What is education for? We look at the arts in schools
We visit a group of 10-year-olds as they stage their own opera.
There is lots of speculation at the moment about changing the National Curriculum, the introduction of the English Baccalaureate into schools and the question of where the arts sit in this new structure. According to Education Secretary Michael Gove, we should be focusing on writing, reading and arithmetic. Or as the Victorians dubbed it: ‘chalk and talk’.
With this curriculum reshuffle in mind, I recently travelled to St Aloysius Junior School in Camden to find out how the arts fit into teaching – particularly after the school’s experience of the Write an Opera course.
Since Music Specialist Tony Gamage completed the Write an Opera course last year, 56 of the school’s Year 6 pupils (aged 10-11) have written, developed and now performed their very own opera, entitled Deep Secrets. Not a glorified school assembly with panto elements, but a full-blown opera.
The pupils had all the details covered – from ushers in bowties showing us to our seats and handing our programmes, to hard-working lighting and sound technicians. They even had their own 10-year-old diva (“Don’t tread on my costume!”, she was overheard shouting). Every aspect of the production had been thought about carefully.
The opera tells the tale of two boys who find some magic peas that allow them to breathe underwater. One of the boys falls in love with the queen of the merpeople and the other tries to steal the treasure that keeps her alive. Drama, humour, romance and a twist at the end – what more could you want from an opera?
I taught pupils here science and literacy through dance in a previous role, so I knew that the teachers and children were open-minded about learning through the arts. In fact, the genesis of the production was not in the drama studio but in a literacy lesson. Pupils were given scenarios and developed stories by choosing a setting, narrative and then the words and phrases that eventually would form the libretto. Music lessons then helped create the melodies that would accompany their imaginative tale.
Music Specialist, Tony Gamage, told me about the children he worked with and the standards they have set themselves: “The children have learnt so many skills through this process, such as memory recall. They’ve also developed self-esteem and reinforced their literacy skills, I hope they will continue [the arts] when they go to secondary school. These reasons are enough to have the arts on the curriculum.”
Jessica, the production’s 10-year-old Music Director, also told me what she liked most about the experience. “I enjoyed leading the musicians and stage crew. Before the show, I created a 20-minute warm up off the top of my head with beats on the drums and everyone joined in. I really like music and it wouldn’t be good if we didn’t have it in school.”
Projects like this one aren’t time-fillers or an ‘easy’ get-out to finishing summer term; they’re about being creative and building fundamental life skills that we all need as adults. Arts in the curriculum allows children to engage meaningfully with subjects and express themselves through music, dance, drama and design. We mustn’t forget learning can – and should – be fun and that the curriculum can be taught through a variety of means.
The Royal Opera House runs lots of free or subsidized events for teachers, and for families, so if you’d like to get involved look at some of the things we have coming up:
- In August, people of all ages are welcome to join in with courses at ROH Thurrock on film-making, audio production and stage-craft.
- Dance Dynamic is a free training programme offering teachers the chance to work with ROH artists to learn new approaches to creative dance.
- Community Chorus offers local Thurrock residents the chance to find their voice and is open to anyone aged eight and upwards.
- Write an Opera is a professional development programme for teachers, equipping them with the skills to support cross-curricular learning while creating an original opera.
For more of ROH’s courses and training, see our learning page. Let’s celebrate ways of learning other than ‘chalk and talk’: the opportunities for exploring, thinking creatively and being part of a team.