Monday, November 28, 2011

On Parliamentary lobbying and the English Baccalaureate

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@finkennedy) may recall that I recently sought my followers advice for questions they would like me to ask MPs and Ministers when I attended the Performer’s Alliance Parliamentary Group reception at the House of Commons earlier this month.

The Performer’s Parliamentary Alliance is a lobbying group jointly set up and run by Equity, The Musician’s Union and The Writer’s Guild. I recently rejoined the Guild after a bit of a gap and was promptly recruited to the Theatre Committee, and hence also this event, on their behalf. Ostensibly it was to promote the Lost Arts website, launched by David Edgar a few months ago, but once you’re there you can nobble any of the MPs about whatever you like. The Guild forwarded me an interesting document in advance of the event, which contained various issues of concern. One in particular featured a note from the artistic director of a young people’s theatre company, which stated:

“The most alarming thing that is happening is the current government's moving from a point of view that access to the arts for young people is an entitlement and a right, towards it being considered a privilege and a reward for good behaviour … If this change in attitude is not addressed schools will just not programme in Young People's Theatre, or other art forms for that matter. The companies who survive this drop in audiences - and the numbers are very high for schools performances - will be thrown back on doing truncated Shakespeare and adapted set texts. All the new writing will go and the original play for young audiences will disappear … Aside from the affect on young people and the theatre companies who work to produce relevant and challenging theatre for them [which also incidentally supports the curriculum in many areas], there will be a significant loss of new writing commissions for writers, currently estimated at 30 original new plays per annum … the choice of subjects to be contained in the English Baccalaureate underlines this change in attitude.”

Like me, you may have heard about the English Baccalaureate but not really know what it is. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I did some further research, particularly among my schools contacts who are really upset about it. And rightly so, because it turns out the EBacc is really quite underhand and devious.

Basically, unlike the International Baccalaureate with which it shares its names (apart from which they are not linked at all) the EBacc isn’t a separate qualification. It is instead an additional award which students get given if they secure five A*-C grades in certain specific GCSE subjects. Relatively benign, you might think.

Think again. These subjects are as follows: English, Maths, any Science subject, any Language (including Latin and Ancient Greek), and a Humanities subject. The only subjects which count as Humanities are History and Geography. All important subjects, no doubt. But no Arts? No Design or Technology? What kind of future economy do they think they’re preparing students for exactly? One without computers? Or any kind of creative thinking taking place at all?

But here’s the really pernicious part. The DFES has instigated a wholesale change to the way in which school league tables are expressed, moving the goalposts so that schools are ranked first and foremost on how many English Baccalaureates their students attain. And they’ve done this retrospectively. And without any consultation of teachers at all.

What this means in practice is that schools in inner city areas which were previously high in the league tables (in particular schools that became Academies under Labour’s flagship education scheme) have suddenly dropped to the bottom of the tables because the rules have been changed. It’s educational gerrymandering of the most cynical kind. I’m reluctant to succumb to cynicism myself, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the EBacc seems deliberately designed to hit schools and students in deprived areas the hardest.

Anyway, I got quite angry reading up about it. If you’re interested you can read more here and here. (I also came across a rather brilliant short film about the wider problems with modern education on the RSA website here.)

Regular readers will know that I have been writer-in-residence in an east London state school for the past five years. I have direct experience of seeing the transformative effects of Arts projects on young people. So off I trooped to the Commons with my pet issue, all set for a bit of lobbying.

The Performer’s Alliance reception is apparently an annual do, held in the Terrace Pavilion, which is actually more of a semi-permanent marquee, right on the Thames side of the Palace of Westminster. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Someone at the Guild made me laugh by saying that it was basically wine and nibbles with whatever MPs want to turn up and that, historically, the way the Equity makes sure it is well-attended is to lay on a couple of sexy actresses. So after a hard day in the Chamber all the MPs troop down to have a gawp. I noticed Sam West and Jenny Agutter, who I suppose are both quite sexy in their own sort of way, and perhaps more importantly a happy sign that both male and female MPs are now being catered for in this enlightened day and age.

It was a large do with drinks and cakes, speeches, actors and MPs all hob-nobbing. This made it a bit difficult to navigate at first. There were some ruddy-faced Lords there who looked like they'd walked straight out of a Hogarth painting. One of them talked to me about Morris Dancing. The MPs were harder to spot. I did get chatting to John McDonnell, whose constituency includes Heathrow and who I happened to write to a few years ago about the case of a young Nigerian man being held in Harmondsworth Immigration Detention centre, who I interviewed as part of the research for Unstated, a play I wrote for The Red Room in 2008. He didn’t seem to remember.

I also met Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, who looks about 13 years old in person. She was very friendly and approachable and used the word 'fuck' in ordinary conversation, so I liked her immediately.

