To the untrained eye, there’s not much energy in this S3 class. One boy is examining his fingers, as he pokes them through holes in the back of his chair while he rocks back and forwards on its legs. A girl, tall and self-conscious, wanders aimlessly on her own, passing another boy who didn’t want to come here at all. He sits by the exit door, with his coat pulled up around his face, suspicious of any exhortation to take part and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
On the stage are four boys who seem distracted from the task in hand, and instead exchange the sort of knowing jibes that pass for affection between Scottish males. One jumps down from the stage, prompting mock teacherly concern from one of his pals, who furrows his brow and says, “He could have hurt himself, eh?”
“They’re funny and witty at banter,” says pupil-support assistant Karen Wilson. The boys struggle, however, to channel that comedic intelligence into lessons. “When they think it’s learning they’re doing, the shutters come down.”
Bumps in the road
Most of the time, when the media are invited in to see a school initiative, there’s a certain artificiality to proceedings. That’s because, by and large, they have been let in to witness success of one sort or another – fully formed projects, (now) rounded young people and redemptive tales; most of the bumps in the road have been smoothed over.
So, all credit to Wallace High School, I think to myself, as the Stirling secondary allows me to spend an hour and a half observing a class that had just been introduced to the idea that they might take part in the Scottish Youth Poetry Slam. In theory, they will perform their own compositions about their innermost feelings to an audience of strangers, in competition with pupils from around the country. It’s fair to say that they do not appear wild about the prospect.
The slam is being run for the second time. The first was in 2015-16 – and, in its organisers’ words, “deliberately targets educational and social disadvantage” to “engage young people in literature and culture, and upskill them with creative ways to manage mental health”. Those disadvantages may include poverty, additional-support needs, unwillingness to come to school, being a young carer or simply a lack of confidence. But the basic idea that drives the slam is this: the arts can transform lives – even save them.
The slam was founded by Anita Govan, a poet, and Rachel Jury, an artistic director for Glasgow-based arts organisation Confab. Its roots go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when both were growing up with dyslexia at a time that little was known about the condition; both had a “horrendous” time at school.
For Jury, who grew up in Kenilworth in the West Midlands, dyslexia was just one element of a toxic mix that also included “various forms of abuse” and succumbing to “all the at-risk behaviours – drink, drugs, sex” while barely into adolescence. Twice, there were flashpoints in her life that could easily have been fatal: once as an adult, and once aged only 15 or 16.
Those experiences have left her with little tolerance of those who downplay the importance of the arts in education. “It’s annoying when the arts are seen as an add-on, as pleasant things that you do as a hobby,” says Jury, who, as a child, took part in various youth theatre groups. “I was a wild teenager – pretty much uncontrollable – and the only thing that kept me out of jail and out of taking a drugs overdose was the fact that I wanted to be an actress. If I hadn’t had that at the time, I’d have been long dead by now.”
There has been some high-profile support for the arts of late: Prince Charles was reported this month to be “very concerned” about the diminishing opportunities for children to experience the “magic” of the arts, while singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran spoke out last week against cuts to music tuition in schools. And in an article for Tes, hedge fund chief executive and Speakers for Schools chairman Andrew Law highlighted “hard-nosed reasons” for prioritising the arts: they could, for example, build confidence for Oxbridge interviews or passing FTSE 100 employers’ selection processes.
Jury says: “I don’t necessarily think writing a poem is going to lead directly to a job but, over and over, I’ve witnessed the impact that taking part in the arts – when you’ve got something to say and people are listening to you – has on people’s lives. It can lead to things: they might then go out and get training, get a job or get out of a [damaging] relationship.”
In theory, the arts should be in a better state in schools in Scotland than in England, given the priority that Curriculum for Excellence assigns to a broad range of learning. However, in education – and beyond – arts subjects still struggle to attain parity. They remain vulnerable to budget cuts (see box, below), and there are concerns that standardised national assessments and the drive to close the attainment gap will squeeze them in primary schools. You need only to look at media coverage of arts projects such as the poetry slam: often reduced to quirky, picture-led newspaper stories or “And, finally...” items on television news. The subtext is clear: the arts may be fun but they’re not that important.
Back at Wallace High, the session is being taken by performance poet Jenny Lindsay, and pianist and composer Euan Stevenson (the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be creating music to go along with the poetry at the final in Greenock on 31 October).
English teacher Heather Doran says that, while pupils may appear uninterested, they are, in fact, “much more engaged” than is often the case in other classes. There, they can often be passive and solitary, and struggle to get along with classmates or be in a team. So, Doran has high hopes for the poetry slam, as it is “turning everything on its head – you’re going to do a performance that you’re going to create and you’re going to lead”.
Initially, says Doran, there was deep scepticism in the class, a feeling that no one would be interested in their opinions. And Lindsay and Stevenson certainly face a wall of negativity today, including sporadic protestations of “Nuh, I’m nae dain’ that”, “I cannae write on proper paper” and “Naebody’s a musician in this class”. (There’s an irony to that last one, as one boy had actually learned the French horn as part of a high-profile initiative to bring orchestral music to deprived communities, but says he gave it up because it was “boring”.)
