Monday, 4 November 2013

Soft Options and Hard Choices

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read this blog that last weekend's article in The Times outlining the latest plans to ensure rigour in our education system by removing so-called 'soft options' from the Curriculum somewhat got my goat. The subjects of Mr Gove's disapproval this time are Drama, PE, Media Studies, and Law. Subjects which the Secretary of State for Education deems unsuitable to be taken as GCSEs.

Well blow me down with a right-wing manifesto!

If there was ever further proof needed that Gove's 'reforms' were anything other than ideological, then here it is. Take a moment to read the list of 'soft' subjects again; Drama (about which much more later) PE, Media Studies and Law.

As someone who has worked in theatre and teaching for the best part of twenty five years, you won't be surprised that I will extol the myriad virtues of drama and performance (including music and dance) for the betterment of society until I am blue in the face. My previous post, entitled Uncomfortably Numb, sets out my stall about the absolute need for drama in education. Ironically, I don't teach GCSE Drama; we don't offer it, opting instead for the more vocational BTEC routes. And how Mr Gove hates those! But I will defend the right of all children to be able to study Drama as a GCSE.

I will also defend their right to study PE as a GCSE. If Mr Gove had his way, all the school playing fields would be sold off to private developers and school kids would be left to make do with a Wii-fit. Although he and all his Westminster friends are quick to bask in the reflected light of our Olympians and Paralympians and their success at London 2012, they do not feel the need to offer a qualification (or significant funding) to anyone who might just bring home the gold medals in 2016 or 2020.

Mr Gove is a former journalist - well, he worked for Rupert Murdoch which is close - but he doesn't want young people to learn about bias or representation, censorship or ethics. He doesn't want just any young council estate tearaway to have the opportunities offered to him. No articulate broadcasters who haven't been to Oxbridge. Anyway, just think of the savings his friends who run Academies and Free schools could make if they sold off the Mac computers, editing suite, cameras, tripods and other equipment. It wouldn't be long before all those expensive instruments and recording equipment were on EBay either. Oh, and the lighting rig; that drama studio will make a perfect exam hall.

The Law is the last refuge of the scoundrel, someone once said. It will also remain almost exclusively the preserve of the rich elite if Mr Gove has his plans approved. I am assured that, traditionally, no-one entering the legal profession would have a GCSE in Law. Instead they would probably have studied The Classics or Philosophy, Politics and Economics at University, and then specialised in Law. It is this tradition that I take issue with; why shouldn't a working class kid from Bradford, Birmingham, Barking or Barry Island have as much opportunity to study law as those from more affluent areas?

Much more has been written about the issue of 'soft options' - some fine examples can be found HERE

As parents and educators we face some very hard choices. Perhaps the most pressing is whether we are prepared to stand up to Gove's bullying tactics and fight for an education system free from political influence and one that is truly in the best interests of all children?

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Art For My Sake

I used to draw all the time as a kid. Doodling and sketching, drawing and painting. I used to love to get arty, inspired by Tony Hart and 'The Gallery' - first on Vision On and later on Take Hart. Pencils, crayons, felt tips, poster paint, brushes, plasticene, PVA...

And then, for some reason, as I grew older and gained responsibilities I just sort of stopped.

My wife draws and paints quite a lot; the kids are always making things, drawing and generally being crafty. The house is filled with pictures and pens, sketchbooks and scribbles, and yet I never really found the time to pick up a pencil myself.

Until a holiday to Cornwall in the Spring, and a trip to Penzance, where we spent about an hour and a few quid in The Works. We stocked up on a couple of new sketch pads for the girls, a set of pastels for Julia, and an A5 sketchbook for me. It had been a hard term at work and I was feeling very much in need of rest and relaxation. Julia suggested I do some art with her and the kids to take my mind off things. So I did. I really enjoyed it. So much so that we went back into Penzance a few days later and I bought myself some watercolour pencils, a set of graphite sketching pencils, a canvas pencil roll, a set of paint brushes, and a small art bin to keep everything in.

Now, none of my sketches or daubs are likely to find themselves a place at The Royal Academy, and David Hockney needn't lose any sleep, but I am pleased with the efforts I made. Not for any artistic merit they may or may not possess but for the process of change that I underwent whist re-discovering the pleasure of just making marks on paper.

