Playwright hits out over poor reading

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Controversial author Mark Ravenhill says changes to education have crushed teachers. Adi Bloom reports

Schools are failing to provide contemporary actors with the basic literacy skills needed to sight-read play scripts at rehearsals, a leading playwright has claimed.

Mark Ravenhill, author of Shopping and Fucking and Mother Clap's Molly House, says that young actors struggle to read an unfamiliar play script out loud. "Anyone over 25 can come in and sight-read a play," he told The TES. "But, with younger actors, you have to spend the first week of rehearsals helping them to read the play. They can't just come to a read-through and read it aloud."

Mr Ravenhill's observation was made as he was in the throes of preparing for the premiere of his latest play. Adding Value, which opens at the National Theatre next week, is a monologue about a teacher who decides to rewrite a pupil's coursework.

Mr Ravenhill, 38, believes that the failure to sight-read is not the fault of teachers, but of the system they work in.

He said: "There's a Maoist, perpetual-change culture in education. Every year a new system has to be chucked at schools. I'm sure it has crushed some very good teachers who would otherwise be inspirational."

Many teachers are unsurprised by these complaints. Natasha Pascale, English teacher at Swanlea comprehensive, in east London, said: "If we're reading Shakespeare in class, pupils can find the language hard to get to grips with. They find the pacing difficult, and they don't know when to pause.

"There need to be more sessions where teachers listen to each pupil read.

Rather than focusing on imagery, we should look at language, emphasis and punctuation, and watch film versions of the plays."

These views were echoed by Bethan Marshall, English education lecturer at King's College, London, who criticised the emphasis on literary criticism.

"The content of the English curriculum is vast and it has been been swamped with critical terminology. Talking about adjectives and metaphors isn't the same as understanding literature.

"Reading out loud and the more creative side of the curriculum is being stifled by these demands. There is less space for simply enjoying literature."

But, others said that the problem was not solely due to what happens in schools.

Robert Dowling, head of George Dixon international school, in Birmingham, said: "Kids used to read to their parents at home, and their parents would read to them. But in the PlayStation age, an enormous number of parents not only never read aloud to their children, but never even talk to them.

There's a lack of literacy in society."

Mr Ravenhill's play Adding Value was adapted from several hours of interviews with a South African teacher who has worked in tough, inner-city British schools. Mr Ravenhill - who as struggling, unknown playwright briefly taught social studies and drama at a further education college - found that many of his concerns about education were shared by his interviewee.

The monologue is mostly about the unnamed teacher's decision to rewrite his pupils' GCSE coursework. This is a subject Mr Ravenhill has discussed many times with friends who are teachers.

"Everybody is waiting for someone to say the whole thing is a sham," he said. "Parents spend hours doing the coursework, teachers spend all night rewriting it, and the kids aren't learning anything. But no teacher or parent dares not to do it, because then their kid gets lower grades. It's insane, really. The whole thing is based on a lie."

Adding Value forms part of National Headlines, a two-week season of topical monologues. It will be performed on October 12.

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