Last week I visited Westminster City School, a lovely oasis of excellence which educates 800 or so well turned out and behaved boys — many of them hailing from the estates of Brixton — just a stone’s throw from Victoria Station.
An appealing mixture of the traditional and the modern cutting edge, the school has a charming 1870s wooden panelled assembly hall at its heart. And that’s where I was taken to see Tony McBride of Cardboard Citizens leading 30 teenagers aged 14 and 15 in a workshop linked to Open Air Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Matthew Dunster (pictured above).
McBride was using the Forum Theatre technique, which Cardboard Citizens is renowned for, to get the boys in the group to think about oppression in life and in the play by working on freeze frames of their own to present, for example, child abuse, gang attack and student rebellion.
The key message McBride wanted to teach was that all actions have consequences which can be either positive or negative. He asked each small group to present two further freeze frames showing contrasting possible outcomes of the situation they had imagined.
Then, in a plenary session he invited them to reflect on oppression in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Suggestions came thick and fast. Hermia, they suggested, is oppressed by her dictatorial father. Demetrius’s casual jilting of Helena is a form of abuse. What right has Oberon to drug people as a form of manipulation? “And in this particular production,” McBride tells the boys who are going to Open Air Theatre later that day, “Watch out for Hippolyta and think about her oppression too.”
These Westminster City School boys are in an accelerated group. They have done GCSEs early and most will start A level English next term. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on the syllabus and they have read and worked on it since the end of exams. Their English teacher, Fergus Latimer, is keen — because A level examiners require it — that his students understand from the outset that this is a drama text to be interpreted and performed not a novel which is merely read and studied.
When he showed me out, Latimer pointed out that although most of the class I’d seen was born in London, many of their parents and grandparents came to the UK as oppressed refugees from all over the world. “There was plenty in that workshop which would have resonated with their own family histories,” he says. It had also, he hopes, helped to deepen their thoughts about — and likely response to — the play.
Fine, worthwhile work. I was very upset — and irritated — therefore to learn that take-up for these workshops has been almost non-existent. Cardboard Citizens was asked to do all the current season’s education work relating to both Ragtime and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the event they have led one — yes, just one — workshop on each show. The one I attended was, in fact a one off. McBride had done a single one on Ragtime in another school.
What on earth is the matter with schools and teachers that they are passing up on such opportunities? It isn’t just ‘budget’ because some schools can evidently manage it. No, it’s down to the will and priorities of staff in those schools. Or lack of.