From Play Way to a Performing Arts Centre: why arts matter at The Perse School.
Just over 100 years ago, a Perse teacher challenged a prevailing pedagogic paradigm in his 1917 book The Play Way. The teacher was Henry Caldwell Cook and he believed that children learn more naturally through play and their education should reflect this learning style. As a teacher of English literature, Caldwell Cook was passionate in his belief that children should study texts by acting them out. Acting requires pupils to engage with the text, to turn words on paper into flesh and blood characters, to imagine, empathise, and to feel emotions. Acting broke the classroom ice, hooked pupils, and prompted them to find out more. There could be no back-of-the-classroom, mind-in- neutral day dreaming; all pupils had to participate actively and learn by immersion. Caldwell Cook recognised that his ‘Play Way’ left many literary details untouched, but once the interest of pupils had been stimulated by ‘acting out’ he could return to explore the text in more detail. Caldwell Cook contrasted his learning by acting approach, with the more established pedagogy of textual analysis which he criticised for “taking a slice of thirty lines or so and proceeding to mince it into an unrecognisable slush”. Such painstaking literary post mortems took the pace and engagement out of texts and turned children off learning.
Caldwell Cook’s ‘Play Way’ shaped the teaching of English at The Perse for generations. English classrooms were ‘mummeries’ where children with lots of imagination and minimal use of props and special effects acted out texts. In doing so they had great fun, gained confidence, polished communication skills, became quick witted and empathetic, and learnt actively by doing. It was this tradition that nurtured the artistic talents of Perse pupil Peter Hall, who became one of the greats of British theatre. We are delighted that Peter Hall’s example will live on at The Perse in the name of our new performing arts centre, and that the Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre will be opened by his widow Nicola on the 8 March.
As we open our new performing arts centre, the place of the arts in secondary and higher education is being questioned. In cash strapped Britain, politicians including Robert Halfon, MP, who chairs the Commons Select Committee on education, are calling for public funds to be concentrated on degrees that address skill shortages such as healthcare, coding, and engineering. Education is being seen as a means to a job, and in particular a skills shortage job that could boost the economic futures of both the individual and the country. The logical conclusion of such an argument could be a school curriculum with more maths, more computer science, more physics, more Mandarin and less drama, music and art. It is a far cry from Caldwell Cook’s day when the Perse Speech Day consisted of four plays (one each in Latin, Classical Greek, French, and German) interspersed with prizes (very few for maths and science).
Education is for life not just employment. But even if it were just for employment the arts have a very important role to play. A century ago Caldwell Cook promoted the ‘Play Way’ because acting helped pupils develop empathy and imagination, it improved their communication, helped them gain in confidence and team working skills. This is a list of key interpersonal qualities that are essential to workplace success and personal fulfilment. An excellent understanding of computer science is very useful, but what is even better are computer scientists who possess the empathy and interpersonal skills needed to lead teams and the confidence and clarity of communication required to promote ideas and win over hearts and minds.
The arts are a major economic force in their own right. In 2016 the UK creative industries were valued at £84.1 billion, and the sector was growing at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy. Britain’s most famous school is of course Hogwarts, and the Harry Potter franchise is estimated to be worth $25 billion. J K Rowling gifts some of her Potter royalties to a regenerative neurology research centre in Edinburgh – an example of the arts funding science. A school’s job is to prepare its students for the future – and in a world where many processes will be run by artificial intelligence, a growing proportion of jobs may lie in the leisure and creative industries where soft human skills and interpersonal qualities are essential.
But education is about more than employability. Caldwell Cook knew that fun learning was good learning. When learning is a joy not a chore, students progress rapidly. The Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre will offer Perse pupils multiple opportunities for fun learning through drama, music, dance, debating and exhibitions. A love of the arts begun at school provides a tonic for later life; a lifelong opportunity to find perspective, empathy, insight, meaning and joy in the creativity of the human condition.
The arts are an essential part of a balanced education (up to GCSE) and a very valid and valuable specialism in the sixth form. Politicians can wish all children to be computer scientists or engineers, but children are not built to order. They have their own interests, personalities and talents. A good school is a ‘broad church’ with many different and equally valid curriculum routes. The key is to help children find the route which will make the best use of their talents so that potential is realised and personal fulfilment achieved. For some the curriculum route will be maths and science heavy, but for others it will have an arts focus.
I am pleased that the ‘Play Way’ nurtured Peter Hall, and I hope the Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre will in turn help future Perseans to develop their communication, team work, empathy and creative skills, whilst learning actively and developing a lifelong love of the arts.