Then the speeches started. Ed Vaizey, Tory Culture Minister, stepped up to the mike, followed by Harriet Harman, new Shadow Culture Secretary. Vaizey’s speech was quite funny. He’s actually quite a skilled orator, and spoke without notes about a variety of subjects under his portfolio, including measures to combat online piracy and a new scheme soon to be launched aimed at helping schools and arts organisations to work together. (I'm keeping an eye on that one for you, so check back soon.) Vaizey reminded me of Boris Johnson in the way he worked the crowd. He used this affable exterior to get in a few political rebuffs, pointing out that the recent ACE shake-up had funded lots of new companies too, and so the Lost Arts website should maybe be called Lost and Found Arts.

Harriet Harman then stepped up and made a somewhat haranguing speech about all the cuts. While I didn’t disagree with what she was saying, it was done in such a crass way, and so misjudged the tone of the event, I felt she actually managed to alienate most of what should have been a home crowd. Perhaps she is still finding her feet with her new brief. Or perhaps Vaizey had second guessed her by making such a measured and outwardly likeable speech that she came across as shrill and disingenuous by comparison. I’m fascinated by that sort of thing. It was all rather Jacobean. Or possibly Machiavellian.

Anyway, I made a beeline for both of them afterwards and nobbled them separately about the English Baccalaureate. I’d brought along a couple of copies of my play volume of the work I have done in Mulberry School, which I used as a prop to start a conversation about this work that was under threat, and the feelings of some of my teacher colleagues about the EBacc.

It was my first experience talking to people at that level, and I couldn’t help feeling I needed to work on my technique. You basically get about 30 seconds to make your case before you can visibly see their attention wandering, and their eyes scanning the room for other people they either ought to be talking to, or who can rescue them from you. My 30 seconds of blether didn’t really seem to hit home in the way I would have liked. In Hollywood, they talk about writers developing an ‘elevator pitch’, in the event that you find yourself in the elevator with a studio executive. You try and sell them your idea in the time it takes to get to their floor. I suppose the same is true of any powerful person. You have to condense everything right down, something I’ve never been very good at. Just look at the length of this blog post. Or of my plays.

Funnily enough, although I find Vaizey's politics abhorrent he was actually more pleasant in person than Harman, who seemed distant and uninterested. She even handed my book to an adviser right in front of me, who shoved it with a huge pile of other crap on a clipboard. I found that rather rude. Vaizey by comparison didn’t appear to have a single adviser anywhere near him, and moved through the crowd with ease, unhindered by anyone, save the odd Lord who came over to slag off Harriet Harman. He clung onto my book at least for the duration of our conversation. Analysed in theatrical terms, the subtext of both encounters was clear, and gave away a lot about how each character operates, not to mention their respective ideologies.

Overall I was left with the sense that these sorts of events are mostly about PR rather than actually listening to anyone. Perhaps I was naive to think otherwise. But then I never really expected them to cancel the English Baccalaureate after talking to me for 30 seconds. (Maybe Derren Brown could pull that sort of stunt off but, alas, I didn’t spot him there.) I don’t even expect them to read my book. It was a prop, and as such part of my own PR campaign – something by which they will remember me from the sea of faces they must meet and be lobbied by every day. Hopefully, when I follow up with a letter, they might at least be able to vaguely recall who I am.

As a writer, I’m far more comfortable lobbying in print than in person. I just can't stand the unplanned nature of live conversation, especially when the power balance is so skewed against me. I want to be able to script it. That way I will always come out on top.

So here is my follow-up letter to Ed Vaizey. Sorry for the long intro, but you need to know all that for it to make sense.

Now sit back, relax, and watch as the pernicious English Baccalaureate is cancelled before your very eyes. Oh yes. The pen is indeed mightier than the blether.

Dear Mr Vaizey,

Drama teaching in schools and the English Baccalaureate

You may recall that we met recently at the Performer’s Alliance Parliamentary Group reception at the Commons on Wednesday 9 November. I was the playwright who gave you the play volume The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping and other plays, written during a four-year residency in an east London school. I enjoyed the speech you made and was keen to know more about the forthcoming scheme you mentioned to facilitate links between schools and arts organisations. I would like to be kept up to date about its launch, if possible.

But I also wanted to get in touch to say a little more about Arts subjects in schools and the English Baccalaureate, which I mentioned briefly when we met. Many of my colleagues in Mulberry School, for whom the plays in the volume I gave you were written, are very upset about the lack of an Arts subjects being included in the EBacc. Like many in the state education sector they feel that the narrow choice of EBacc subjects undervalues the outstanding work they are doing in Arts and other subjects.