On my return to work I mentioned my newly rekindled affair with art to my colleague (I share an office with an artist with a specialism in painting) and she was very encouraging. Another of my colleagues, this time a sculptor, said I should keep up the habit of drawing as and when I could, "It'll do you good" she said. At the end of the Summer term she made me a gift of a sketchbook and told me to fill it up over the summer holiday. I packed the sketchbook and my roll of pencils, and took them on holiday to Wales. Again, my wife was eager for us to draw and paint as a family. Our daughters enjoyed filling their scrapbooks with cut out pictures, drawings, leaflets, tickets and photos of the holiday. And I loved it!

Any of you reading this, especially those who are artistic, will shake your heads at this next paragraph in a 'he's stating the bleeding obvious' kind of way, but those few days where I had the time, the inclination, and the opportunity to draw were a revelation. Drawing made me look at things in a different way. I noticed shape, line, texture, space, proportion and detail much more acutely. I became more observant, and whilst I was drawing I was not thinking about work...

I have tried a number of new media - pastels, pen and ink, wet on wet painting - since the holiday, and I have noticed that I have become much freer in my mark making. At first I was timid, almost not daring to besmirch the paper. Now I am much happier to commit to an idea and go for it, and not worry that it has to be right. These things have seeped into my everyday life too. I don't feel as though everything has to be right, I am more inclined to take a risk or two. I'm not afraid to make my mark.

There was an article in The Guardian on the 7th of October 2013 written by the BBC journalist and broadcaster, Andrew Marr, in which he described how drawing had helped him in his recovery from a stroke. I read it with interest and it confirmed what, as a creative person, I knew all along; art of any kind is a powerful thing.

So, if you haven't picked up a pencil or paintbrush in years, or you think that you can't be creative with a crayon, think again. Give it a go. You'll enjoy it and you might find out something about yourself along the way.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

His Story Repeats

Recently, I have been working on the final performance project for our second year students. They have been rehearsing a show with the HND students: The Theatre Workshop's brilliant satire on the futility of conflict, 'Oh What A Lovely War'

At first they didn't quite get what the whole thing was about. The Music Hall style, the historical references, and their own lack of knowledge about the First World War were significant barriers to their enjoyment of and engagement with the material. This concerned me to begin with but then I came to understand some of the reasons behind what, at first, seemed like ignorance.

Without wishing to come over all Gove here - my regular reader will know that I have little or no sympathy with his particular (lack of) educational vision - it does seem to stem from the students' experience of history and, more specifically, how it is taught.

History is a continuum of events that we should, ideally, learn from and that can, sadly, be manipulated to serve any number of political or other nefarious means. It is complex and confusing.
A lot like the everyday life that we lead.
One of the frustrations that I have with the way in which (most) young people engage with the world is that they have been distracted from what really matters by the promise of a shiny, advanced and, above all, easy future - just as long as they leave all the messy decisions to somebody else. That is, I am aware, a huge sweeping generalisation and there are thousands of young people across the world,
right now, fighting, literally in many cases, for a better future. But in my small corner of the globe, the apathy and disengagement is worrying.

Being the performing arts, our courses attract more female students than male ones. I have written before about how we need to build the sense of self and self-worth in all our young people, especially girls. In one rehearsal we reached the scene in Oh What A Lovely War that features a brief appearance by the character of Mrs Pankhurst. In the scene, she is heckled by a crowd of onlookers as she attempts to spread her message of pacifism. This led to a discussion about attitudes to pacifism, conscientious objection, and the role of women in peace movements and politics. The young lady playing Mrs Pankhurst in the scene had heard of the Suffragette movement and knew it had something to do with the King's horse but beyond that, her knowledge was sketchy. After a further, brief discussion about the place of women in Edwardian society, we ran the scene again and the difference in the performance was a marked one: the young actress delivered her lines with conviction and a level of passion that she had, hitherto, not displayed. The 'crowd' reacted in kind and the scene took on a new intensity.
When I asked her what had caused the difference, the actress said, "It meant something...I just had to make them listen!" - she had connected with the material.
The rest of the rehearsal buzzed along nicely, feeding off the energy of that initial scene. As the session drew to a close I mentioned that there were a couple of programmes on TV that week that were about the Suffragette movement. Clare Balding's documentary about Emily Davidson and her fatal protest at The Derby, and a new comedy by Jessica Hynes, called 'Up The Women'.

