Spotlight on the children

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Brian Hayward contrasts a play about children's rights in 21st century Glasgow with the story of a Jewish orphanage in 1930s Warsaw

Does your school have a copy of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted more than 10 years ago? If Gerry Ramage's experience is anything to go by, the answer is probably no.

When the director of the Raindog Young Blood theatre company for 12- to 21-year-olds asked his cast to request their teachers for a copy, not one school could help. Ramage was not surprised and privately estimates that high numbers of pupils and teachers are unaware that children have declared rights in the home, the community and at school.

Whatever the actual figures are, they are likely to be reduced by Raindog Young Blood's new work, UN, and the TAG theatre company's Dr Korczak's Example.

Ramage approaches children's rights from the standpoint of a contemporary child in Glasgow, where his work on children's panels has left him amazed at the number of school non-attenders. "Many children, who are not wicked or evil, see school as a meaningless irrelevance to their lives," he says. "For many only the creative arts provide any positive learning."

In conversation he returns again and again to Article 12 of the UN convention, which assesses the child's right to express his or her views freely, to be listened to and to have opinions taken into account. A lot of the children he meets say that because they lack social skills in speech, adults often accuse them of being "cheeky" and refuse to listen to them. In four years of panel work he has seen no narrowing of this gulf.

No such criticism can be levelled at Raindog Young Blood. UN arose out of a year-long collaboration with playwright Simon Macallum and drama workshops in and out of schools, as far away as Unst in the Shetlands, involving about 300 children, culminating in six weeks of rehearsal. This hard-hitting play parallels the lives of dysfunctional Glasgow neighbours with child soldiers warring in some desert place.

The value of the "listening" preparation is obvious, not least in the way the sincerity of the young warriors' performances matches that of young people in any youth disco, playground, classroom and home.

Maureen Carr and Matt Costello, the two professional actors working with the company, play single parents. The only other adult is the English teacher, a disembodied megaphone, announcing homework like a government four-minute warning. But it works, and the best "refugee" story is read out to the class, the child soldiers joining in unison in a device that finally links the two casts of a technically demanding production that convinces at every moment.

Dr Korczak's Example, directed by James Brining, continues TAG's impressive, four-year Making the Nation enterprise and starts a three-month tour across Scotland this week.

Korczak, who is almost unknown in Britain but revered in communities in Eastern Europe and the United States, was a respected paediatrician and director of an orphanage for Jewish children in 1930s Warsaw. The orphanage was run on democratic lines, the children having their own parliament, law courts and newspaper.

This experiment in social education ended when the Nazis transported Korczak and his 200 children to the death camp of Treblinka. It is said that when the children marched to Warsaw's railway station, they carried at their head the banner of King Matt, the boy hero whose story was dramatised in TAG's previous production.

Korczak's significance in education led to him being named man of the year by Unesco in 1979 and his list of children's rights was accepted as one of the starting points for the UN's convention.

Telling his story, ending with the horrors of the death camp, demands a new kind of "gravity" in TAG's work for children, Brining says, and he is grateful to have secured David Greig as the writer. "Unlike in England," he says, "in Scotland you can get the best playwrights to write for children if you can interest them in the project. David's eldest child is coming up to school age, so ideas of formal and informal education appeal to him."

Brining and his three actors were greatly helped in rehearsal by an extended meeting with Ernest Levi, who is well known in Glasgow's educational circles and beyond as a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen. As a result, Brining realised the need to employ more "theatricality" in his representation of the Holocaust, to support the weight of a story that must end in bleak defeat.

Raindog Young Blood is at Gilmorehill Theatre, Glasgow, until tomorrow. Tickets, tel 0141 330 5522TAG, tel 0141 552 4949

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