Is it show time at your school?

Written by: Gerald Haigh | Published:
Photo: iStock

Is the school production dying? A school show is not a bolt-on, says Gerald Haigh, but can often play a key part of healthy school community life

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I spent some time as a regional adjudicator for the Barclays Youth Music Theatre Awards, which ran for some years at about that time.

My job was to attend school musicals, in the Midlands, which had been entered for the awards. I reported back on them to a central panel, who then selected the best entrants nationally. These were then invited to bring excerpts, or shortened versions, of their shows to a grand final in London.

I don’t think I have ever had a more enjoyable and uplifting task. I attended a huge variety of productions – from well known standards, to experimental, school-written works tailored to the needs of the students.

I saw them all just as they were presented, in school halls and studios, joining audiences mainly made up of families and friends. I had a warm welcome wherever I went, and each evening, from the start, I was enfolded by the sense of pride and achievement that buoys up every school show.

Afterwards I was expected to say a few words to the whole cast and production team, and so I would be ushered into what was often a classroom, packed with excited young people, still flushed and high on adrenaline; cast members in costume, backstage people in jeans, together with the adults – teachers (some clutching bouquets) support staff, parents – who were responsible for bringing the dream to life. It was always a humbling moment for me.

Who am I to be pronouncing on this heartfelt enterprise, I thought. But I would do my best, raising cheers, delighted smiles when I made a point of picking out minor roles, or lighting effects, or showing that I had noticed small production details.

“Really?” You might say. “Were there no duds? No disasters?”

Well, no actually. I assume they only entered if they were confident. Or if there were mistakes and memory lapses, my memory has blotted them out in favour of the highlights.

I recall, for example, a West Side Story which included the most exciting Gee, Officer Krupke number I have ever seen, amateur or professional, performed, of course, by real urban teenagers. Every production was carried on a wave of sincerity and enthusiasm by young people who were just delighted to be there.

A school show, it seems to me, is not a tacked-on, disposable extra. It is, to borrow a phrase, an outward and visible sign of the health of the school community. It is no accident that a show is often a landmark in the story of a school’s improvement, or a way of helping newly amalgamated schools to build an identity.

Beyond that, the list of benefits is long and far-reaching. The project provides roles, on-stage and off, for everyone – staff, students, parents, community members – revealing unexpected individual qualities, boosting confidence and self-esteem, and promoting commitment to the school. For students, particularly, there is bonding, friendship, the creation of role-models, and a tangible sense of mutual appreciation that crosses all the usual school barriers of age and academic ability.

But – and it’s a big one – for that to happen, there are some pre-requisite conditions. First, of course, the school’s leadership has to believe in the project, and be prepared to deploy maximum management clout, through thick and thin, to bring it about.

Then, equally importantly, there is no getting away from the need for staff who can provide the necessary musical, dramatic and organisational qualities.

The shows I saw were invariably produced and directed by people who not only knew what they were doing, but had the right contacts to find extra help (with make-up for example) when it was needed. The musical backing was performed live, usually by a mixture of staff and students, directed by an appropriately qualified and experienced teacher who had arranged the score to fit the abilities of the players.

The shows still go on, of course, in schools where leaders and governors are jointly committed to what is a signature event; the yearly production photographs continue to spread proudly along corridors.

But are there as many productions as there once were, and are they always as ambitious? Nobody seems to be counting, but I do sense that the headwinds are stronger each year.

Pressures of budget, the expectations of Ofsted, changes of emphasis in the curriculum (most obviously the influence of the EBacc) all add to what are already formidable challenges.

Perhaps the most serious threat of all lies in the declining number of arts teachers in our schools, as their subjects begin to disappear.

Obviously a school production is all-inclusive; many teachers across the curriculum have creative interests that they are keen to deploy. But without subject specialist input the enthusiasts are hard-pressed and it can only be increasingly tempting for heads to say: “Sorry, not this year.”

What is certain is that interrupted traditions rapidly wither, and children who join a school famed for its productions risk being let down. Then, perhaps, we will soon have a whole generation of young teachers who have never themselves been school performers or lighting technicians, or set designers.

As the song goes: “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1


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