When Lindsay tells the small groups, which she has split the class into, that they’ll each have up to 40 minutes to write a poem, there are yelps of dismay. “They’re frightened: language is powerful and they’re frightened about language. It alienates them,” says Doran, who adds that some of these pupils have never read a book. But she is impressed with their engagement over the next 40 minutes. There are occasional harrumphs of frustration and protests about not knowing what to do; by and large, though, they get their heads down and come up with some arresting results.
Each poem has to have a fourth and eighth line starting with “Will I ever…?” When Lindsay asks each pupil to shout out what they might write, the suggestions flow easily: “Will I ever go to jail?” “Will I ever get a job?” “Will I ever be a football player?” “Will I ever go to Edinburgh University?” “Will I ever win the lottery?” “Will I ever get my own house?” “Will I ever make it to the next day?”
“The creative process is a really fabulous way of processing difficult emotions and experiences,” says Jury, adding that poetry offers a “quicker, less painful way” into this process, particularly for “those who don’t fall easily into the academic model”. This is because, in contrast to the pernickety rules of prose, “it’s not about commas, full stops, sentence structures, paragraphs, grammar”.
The poetry slam – funded this year by the Big Lottery Fund, grants programme Young Start and the Scottish government’s Year of Young People 2018 initiative – seems in tune with the thinking of one of the country’s leading experts on poverty, John McKendrick. Educational interventions targeted at disadvantaged children, he says, are problematic if they seek simply to drive all pupils towards the same end point, such as success in a “more academic form of education”.
McKendrick, co-director of Glasgow Caledonian University’s Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit, wants to see “an equal drive being made to nurture the talents, interests and aptitudes of those who are not academically inclined”.
Amy Woodhouse, head of policy, projects and participation at charity Children in Scotland, is similarly upbeat. There is “good evidence that participatory arts, such as poetry slams but also drama, singing, dance and musical performance, can have a wide range of beneficial impacts on participants and audiences [including] improved self-esteem, life satisfaction and increased motivation at school”.
The benefits of joining the 2015-16 poetry slam have been “huge” at Mearns Castle High School in East Renfrewshire, according to Georgina Godolphin, a support-for-learning and drama teacher.
For pupils with additional needs, such as dyslexia, she says, “sitting down with a pencil or at a keyboard and being told you need to create something is a situation that can make you feel very anxious, and therefore cut you off completely from your creativity”.
The experience of the slam in 2016 – in which Godolphin’s school finished third – was “stunning, because it’s everything you want for a child in terms of…their joy, witnessing them see the kind of reaction they got back from the audience and how, if you share something deep inside yourself – and lots of people hear that and they say it’s OK – that it has a really deep impact”.
Afterwards, pupils who had taken part “demanded” – with previously uncharacteristic forthrightness – a weekly poetry slam club at the school, which runs to this day and provides “a really safe environment” for them to explore and share their thoughts.
The 2016 winners were from Port Glasgow High School. On the back of their victory, in February the team was asked to do the opening performance to welcome Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their first official visit to Scotland.
Acting depute headteacher Pauline Barclay – who was principal teacher of English when the school entered the slam – says the same pupils “would have laughed me out of the room” had she told them in 2015 that they might be capable of this.
When Barclay first suggested that they perform their compositions to an audience – any audience – their uniform reaction was “absolutely not; I’ll not be standing up in front of people doing anything”. Where the Wallace High pupils are now, she says, is where her own group was three years ago.
“Looking at them now, as a group of fifth years, they’re confident, they’re articulate, they’re all able to hold their own and stand up – I know I could go to any of them tomorrow and say, ‘I’ve got this speech to do, would you come to speak at this assembly?’ and they wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
“That process they’ve gone through, of finding a voice and knowing how to use it, is a lifelong skill that will go well beyond the poetry slam and even well beyond their own creative writing. That feeling that they have something to say, that they can find a place to say it, and can communicate their thoughts – it’s so important.”
Kerr McLean, a member of Port Glasgow High’s winning team, says the slam was “a truly life-changing experience that I’ll never forget”.
“Being dyslexic means that I can struggle to speak and read at the same time,” he continues. “That led to me mumbling and being very anxious when I had to address a crowd of people or speak out in class.
“But since doing the slam, I’ve been more than confident to address a crowd of people, even read out to them,” he says. “Being part of a team and having them gently shove you in the right direction and give you that confidence was a phenomenal help.”
That initial group of seven pupils has taken on various leadership roles, such as in the Mentors in Violence Prevention, a Scottish peer-mentoring programme that helps pupils challenge violence and bullying.
They’ve also been out to their old primary schools where, says Barclay, their old teachers were “so proud to see the journey those kids had gone on, from being quite meek and shy, self-conscious pupils to standing up in front of an assembly hall full of Primary 7s and leading a poetry workshop”.
And the group’s success has also had a “massive impact” on how other pupils at the Inverclyde school perceive their education and self-worth, says Barclay.
The slam group’s success has been “sending out a subtle message” that there are many ways of succeeding, whether in the arts or something else entirely – you just might not have found it yet.
Henry Hepburn is news editor for Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn