This month, Shakespeare Schools Foundation was gifted a Praemium Imperiale grant to boost its work with marginalised groups. Nick Smurthwaite looks at how it is crossing social divides and bringing Shakespeare to life
Shakespeare may be the UK’s greatest theatrical treasure, but the fact remains that generations of schoolchildren have struggled to understand and enjoy his work in the classroom.
Ruth Brock, chief executive of the Shakespeare Schools Foundation, would argue that this is because his plays were always intended to be spoken, not read.
“The best way for learners to engage with Shakespeare is actively, on your feet,” says Brock. “These extraordinary stories are best explored when you are embodying the characters so they can flow through you physically as well as emotionally.”
Others agree, and earlier this month it was announced that the Praemium Imperiale Awards – run by the Japan Art Association and presented since 1989 to cover five fields not represented by the Nobel prizes, such as theatre, art and architecture – had awarded the charity a grant for young artists worth five million yen (£33,000) after a recommendation by author and politician, Chris Patten.
Brock said, on behalf of SSF, that she was “deeply honoured” to accept the grant, adding: “It is an incredibly welcome gift that will help us deepen our impact by working with more schools from marginalised communities.”
Founded in 2000, SSF is a cultural education charity that works with more than 1,000 schools and up to 30,000 pupils from primary, secondary and special schools. Its year-round education and training programme culminates in the Shakespeare Schools Festival, taking place in more than 100 theatres all over the country from October to December every year.
There are seven regional coordinators – typically arts graduates, teachers and actors – who organise one-day teacher workshops for the 20 to 30 signed-up English teachers. This will give teachers the tools to guide their students through the process of staging an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, As You Like It or whichever play they have chosen.
“We encourage our teachers to build the play like an ensemble would, using improvisation and, if necessary, modern language to unravel the story,” Brock explains. “Then they come back for a second workshop, with their student cast, and there is input from working actors and directors who can bring their professional expertise to bear.
“We encourage the teachers to cast their nets as wide as possible because it is very often the people you wouldn’t expect to blossom in this situation who get the most out of it. Our ethos is inclusive, encompassing primary, secondary and special schools – all abilities. We are trying to show that Shakespeare really is for everybody.”
Far from being out of fashion in terms of educational merit, Shakespeare appears to be very much back on the agenda. He is the only named writer in the primary school curriculum.
“I know the approach to teaching Shakespeare can be dry and off-putting,” says Brock. “But we find our proactive style of teaching helps children to identify instinctively with his characters. All the research tells us this is the route to better literacy and life skills.”
Kate Hopewell, a teacher at Primrose Hill Primary School for many years, took part in the festival in 2016, and was so inspired by what she learned that she took time out to work with SSF for a year.
“It completely changed my teaching practice,” says Hopewell. “It was the first time anyone had shown me how to work effectively with lower-ability students. They really benefited from these kinaesthetic methods.
“Social divides were taken away, friendship groups grew out of it, and everyone was on a level playing field. My group achieved a much higher level of attainment than any of us could have imagined.”
Hopewell says it allowed her to take Shakespeare off a pedestal, and the children could respond to the great stories at the heart of his plays.
“You start by improvising the story, using modern language, then you layer in Shakespeare’s language so they have a better understanding of what it all means. It is a process of demystification,” she says.
One of the by-products of this process is the benefit it seems to offer young people with mental health issues. Brock says: “We know that levels of depression in young people are higher than ever, and what we’re offering is an opportunity to make friends, to engage with one another, develop resilience and to build all-important communication and team-work skills. We’ve had stories of young people who have been on the brink of exclusion [from school] turning their lives around as a result of participating in the festival.”
‘Whatever your level of attainment in the exam hall, everyone can empathise with and embody Shakespeare’
The chief executive continues: “Whatever your level of attainment in the exam hall, everyone has the ability to empathise with and embody Shakespeare’s characters, from beggars to princes, lovers to warriors. There is so much we can learn from these plays about being in love, family relationships, going to war, supernatural forces, gang culture, falling out with those closest to you, virtually every experience known to humanity.”
Given that there are other, similar organisations taking Shakespeare into schools, how would Brock characterise what SSF has to offer? “We take children out of their schools to work in professional environments, and we’re utterly committed to making the experience of Shakespeare’s plays both joyful
For primary teacher Hopewell it is all to do with SSF’s high level of dedication: “They are a group of exceptional individuals,” she says. “Seeing the scale and the breadth of what they do first-hand was eye-opening. Quite apart from their individual skill sets, they are all totally dedicated and passionate about what they do. They aspire to offer the richest learning experience for pupils and teachers, and transform lives with their work.”