Let the theatre transform our pupils' lives

5th September 2008 at 01:00
It is the memory of human eyeballs being flicked across those of us seated in the front rows, covering us with their warm, wet, slipperiness, that did it for me. I became hooked not only on King Lear, but also on school trips to the theatre.

My Bard habit was further fuelled at school by watching Measure for Measure performed in Hell's Angels leathers astride gleaming Harley- Davidsons, and shivering with cold, fear and excitement at dusk in the grounds of Ludlow Castle while watching Macbeth, accompanied by real swooping bats and ominously cawing crows.

The days I will remember all my life from school were not those that took place in the classroom but outside, on school trips. Mr Thomas, I thank you for the enduring memories.

So, it will come as no surprise to learn that one of my most memorable times this summer was watching Henry V in a car park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

That's right. In a car park. Performed for free by a troupe of talented actors to one of the most diverse audiences, just as Shakespeare would have wanted. The players climbed over and atop the wire fences, leapt the barriers and used the cars themselves as staging in a magnificent, innovative, energising use of the urban landscape. I wished my pupils could have witnessed the event.

To take them on a school trip, or not to take them, that is indeed the question I ponder now as I sit contemplating the unremitting paperwork that has to be completed in advance of any outing. It may only be a visit to a pantomime, but apparently I do need to check the time of high tide in London. The risk assessment forms force us to face all potential hazards of leaving the confines of the classroom.

Yet not all risk scenarios can be accounted for on a form. The Year 10 trip to An Inspector Calls in the West End springs to mind - the pupils' first-ever trip to a theatre.

All went well until the Tube journey home, when Zoe called out: "Coo-ee, Mrs G! I can see you really clearly." As indeed she could - from one end of the carriage to the other - with the theatre binoculars. In her defence, Zoe claimed huffily that, as she had paid 20 pence to release them, technically it was not stealing.

We went another time to see a Zulu version of Macbeth - all spears, shields and raw tribal energy - unable to understand a word of the clicking African dialect and yet loving every minute of its universal language. We saw John Agard and Benjamin Zephaniah, poets who, as Aaron astutely noted, "ain't dead, ain't white and am seriously cool".

Lives are changed and transformed by being out of the classroom for a few hours. Unusually, I find myself agreeing with Ed Balls, the Education Secretary, in this regard. Every pupil should have such chances. It is all very well saying this, but who will pay for it to be a reality? Here is an idea: maybe we could use some of the pound;19.5 million that ETS Europe is having to repay for the Sats marking fiasco. Or the pound;4.6 million it is cancelling from invoices. Or even the pound;15 million that it is keeping as part payment from the first year of the contract. pound;15 million! That is an awful lot of theatre tickets.

I look at the risk assessment forms again and resolve quietly to break out of the classroom confines more frequently and embrace deeper, longer- lasting learning and understanding with the pupils. I just need to make sure that I have covered being smeared in raw eyeballs on the risk assessment forms before leaving.

Julie Greenhough, Teacher at a secondary school in London.

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