I’m sure your colleagues at the DFES didn’t intend this. But it does seem like an unfortunate missed opportunity to demonstrate your government’s commitment to and understanding of the quality and success of Arts subject teaching in British state schools, and what it can do for the articulacy, confidence, empathy and employability of young people.

I was struck by your own confidence, stage presence and sense of comic timing during the speech I saw you deliver (especially compared to Harriet Harman’s effort shortly afterwards). I couldn’t help feeling that you were lucky to have had an upbringing and education which instilled in you such sophisticated interpersonal skills. It makes sense that your own school, St. Paul’s, is noted for its achievements in the Arts, particularly Drama. The effect of this on the skilled professional you have become is abundantly clear. Of course, as a fee-paying school, St. Paul’s has the resources to back that commitment up.

As I’m sure you’re aware, most state schools don’t have resources on anything like the same scale. Moreover, in the inner city areas where I tend to work, most students don’t come from backgrounds where confidence, articulacy and a flair for debate are encouraged at home. Many are raised with low aspirations, low confidence and with barely a book in the house. The only place they can conceivably acquire these skills is in school. The EBacc subjects of English, Maths, History and Languages are of course important, but they don’t teach these skills. The Arts subjects – and most especially Drama and Theatre Studies – emphatically do.

I could give you anecdotal evidence about the student excluded from school, whose behaviour transformed after taking part in one of my shows, to the point where the school changed their minds about allowing her into the sixth form. Or of the student now studying Design at University after having worked on the set and costumes. Or of the student now earning a living teaching Drama in her old primary school after performing in Edinburgh with us. I won't list them all here – but I enclose an article I wrote for the school newsletter last year, catching up with some of the students who have taken part in past projects, and the effect it has had on them.

But don’t just take my word for it. A report out only last month, The Case for Cultural Learning by the Cultural Learning Alliance, cites study after study proving such startling statistics as the fact that participation in structured Arts activities improves children’s Cognitive Ability Test scores by an average of 16-19%; that students from low income families who study Arts subjects are three times more likely to get a degree than their peers who do not; and that this same demographic are statistically more likely to find and maintain employment – and even that they are 20% more likely to vote! (Unfortunately it doesn’t say for which party.) A copy of this report is also enclosed.

These findings are not because Arts subjects are soft or easy – a common slur made against them by those without the experience to know better. (Try telling Tom Stoppard his subject is easy, or David Hockney, or Benjamin Britten.) No, it is because the effect of the Arts on young people’s cognitive, interpersonal and empathetic skills have now been proven beyond doubt. The power of Arts subjects to improve lives and grades is being utilised by teachers up and down the country. Or rather, it was, until the English Baccalaureate disincentivised them to do so. It seems it is only the DFES which hasn’t heard about this extraordinary body of evidence.

The work contained in the play volume which I gave you has been hugely successful, garnering broadsheet plaudits and even a Scotsman Fringe First Award for a school theatre company in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. Extracts from the plays have just this month been included in a new teacher training compendium from Routledge, Playwriting Across The Curriculum. But since your government came to power we have seen fund after fund axed for carrying out extra-curricular arts work in schools – work that might one day allow a state-educated youngster from Tower Hamlets to stand on a stage and deliver a speech with the same wit and skill as you.

I don’t share the view expressed by some of my teacher friends that your party doesn’t care about these sorts of young people. But from the loss of Creative Partnerships and Specialist Schools, through to cuts to the Arts Council and local council culture support, both artists-in-residence and teachers of Arts subjects really are feeling squeezed from all sides. We are busy using our ingenuity and creativity to find other ways to continue our work (we were taught these skills in our state schools.) We also understand the arguments about reducing the deficit. But given the tiny fraction of GDP which state spending on Arts and culture represents, even when you take education Arts spending into account, it’s hard in our more despondent moments not to feel that there’s a cruel ideological element to all this.

Including an Arts subject in the EBacc is a golden opportunity to prove to us that this isn’t the case. With the squeeze on extra-curricular arts projects, the curriculum Arts subjects are now the only place left where underprivileged young people can learn the skills that have served you so well in your life and career. It would also demonstrate once and for all that you and your colleagues understand the value of ‘cultural capital’ in creating an articulate, confident, empathetic workforce who can think through problems creatively, whatever the future might throw at them. Maths and History will give them knowledge. The Arts will allow them to put that knowledge into practice in innovative and valuable ways.

The skills I am describing are hard to measure. But please don’t let this mean that they drop off the radar of priorities. As you demonstrated so well on 9 November, they are skills that empower an individual to succeed. They are every bit as important as the core EBacc subjects, and ought to be included alongside them in any education system which cares about the success of every child, irrespective if their background.

Yours sincerely,
Fin Kennedy

CC: Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt