Most vividly I remember our play 'Troy' that condensed the Illiad and the Odyssey into a nifty 60 minutes, in which a boy otherwise known for being a bit of a ruffian played Odysseus. He was a star. That shoddy, homemade mangling of Homer's epic poems was a life-changing event for dozens of kids, including me. Are they really ready to throw all that away?

Charlie Butler said...

Not only that, but the demise of the nativity play could well spell the end for the tottering British tea-towel industry...

Lucy Coats said...

Our village school has just closed. There will be no more nativity plays in our little Saxon church, no more huddling shepherds in tea towels, and stars in tinsel crowns. I hope that wherever the children are going on to will have a play--but even if they do, it won't be more than one a year. How are the actors of the future ever going to blossom if they don't start somewhere? I so agree with you, John. But the dreaded 'elf and safety' fairy has sprinkled no-can-do powder on school plays. Parents who want to help will now probably have to get a CRB check in order to do so. Targetry must be evicted, and common-sense, fun and real all-round learning be brought back. Otherwise, instead of enquiring minds exploring a broad base of education, we will have robots stuffed full of nothing but exam-passing techniques. I have nothing but admiration for the job teachers do in the face of these horrific diktats from the government. But school plays are just one among a myriad things (like sport) which will be left to languish in a corner unless we all shout and scream and complain like Phillip, Michael and Jacqueline are doing with Action for Childrens Arts.