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Teachers, targets and theatre trips

When classic works of literature are taught as passages for analysis, what's the point in going to see the play?

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams
Columnist

Topics Politics

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According to Nicholas Hytner, award-winning film director and soon-to-be head of the Royal National Theatre, British children are growing up with no knowledge of the classic works of theatre.

‘Ideally, children would be exposed to the classics at school’, he said. ‘But there are children leaving our schools who have not seen a play, let alone performed in one.’

Theatres have always relied on school parties to make up their audience numbers for mid-week productions. So staging a play that is studied by GCSE and A-level students could be relied on to bring in revenue. Now, with fewer schools taking pupils on theatre trips, this source of audience is drying up.

There are many reasons why teachers are reluctant to take pupils to the theatre. Hynter blames money. ‘There is no money there to help them organise it, so it doesn’t happen anymore’, he reckons. No doubt English teachers would welcome extra funds for organising trips, but money alone doesn’t explain the decline in the number of trips to the theatre.

One thing that puts teachers off organising trips are the panics about what might happen when children are taken beyond the schoolgates – and the bureaucracy that these fears generate. When I organised a theatre trip for a small group of sixth formers to see a production of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I had to spend half a day writing, photocopying and issuing consent forms, finding out how each of the young adult students was going to get to the theatre, and notifying senior members of staff about our every move.

But other changes have had a bigger impact on organising theatre trips – particularly the way that classic works of literature are now taught in schools. The teaching of classic works tends to be so removed from context that meaning is lost, and a great piece of literature becomes a mere passage for analysis.

The former Tory government, recognising that fewer classic texts were being taught in schools, drew up a prescribed list of authors from which teachers could select material for classroom teaching. Such lists inevitably prove controversial, and the Tories’ suggested list raised predictable concerns about an overemphasis on Dead White European Males. But despite the fuss, at least the importance of giving children access to the classics was recognised at some level.

Now it is no longer considered good enough to leave teachers to a list of recommended authors. The government’s education policy lacks the political vision to impose anything so judgemental as a list of recommended authors. Instead, recent education policy is all about targets, tables and pass marks.

As a result, teachers are constantly teaching ‘for a test’ or in order to meet the next target. This has had a devastating impact on the teaching of literature.

Most secondary school teachers start the academic year with a class full of children and two lists – one of the National Curriculum Levels already gained by the pupils and one of target standards the pupils must reach over the coming year.

So much depends on meeting the listed targets – the teacher’s professional reputation; the reputation of the department within the school; the position of the school within local and national league tables; and, since the introduction of performance-related pay, a direct link has been forged between meeting targets and how much money teachers take home each month.

The focus on targets has a direct impact on how children are taught literature. By law, a secondary school teacher must get his or her class of 13-year-olds through a Shakespeare play before they sit their Key Stage exams. There are three plays to choose from, with those perceived as ‘difficult’ or ‘irrelevant’ ruled out. So the pupils study Romeo and Juliet – and long in advance, teachers will have been told which two selected extracts of the play (not even entire scenes) the children will be tested on.

Teachers will obviously spend much more time on these two extracts than on the rest of the play. Faced with a reluctant class, a few slow readers and perhaps some disruptive pupils, the temptation is to bring out a video and sit back as the children are spellbound by Baz Luhrman’s stunning version of Romeo + Juliet (and Leonardo DiCaprio’s stunning body).

Then you turn to the extracts. The pupils only have to answer one question, so they don’t have to study both extracts in the same detail – so you concentrate on one. Look carefully through past SATs papers and you can see a pattern to the questions posed. You can probably pick out three questions of which you can be certain that one will come up.

And this becomes your work for the rest of the year – to go over and over those three questions until the pupils could write the answers in their sleep. I wish I could say only a few bad teachers worked in this way, but unfortunately it seems to be rapidly becoming the norm. A great work of literature gets reduced to a hundred lines for analysis.

The effects are more devastating at GCSE level. So much depends for so many people on good GCSE results. Competing exam boards outdo each other to be seen as the most user friendly and as offering the simplest route through the National Curriculum. After choosing the ‘easiest’ syllabus, teachers then need to select the easiest texts. Anything over a hundred pages is a non-starter, as so much time will be spent reading that there won’t be any left for the essays.

What’s lacking is anything to excite the children and make them experience literature as something life-affirming and challenging. Reading becomes an exercise in spotting nouns and adjectives; there is nothing to engage or delight. Pupils lose out – growing up claiming to have ‘done’ Shakespeare and Dickens, when really they have experienced nothing of the sort.

According to author Doris Lessing, ‘The trouble is these new barbarians have no idea how ignorant they are, or how they would have been seen by their predecessors. Some of them are teachers. We have to face the fact that there are many who read nothing apart from the books on the syllabus; have never read for pleasure; and cannot pass on an enthusiasm let alone love, for their subject’.

It is this love of literature that some teachers used to pass on from one generation to the next. In Why Read the Classics, Italo Calvino places great importance on reading the classics while still young: ‘This youthful reading can be literally formative in that it gives a form or shape to our future experiences, providing them with models, ways of dealing with them, terms of comparison, schemes for categorising them, scales of value, paradigms of beauty: all things which continue to operate in us even when we remember little or nothing about the book we read when young.’

But youthful reading doesn’t occur of its own accord – it usually requires an enthusiastic lover of literature to ignite the spark. And that isn’t happening in schools today.

Back to theatre trips. The question is no longer ‘why aren’t teachers taking pupils to the theatre’, but ‘why on Earth would they?’. When the reality of the play seems so far removed from the laborious analysis in class, there would seem to be little point. Also, to put in the extra hours of spending an evening with 30 rowdy teenagers in a theatre, you really have to love the literature – you have to be motivated to want to inspire and impress the pupils with the greatness of the work. But teachers have had such enthusiasm removed under the weight of targets, lists and documentation.

A love of literature and a desire to take youngsters to the theatre can only blossom if we ditch the obsession with targets. If teachers can stop teaching ‘to the test’, they may start teaching because the subject motivates them. Then we might see theatres full of inspired youth.

Read on:

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Topics Politics

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