'Please stop telling us that the arts subjects are worth less than others'

One theatre and drama teacher implores Nicky Morgan to stop suggesting to his students that the subject is not important, and to applaud pupils' desire to learn

Rob Messik

Coronavirus: Pupils who missed out on their final term in primary school have lost valuable rights of passage, like the summer production, writes teacher Steve Eddison

Last night was GCSE options evening. That time of year when you get to stand at a stall and sell your subject, trying to illustrate why students should choose your humble offerings over the cornucopia of other subjects on display.

I’ve been teaching for almost 12 years now and have long since learned how to handle the inevitable comments from parents about the subject content of A-level or GCSE drama; have long since learned to smile serenely as I’m asked how many different trees their children will pretend to be over the course; learned to chuckle along when asked to describe just what colours they will attempt to imitate. I did, on one occasion, have to bite my tongue rather hard when asked by a gentleman why his son should spend two years learning how to shout, but on the whole, I remain polite, speak calmly and attempt to extol the virtues of a subject that I know is an incredibly valuable one for all concerned.

But, I’m finding it harder and harder to be polite. And I find that I have far fewer reasons to bite my tongue, because, to be honest, I’m getting a little fed up with it.

Back in November 2014, education secretary Nicky Morgan announced that for young people, the decision to study arts subjects could hold them back for the rest of their lives. Debate raged at the time, with advocates of the arts arguing about just how unhelpful a comment like this was, and with the government claiming that wasn’t what it meant at all, but not actually retracting the statement.

In June of last year it was discussed how schools might suffer in league tables if they didn’t push students to take the English Baccalaureate suite of subjects, thus marginalising creative subjects even more. And so it continues.

I’m not a politician. I can’t comment on the pressures of running a country; on the challenges of creating policies that appeal to the majority of people whilst benefitting the country financially, environmentally and educationally; the hardships between trying to balance what the people want with what the people need. I’m a teacher. I work with children. I can comment on that.

'My subject changes young lives'

I get to see the benefits of subjects such as drama. I get to see students who can barely speak above a whisper embark on a course that teaches them confidence beyond their wildest dreams. I get to see those self-same students walk a little taller at the end of the course because of the fears they have faced head on and overcome.

I get to see students learn humility, due to the sheer hard graft and attention to detail that goes into creating a piece of theatre that can move a room full of strangers. I get to see ego-driven teenagers who believe that the world exists solely for them having to learn compromise and teamwork as they are forced to manage their peer group in order to produce a finished performance. And I get to see people learning how to communicate in the most fundamental fashion – a skill that they will have to use every single day of their lives.

This, like so many of the arts subjects, teaches a discipline whereby students are made to balance practical skills with academic rigour, because make no mistake, the study of drama and theatre is very much an academic subject; texts are explored; theories considered and essays written. They just happen to go alongside trying to stage full-scale productions and considering how all the elements of theatre – movement, voice, lighting, sound, costume, set – can communicate the company’s intentions to those watching.

I am not an expert on politics and I’m sure were Nicky Morgan to have a conversation with me she could quote statistic after statistic supporting her views and her arguments. But my response would be the same – just please stop telling my students that what they do is worth less than other subjects. Please stop giving other students platforms to belittle the choices they’re making. Why not try saying to them, "Congratulations, you actually want to study. Well done. Good luck."

Surely if we can create a system where students study because they want to study; and schools teach because they want children to learn, not simply because they want to rise a few places higher in the league tables; and children are made to feel valued for the decisions they’re making; then we’re at least going in the right direction.

Just the opinion of a teacher.

Rob Messik is director of theatre and drama at King Alfred School in London

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