Cut targets and bring back passion, says Mike Leigh

11th April 2008 at 01:00
Spirit of primary teacher heroine in his new film is 'crucial' to profession

Mike Leigh, one of Britain's most highly regarded film-makers, has called for passion and conviction to replace the "prescriptive and formulaic" approach of the national curriculum. The 65-year-old's new film, Happy-Go-Lucky, to be released next week, tells the story of a London primary school teacher.

Mr Leigh, who won awards for Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake, told TES Magazine that he looked back fondly to when a passion for teaching took precedence over targets.

"I'm vehemently opposed to the national curriculum or anything that is a prescriptive, formulaic attitude to teaching," he said. "I remember the teachers I had in state schools who had passion and conviction about the job and taught to their abilities."

He said such individuals still existed. The lead character in Happy-Go-Lucky is Poppy, a 30-year-old primary teacher whose perky optimism represents a spirit that Mr Leigh regards as crucial to the profession. "We arrived at the idea of Poppy being a teacher after she was developed as a character, but I had the notion beforehand that I wanted to explore education," he said.

It is perhaps to be expected that an artist synonymous with bending the rules - his films are famously created through actors' improvisation rather than fixed scripts - should be hostile to the target-driven culture of today's teaching. But, bar a few appearances by twitchy teacher characters in films such as Bleak Moments and Grown-ups, this is his first foray into the subject of education in nearly 40 years in films and plays.

The classroom scenes were shot at primary schools in Southwark, south London, using real pupils.

Leigh grew up in Salford, Greater Manchester, and was educated at North Grecian Street County Primary School and Salford Grammar. "I suppose my notion of education is that you are only as good as your teacher," he said.

Other celebrities who have previously criticised the curriculum include Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, who has said that he thinks that teachers are no longer trusted to teach.

'Happy-Go-Lucky' goes on general release next Friday, but TES readers have the chance of winning tickets to special preview screenings around the country next Wednesday (April 16), when Mike Leigh will conduct a live question and answer session by satellite. Find out how you can win tickets in this week's TES Magazine, page 11.

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