More thingies await if arts access is denied

26th November 2010 at 00:00

Thingy. As in: "It's a thingy, Miss." As in: "Thingy wrote Romeo and Juliet, didn't he, Miss?" As an English teacher, it is a word I hear pupils using constantly. For children from backgrounds without books at home, "thingy" covers the lot - lock, stock and smoking noun.

But it still blew me away to be reminded of the difference in pupils' vocabulary when I took a day out of the classroom earlier this month to attend a conference in London entitled Closing the Gap. Children from poorer backgrounds are more than 600 words behind those from middle-class families before they so much as step into the playground - 600 words poorer, 600 thingies richer. These kids arrive at school not realising they are already part of a two-tier education system that is miserably failing to close the gap.

The speakers at the conference, including the head of Morpeth School in east London, Sir Alasdair Macdonald, and former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, Lord Bichard, all agreed on one thing: the arts are central to breaking through this class barrier.

Provide lower-class children with the same opportunities in school as their middle-class counterparts have outside it, they said. Inspire children through theatre, film and drama, and they will want to write, learn and succeed. It is, quite simply, obvious.

Now, I'm not sure if you've ever found yourself on a train full of "disaffected" Year 8 boys, spitting out Busta Rhymes' lyrics after a day with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Or if you've found yourself yelling, "Abdullah, Abdullah! Just get back on the raft!" in the middle of Snowdonia national park.

Those that have will know all too well the dark art of trip funding. "Yes, of course these pupils are gifted and talented!" you exclaim in the staffroom at the same time as hitting up Aim Higher for more money. And why? Because without that funding, those kids don't get to be enriched in precisely the way Lord Bichard intends. Without hooking them into this type of education, school just becomes a way to reinforce what they don't know.

Now that Gifted and Talented, Aim Higher and Collective Partnerships lie dead in the wasteland of coalition cuts, and the pupil premium is yet to be proven, children's access to the arts through school is more vulnerable than ever. And when funding for out-of-school clubs is pulled, it will be the children already at a disadvantage that will be left without options, while middle-class parents finance alternatives for their offspring.

As AfL, APP and all the rest of the endless list of education acronyms attempt to squeeze the creativity out of schools like an old tube of toothpaste, we must keep the arts central to our teaching to stop the gap between students from ripping into a gulf. Because that really would be, well... thingy, wouldn't it?

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

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