Arts cuts are like a scene from Little Shop of Horrors

22nd April 2011 at 01:00

There were four plant puppets. There were 50 pupils. There were four very tired teachers.

After seven long months of after-school rehearsals, it was a really magical production of Little Shop of Horrors. Thankfully, the students made a dramatic recovery from their acute cases of Idontneedtolearnmylinesitis and were brilliant. To my knowledge, the dancers in the aisles didn't poke out any parents' eyes with their huge prop cameras. No one fell over the sprawling tentacles of the largest plant, which sat centre stage like a giant, green Ford Transit van. The two male leads remembered to tango during their duet on all but one of the nights and the boy in drag seemed surprisingly unscathed by his ordeal. I would defy even the most hardened UN negotiator to get a group of teenage girls to wear their hair in a 1960s up-do. But we did it. We did it.

It's a sad truth that teachers don't remember most days, with one blurring into the next. But when I looked around at the pupils' faces on the last night, I had that warm fuzzy feeling a teacher experiences every now and then. And I'm not talking about the one that involves gin.

They will remember this for the rest of their lives, I thought. Algebra and photosynthesis will be a distant memory, but this will seem like yesterday when they tell their grandchildren about it.

You might argue, "They will remember it because it's out of the ordinary - they would remember a trip to Tesco if it got them out of lessons." But suspend your disbelief and think about what they have taken from this experience. They have had to work in small steps to achieve an end product - a skill being wiped out by the immediacy of our digital age. They have worked with peers from different social groups, negotiating, suggesting and reflecting on others' ideas. They have learnt the importance of not letting people down and being committed to the role they have taken on. And the beauty of it all is that they didn't know they were learning all this! It's the golden ticket of education.

External providers are vital to providing these musical and dramatic experiences. A whole extra dimension was added to my school days by what was then called Dudley Musical Services. It was the reason I got to take part in orchestras, jazz bands, exchange trips and Dudley's Rock The Castle music festivals. As a teacher I now realise how much I learnt from the commitment and dedication those activities required.

Yet, the service now known as Dudley Performing Arts is one of the many across Britain facing cuts. It will have its budget slashed by 37 per cent and funding for the 5,000 pupils it serves across the borough must now come from schools. Potentially, this funding change stands to jeopardise pupils' musical education across the borough, not to mention the threat of job cuts for staff.

Where parents paid for individual pupils' lessons directly to the service, schools must now reclaim that money from parents on a termly basis. Schools will need to sign up for a year's worth of lessons, perhaps a commitment too far considering the limitations of their own budgets. This creates the additional complication that a pupil who decides they would like to learn the trumpet in November may have to wait until the following September to be timetabled.

How can the Government justify cutting such provision when, even in the depths of the Second World War, Churchill rejected suggestions of cuts to the arts by saying: "Then what are we fighting for?"

The cuts will only exacerbate the trend for squeezing creativity and the performing arts out of schools. We already have a curriculum where results beat enrichment every time. My GCSE group's assessment on Romeo and Juliet has been reduced to the detailed study of four scenes because of the number of assessments we need to cover and the time available. "Why can't we read all of it, Miss?" I am asked. "I want to look at the other scenes, too." I thought, I would love nothing more than to spend the next few weeks reading this play with you, having you act it out to develop a love of Shakespeare's language, and study in detail the staging limitation of the Globe Theatre and how Shakespeare transcended those problems. I want you to develop a love and passion for literature through the study of it and an awareness of how beautiful the English language can sound in Shakespeare's hands.

As teachers, we still try to do this, but we have to do it in just four scenes instead of a whole play. What's next? Looking only at the corner of a painting? Listening just to the opening bars of the Moonlight Sonata?

The pressure to deliver test content means we already have to work harder if we want to kindle the flame of a love of learning. Now the cuts are threatening the very activities that light that spark.

Amy Winston is an English teacher at a comprehensive in the West Midlands.

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