Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Nottingham Free School - Is this really the best we can offer our children?

A brochure came through the letterbox last week about the Torch Academy proposal to open a free school somewhere in Arnold and I found it very confusing.  And very worrying.  Okay, first, let’s get out all the possible axes I may have to grind. Until I left the profession eleven years ago to become a full time playwright I was a teacher. I taught in Watford, Doncaster, and Sheffield, my last post was Head of Expressive Arts at the Dukeries in Ollerton.  So that must mean that I’m an opponent of any initiative that threatens to take education out of local authority control. Not so. I’ve worked with enough kids from severely disadvantaged backgrounds to want to listen carefully to any proposal that might improve their opportunities. But Nottingham Free School?  That has got me concerned.  And working my way through their booklet and website has only deepened those concerns.  Everything appears to be straight forward, very little is.

Let’s start with the curriculum for years 7 and 8 because that’s all they will be offering at first. The core is the untried, untested English Baccalaureate offering English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, French, Spanish/Latin.  Years 7-8 will take these subjects as well as Philosophy and Ethics, Physical Education,  Design, Enterprise, Computing, Drama, PHSE, Art and Music.  Then it tells us ‘the core curriculum will be enhanced by opportunities to learn and participate in: Performing and Visual Arts, Leadership development (including public speaking & debating) and Enterprise opportunities’ A pretty full day, an exciting range of subjects. 

Then a little further on it tells us that the core curriculum ‘will be enhanced by the afterschool sessions covering Sport, Performing Arts, Music, Critical Thinking, Duke of Edinburgh and other leadership opportunities’.  So, doesn’t that mean everything outside the EBAC will be taught out of school hours?  But students will have the ‘unique opportunity to learn from professional coaches – including professional sports coaches, musicians and actors.’ Not from qualified teachers?

The website makes it a little clearer. It lays out the core curriculum and lists the following subjects as being outside the normal school day of 8.15 to 3.15.

  • Art, Music and Drama
  • A range of sports, taking advantage of local facilities
  • Public speaking & other LAMDA qualifications
  • Computing
  • Further GCSE choices (e.g. Product Design, Food Technology, Sports Science)
All these opportunities are available until 4pm - that is for 45 minutes. And after 4pm? 'If there is sufficient demand additional supervised sessions maybe available after 4.00pm, for an additional cost.'
Nottingham Free School has as its banner ‘a science and creative arts specialist’,  one that proposes to jam the arts, sport, computing, and anything to do with Design Technology into forty five minutes a day, and if you think your child deserves a broader experience you'll have to pay for it. 

And in case we might wonder where all the 'football, rugby, cricket, and rowing' is going to take place the school will take 'advantage of our unique Arnold location to offer a wide range of sporting opportunities. which means they won't have any facilities themselves.
I happen to believe that the EBAC and its supporters are looking to return to an educational golden age that never existed outside school stories written in the nineteen fifties imposing on teachers and students a curriculum that is hardly suited to the twenty first century.  I think that depriving children of the chance to get involved in sport and the arts in the hope that the extra time can be translated into more exams passed in fewer subjects is an appallingly short sighted approach that will deprive a generation and undermine our culture.  But I'm a playwright so I would say that wouldn't I?  All I’d ask is that parents who are considering enrolling their children into this risky experiment should think back no further than to their own education, and without putting on rose coloured spectacles, or dwelling too long on those things that they didn’t go well, and ask themselves, do they really want their kids to miss out on all they took for granted?

I don’t doubt that the existing Torch schools are doing an excellent job for their pupils.  I question whether they need to build a free school somewhere in Arnold.  There are two existing schools here, embedded in the community, with structured plans to expand.  Let them get on with the job.

Two things do still nag at me as I think about the confusing way that the Nottingham Free School group presents itself.  Young people need to feel sure that that no-one is trying to be anything less than open with them.  On their Twitter feed is this:
Nottingham Post article reinforces our message that we're providing choice for parents in Arnold, Sherwood,... http://t.co/yRoYesSd about 11 days ago

Click the link and it takes you to an article with the headline 'Headteachers claim there is no need to set up two free schools in West Bridgford and Arnold'. Their tweet isn't exactly untrue, but then the article doesn't exactly reinforce their message that 'we're providing choice for parents in Arnold.'

And if you look at the qualifications of the two leaders of the Torch Group Mr Jonathan Taylor lists MA(OXON).  I know how hard it is to get a BA at Oxford.  My daughter who went to Arnold Hill worked hard for hers. I also know that to get an MA(OXON) you don’t have to do any work after your first degree, all you have to do is leave your name on the university books for seven years and pay them thirty quid.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Talking to Pristina

Last Friday at Nottingham Playhouse we talked to Pristina.
While in Pristina they read extracts from four plays by Nottingham writers, Andy Barrett, Michael Pinchbeck, Amanda Whittington and me, in the Neville studio we saw rehearsed readings of plays by Doruntina Basha, Ilir Gjocaj, Arian Krasniqi and Jeton Neziraj.  Then, through Skype we were able to meet each other and discuss the work we'd seen.
In the UK we had all dealt in some way with the experience of the refugee and conflict, in Kosovo they lived it first hand.  That word 'conflict', we've heard it so much, 'the conflict in the Middle East', 'the conflict in the Balkans', We all use it and they were right to call us on it.
Very politely,and very correctly, we were made to realise that 'conflict' has as little reality as 'collateral damage', or the infamous ' terminated with maximum prejudice' for those who live the reality.
'Please don't call what we had over here a conflict,' asked Jeton Neziraj, ' a conflict sounds like a minor dispute between two cities, an argument, we had a war.'
All the four plays from Kosovo dealt with different aspects of the war. They felt that only recently were they able to speak of the war in their work in anything other than direct terms because the pain was too immediate for any other approach. We saw a shift in this approach in three of the plays - The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower by Jeton Neziraj and The Finger by Doruntina Basha and Iphigenia's Doll by Arian Krasniqi. Even a small amount of distance had allowed these writers used metaphor and humour as an alternative to tackling the subject head on.
It was a powerful evening. Funny, moving, exciting.  The work was serious.  The discussion was good humoured and light. Appropriately It broke up when it was decided it was time to go to the bar.  We hope we can continue to develop our new friendship with our collagues in Kosovo. Find ways to make a more substantial exchange of work. Maybe through the next NEAT festival. Who knows?  But you know when you meet people you'd like to work with somehow you're going to look for ways to make it happen.
One of Jeton's questions stayed with me. 'All your plays dealt in some way with the bad experiences that immigrants have when they get to the UK. So this something that is being talked about in your theatre. Does this mean that the theatre in the UK has changed the way the government thinks and acts?'  I wish I could have answered yes.