Talk and chalk and cheese

It was back to school this week for Cat’s Paw Theatre.  A full-on, five day, two shows a day, lots of travel week.  The shows went very well.  We are running a new evaluation system for the Welsh Assembly Government that allows accurate measurement of what we are teaching the young people.  Every member of the audience is given a little remote clicker device at the start of the show and they respond to questions as they come up through the drama.  I’ve mentioned the piece is about rape and sexual consent.  One of the basic misunderstandings many 14 year-olds have is that they think a woman can rape a man (I think many adults have this misunderstanding too).  So we ask them near the start of the presentation.  An average of 80% of them get it wrong and we ask the same question at the end.  The computer records the statistics and we can show the government how much they have learned.  It's a simple and effective method of gathering statistics and the children enjoy it.  The presentation gives Year 9s a comprehensive idea of the issues and the facts around the issue.  It has become obvious that there is a huge need.  Many young people have no idea about the complexities around sexual consent, and yet this is the age when they are starting, or at least to think of starting sexual relationships. Parents think the schools are teaching this subject.  In most cases they aren’t and are assuming the parents are doing it.  Many of them aren’t either and so the children are hitting 14 and 15 with little or no idea of the law of rape, the full meaning of consent or of the morality around the subject.

The schools themselves are very different in their response to us as a theatre company.  The show is free to the schools. We have been delving into the depths of Welsh-speaking west Wales and there is a definite attitude some schools have towards us as an English-speaking theatre company.  One school we arrived this week was typical of the worst prejudice.  I arrived early as I set up the technology and as the dogs are in the car with me I like to give them a walk before we start.  It had been a 90 minute drive to the school. I was shown the hall.  There was no-one to help set up the chairs and the hall floor was filthy with sweet papers, mud and several weeks of dust.  The caretaker eventually arrived and spoke to me in Welsh.  I apologised that I only spoke English but he carried on speaking Welsh.  I asked for a brush so I could sweep up.  He didn’t offer to do it but indicated where I could find one and left.  So I swept the place, set up the chairs and the equipment.  In fairness he did help to stack the chairs. But still no welcome from any of the teaching staff and no offer of a cuppa so when the others in the company arrived I went off in search of cups of coffee for us.  In the staffroom I asked someone whether I might make ourselves a drink.  I was told it would cost 30p a cup.  I paid and made the coffee.  Later a senior member of staff came in and apologised about our having to pay for the coffee and gave me the money back.  She said I had hit up against staffroom politics. 

In the second show in the same school, the children came into the hall and it became obvious that there were no staff with them.  We insist on school staff being there as from time to time we have a young person who becomes upset by the content.  It’s often because they’ve been a victim themselves.  One of the reasons we’ve been funded to do the work is because of the high percentage of child rape victims.  Anyway it’s essential that the school staff are there in case this happens so they take the distressed young person out and support them.  Anyway we waited.  No staff.  Eventually we had to go to ask reception to sort it out. We had to wait fifteen minutes before two rather disgruntled looking staff were available to sit in the hall and we could begin.  We had to rush the whole show and miss out several important chunks of the presentation. It was typical of the school and at the end we still had hardly spoken to anyone from the school.  No feedback, no thanks. It was dreadful.

However it was very different at today’s school.  Just down the road from the first and also Welsh-speaking.  But what a difference.  A clean light hall with chairs all set out ready.  A tray of coffee and welcome which made us feel genuinely that we were.  No tension around the language differences. Staff involvement, interest and excellent feedback. It’s incredible that two schools could be so different.  And if they are different to us, it doesn’t take a major leap to imagine the differences for the children.

Of course schools, like any organisation, go through ups and downs but the differences were remarkable, and Britain’s children are having to cope with that luck of the draw.  Which school would you prefer to have your children attend?

All the best from a road near you,

Mr Alexander

Mr Alexander