At the next rehearsal, having watched the programmes, the young actress came in full of indignation at the fact that no-one at school had told her about the Suffragette movement in any detail. She felt that there was so much else to find out and know about - I was smiling by this point, knowing that a fire had been lit - and how "doing this play" had opened her eyes to how history shapes our lives. "It was never like that at school, even when we did do stuff about the First World War, it was always battles and generals and I found it boring. I learned more about attitudes to women in a half an hour comedy programme than I did in all my GCSE history classes."

We went on to discuss how theatre and literature can bring out the lessons and messages from historical events, and how playwrights use historical periods as allegories for their own times. We talked about 'The Crucible' and how that was really about American politics of the 1950s. We discussed Brian Friel's play, 'Making History' which is all about how history is written by the victors, and how facts can be manipulated to suit a particular agenda. We talked about how so much of history is written from a man's perspective. This brought us back to the use of propaganda in the First World War and how people at home were lied to about what was happening on the battlefields of Europe.
The discussion ended with us getting back onto the stage and blocking some of the scenes we had yet to stage. As we were about to start, the young actress said, "This is why I like doing makes me think about things...and it makes me feel about them, too. Do you know what I mean?"

And I do.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

It has been a while...

I haven't had much chance lately to post anything on this blog. Partly to do with being very busy at work, and partly to do with having so much to write about. I seem to remember saying something similar previously

Well, now I have a little bit of time, if not space (I am currently on a coach returning from a couple of days in London) to write. Several topics have crossed my vision lately; the usual suspects that you know are my particular hobby-horses. So, I thought that I might write a kind of composite post or two that cover a few things.

Our students are coming up to the end of term and have been working on their final performance projects. One year group have performed a piece called 'A Fish Out Of Water' - an original devised piece about how it might be to look at the world anew. How would it feel if you had never seen light, or felt heat, or had a physical body? Quite existential stuff, for GCSE level students, you might think. However the group responded really well to the idea and developed a piece of engaging, focused and thoughtful theatre. For the students themselves it was a major achievement to work together in the creation of something that asked some quite profound questions, and to do so in a way that required them to find the courage to be still, quiet and focused onstage, under the critical gaze of an audience. Witnessing their growth in self-confidence and self-awareness is always a pleasure and a privilege.

Our first years put together a compilation of songs and routines from several well-known musicals. A contrast to the first piece to be sure. They had to select the material, choreograph and stage the routines themselves (with guidance) with one condition: no copying of routines from previous productions or YouTube clips!
Giving them ownership of the project was the best move that the teaching team could have made. The students more than stepped up to the challenge, taking on the responsibilities for the show from rehearsals to front-of-house, lighting design to costume sourcing. The show was a great example of applied learning; the culmination of all the sessions and tutorials throughout the year. What the project did was cement for the students theory into practice. Now, anyone who has worked on a collaborative project will be familiar with the journey as the collection of individuals become a group with common goals and purpose, who learn to put the success of the project as a whole over individual glory. But for this group, who have struggled with some of these concepts over the year, it was a particularly important experience.

As a brief side-note to this; it was especially pleasing to watch a very accomplished and mature piece of contemporary dance created and performed by two of the students, both of whom have had the chance to work as mentors with the brilliant Dance United, an organisation who do such important work with disadvantaged and disengaged young people. The duet literally took the audience's breath away. It was beautiful.

The post-show evaluations after both of the productions were positive with many of the students talking of increased respect for one another, of sharing a sense of pride in themselves and their peers, and of feeling that they had really achieved something.

I mention this with a mixture of intense pride in the staff team for guiding the students so care-fully and the students themselves for the effort that they invested in the projects, and a dismay that these sorts of experiences may not be afforded to children and young people in schools and colleges as the arts are excised from the curriculum. We simply cannot afford to let this happen: it is just too important that the future generations are afforded the opportunity to discover things about the world and themselves in a safe and creative space. Otherwise we risk the situation where bored, confused and angry young people seek an outlet for their frustrations, and, unless we help them to be creative, this is likely to be destructive.