I went to my eldest’s carol service the other night. It was held in the local Church, which was heaving. I soon saw why. Actually, that’s wrong, I heard why.
Like many readers, I have been to quite a few school carol services over the years. In my Inspecting days, it would not be unusual for a visit to ‘coincide’ with the choir’s/orchestra’s/wind band’s performance to the school in assembly, so likewise I’ve witnessed many other school musical events.
Well, this was the best. OK, so having one’s own child might, I accept, skew my view. I’ve noticed that the performance of Premier League referees does seem to change when they are in charge of the side I follow, with their best performances seeming to coincide when my team are on top. But despite this, the service really was an outstanding eighty or so minutes.
There was representation from the Year 7 and 8 choir, an orchestra that accompanied every single congregational carol – so good that by three lines into the second verse of ‘Once in Royal…’ you just forgot you were listening to a group of youngsters; the main choir were simply stunning, breathtaking in fact and there was also a Jazz Band and a great little guitar ensemble. Participation was completely voluntary, and the event took place in the evening so that parents could more easily attend.
I can’t name the school, but Mr Powell, as the best teachers say, you know who you are.
Yet, naturally, this praise is extended to all the Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms Powells across the country, and their counterparts Mr Garrick and Mrs, Miss and Ms Mirrens from schools’ drama departments.
Because I fear for drama and music at the moment. Not because of a lack of talent or commitment from staff (does anybody put in as much time as a good music or drama teacher?), Mr Powell and his team proved that in spade loads. No, it is the lack of value placed on these so essential elements of the wider curriculum that schools should be offering their students.
That lack of value is seen everywhere – Government, headteachers, the ‘Daily Mail’ reading element of society and the fun blunters from further left. Occasionally, sadly, also parents and students themselves. Few could argue that the two subjects, by being placed in the ‘Open’ Progress 8 category, are being told that they are just not as important as academic subjects. Therefore, inevitably, matters such as funding, resourcing and staffing are squeezed.
But it is not even this that causes me most worry. Our system is now so obsessed with outcomes, judgements so dependent on public examination results that we are genuinely forgetting some essential facts about learning.
- Children learn best when they are happy
- They achieve most when their self-esteem is high
- School is a preparation for life
And this is where music and drama can offer so much to a young person, and of course, therefore, the school itself. I could include sport here, because that too offers young people the chance to excel in the above three bullet points, but sport is so dominant in popular culture these days that opportunities remain manifold.
The chance for students to contribute to music and drama performances (these are what I am really getting at) is not the same. There is much less push from society to play the oboe than take up daily exercise. Performances need substantial time commitment from staff, teachers who are already under extensive pressure with their teaching duties. They need the availability of rehearsal space. They require an ethos where the arts are valued, and this must come from the top. How many senior managers pay no more than lip service to the arts? If all of the above is in place, they then require two elements often under considered by those not used to working in the arts areas of school:
- They need the commitment of the pupils –that will almost certainly mean giving up lunch time or after school hours.
And let’s be honest, for most, the choice between going to a football club or rehearsing a scene from Romeo and Juliet is going to see the budding Mercutio swapping his leather tunic for a pair of shorts and sports top. Perhaps that is why it is such a struggle to get boys involved in the arts in many schools.
- Next, they need money.
A great school play is not going to be measurable for OFSTED, and won’t give an immediate upturn in GCSE results (enshrine it into the ethos of the school, though, and you will see progress pretty quickly) but still costs a fair whack. £2000 is a tight sum for most medium sized productions.
Finally, more than anything, music and drama events need time; time to run a dress rehearsal, time to put a concert together, time for performers and their teachers – time so the pupils can ensure that what their parents and other audience members will see is of the highest quality. Because that is very important.
How many heads are prepared to grant this? For my own child’s school carol service, the students were allowed to miss a couple of lessons on one day. Everything else was squeezed in where it could be. Mr Powell, I suspect, was luckier than most teachers trying to give their students an experience they will never forget.
There are no world tests to see where Britain ranks when it comes to school plays; no measure of the direct benefits pupils gain from having their enthusiasm and skill recognised; little (if any) nod to such endeavours in an OFSTED report; no chart showing the pleasure and happiness experienced by parents from seeing the show.
But the buzz led by my child as we drove home – somebody usually quite reticent about school – showed that her involvement, singing in the choir, was more important than anything else she had embraced this year.