Lenny Henry backs new National Theatre schools scheme

This week the subject of drama teaching in primary schools was back in the headlines when Lenny Henry launched a new National Theatre initiative – Let’s Play – designed to get more primary school pupils involved in performance. The scheme will see the National Theatre commissioning a series of plays for children to perform, along with musical scores and backing tracks for original songs. Teachers will be able to benefit from training by professional theatre artists to help them work with the children on the plays, and pupils will be able to use the experiences to earn an Arts Award qualification.

“I’m learning there have been massive cuts in teaching the arts in schools and it is cutting off your nose to spite your face” said Henry. “If you are not teaching children how to be creative and curious, what are you preparing them for? You are not preparing them for the outside world.”

Let’s Play is a hugely ambitious programme, seeking to engage 50,000 children in drama by 2020, but it would be wrong to suggest that all schools have cut drama or that local theatres have no part to play in the process.

Here at Greenwich Theatre, as well as our programming for families which runs throughout the year, there are opportunities to get involved in practical drama activities. For example, in the coming weeks, primary aged children looking for activities over Easter can learn puppetry with Ditto Theatre after a performance of their acclaimed show Ingo’s War, or can join the Familia dela Noche clown school to learn how to celebrate their silliness.

We also take our work out of the theatre. I am currently teaching a weekly drama group at Charlton Manor Primary School in partnership with CultureClash Theatre’s Şerin Ibrahim, and earlier this month the current group of pupils got the chance to try out the clown school in a special preview session.

This is not to suggest that all of them, or even any of them, are destined for a career in the circus, but the benefits of participating in arts activities are hugely diverse. At the launch of Let’s Play, Lenny Henry went on to observe that “many of us working in the arts can remember an experience at school – a theatre visit, an inspiring teacher, meeting a professional artist – as the ignition to their career or enduring passion for the art form.”

Pupils we have worked with over the past six months have told us they have learnt “not to be scared to talk in front of other people”, that they “have made friends with other children that they didn’t used to play with”, and they have learnt a whole host of written, spoken and interpersonal skills that will help them in any career they choose to pursue in the future.

New schemes like Let’s Play that counter cuts in drama provision and provide routes into drama for teachers are fantastic and should be celebrated – but so too should those schools already providing those valuable experiences. Especially in the state school sector, schools like Charlton Manor are proving that the same lasting love of the arts can be created by local partnerships and passionate teachers, and they should be held up as examples of another way that drama can be kept on the curriculum.

James Haddrell is the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

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