| Pupils need to play and to act in order to learn
TO a child, experiencing the sight of a tree bursting into leaf, the smell of a flower blooming, the sound of leaves rustling and falling, the sensation of stroking a puppy, the taste of honey, is all exciting – and all science.
Children explore the spaces within which they learn to move and take pride in discovery.
Every child is born with curiosity, creativity and musicality. Curiosity means science – finding out.
The child shows creativity in games it invents, demonstrates musicality in movement, rhythm, sounds, melody. Then, for many, ‘education’ knocks it out of them.
Our main medium of communication is words. The baby in a rage explodes because it has no words to communicate.
Even without words it can indicate pain, pleasure, anger, frustration; but language acquisition allows it to express sensations and emotions in more precise ways and facilitates understanding by others.
The baby also expresses love which it can never learn without knowing bonding through loving, trustworthy parents or substitutes.
When children learn the words to communicate their experiences they also learn to put values on them.
“How a word can diminish a wonder!” wrote James Kenworthy in ‘Suburban Child’. Through speech and drama, sounds and movement, the child expresses the emotions it feels about things. Words come but don’t mean the same for everybody.
I was privileged to live through and play an active part in a revolution in education.
For a time, after Labour’s 1945 General Election victory, the old authoritarian regime in primary schools was gradually transformed and in the 1950s London’s County Council schools were full of and nurtured creativity, encouraged curiosity, and thrived on musicality.
Two driving forces behind this revolution were Herbert Read (‘Education Through Art’) and Peter Slade who observed street children playing and making up games, and invented ‘Child Drama’.
He used to come to London for weekly groups which I attended.
True education is through the arts because it builds up the sense of self in space and worth through reflection in someone else’s eyes.
Many studies prove that learning music enhances mathematical ability. When the Greater London Council sponsored three ‘Theatres in Education’, one of its many support systems for over 1,000 schools in the Inner London Education Authority area, it was my honour to chair The Cockpit Theatre. Purpose built, it could adapt from theatre in the round to proscenium arch.
Children performed parts in plays, then stayed in costume to debate their content.
‘Theatre in Education’ had four teams of artistes working with children in schools in the then deprived Lisson Grove area. We went into schools; children came into the theatre. We had a music group, a ‘theatre in the community group’ – they went into old people’s homes and the market – and an art group which also taught photography.
These and many more initiatives were swept away never to be replaced when Margaret Thatcher annihilated the GLC and ILEA.
Under her monetarist diktat, intensified by New Labour, children were taught more and more about less and less. If nobody tells you you are valuable, you never develop an identity.
In ‘Soviet Russia Fights Neurosis’ (1934) FE Williams described the educational and psychological benefits of the principle of making everybody feel responsible, useful and wanted. That’s one essential difference between socialism and capitalism, which depends on setting monetary values for everyone and everything.
While the Romans aspired to mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body – playing fields are now sold off leaving just bits of concrete, swimming pools closed and sports facilities privatised. Successive conservative governments, Tory and New Labour, obsessed by core curricula, performance targets, league tables and naming and shaming have swept away curiosity – science – creativity – arts and musicality.
With school arts and music programmes slashed, music and sport have been largely transformed into spectator activities.The Romans seduced their populace with bread and circuses.
Ours get MacDonalds, Big Brother, Football and casinos – junk food, entertainment, celebrity and gambling.
Feeling useful and valued is discouraged; children are now expected to gain numbers of GCSEs.
They want to be ‘celebrities’, crave fame and money without work or responsibility. Scientists are figures of fun.
Teaching lacks prestige and is low paid. So we now have a shortage of scientists and teachers.
In the religion of the Stock Exchange, the cult of the financial adviser rules, its new mantra ‘privatisation, competition, private profit’.
In ‘education’, target-orientated policies, and breaking programmes down into costable units require sacking experienced and caring staff and bringing in cheap, inexpert people.
PFI school contracts even thwart public attempts to reintroduce healthy food to schools.
What was education has now become training – training children to be consumers and interface with computers. It’s aesthetic starvation, instruction not education – not only no way to bring up children but ultimately not even good for the long-term economy.
Despite all the economic and political pressures, there are still dedicated, child-centred educators and teachers, many good schools and committed parents battling bureaucracy and privatisation. For them I have written this haiku:What, where, why, how, who? When education seeks truth, we’re happy and wise.