Education in Britain is divided up by so many different means, some officially such as by gender or faith and others unofficially such as location or ethnicity. Social, political and cultural division is rife through the education system.
As we move towards the 2017 General Election, how much of that politics can schools debate and get involved in? Especially when the climate is touchy, the issues feel raw and emotions run high. Is it any wonder that Headteachers are twitchy about approaching even talking about politics in school?
There are so many people that could be potentially offended and serious consequences created by even the slightest of discussions.
As Phil Cleaves (2016) points out, schools replace political thought with political awareness. That instead of being active participants in the political landscape students are increasingly becoming passive towards politics – they are onlookers, viewing something that has no meaning or relevance to them.
Alternatively, or even as a result of the above, students views are increasingly becoming focused on soundbites from politicians, dubious statistics or just labelling the opposing argument as ignorant and wrong (Jones, 2017).
The connection between professional Theatre and Politics has always been strong and so it is with the subject of Drama in school. That connection isn’t necessarily confined to teaching political theatre practitioners such as Brecht but it is in every play and every stimulus students engage with. It is unavoidable to discuss politics when discussing a play, and as such can, that be a opportunity worth taking?
Take Blood Brothers, by Willy Russell, as our example, a perennial amongst Drama Teachers. Even the first few lines of the narrator speech is about class! Students cannot even begin to understand the poignancy of the plight of Mickey and Edward without exploring the social and political landscape, not just in Liverpool but across the UK, of the 1980’s.
It was almost inevitable that a student this year would, out of genuine interest, curiosity and a wish to connect up the dots in his mind, make a connection between the political backdrop of Blood Brothers and the current Conservative Government.
It’s the point when that question from the student is asked is when we move from talking about the politics of a play to talking about the politics of today.
The student is doing so to help them understand the play – a fair way of working – it just so happens that the reverse is also true. Through the politics of the play they are gaining an understanding of the politics of today.
In this case, as with so many of it’s kind, it is hard to avoid bias.
However, whatever an individual teacher’s views, sections 406 and 407 of the 1996 Education Act prohibit the promotion of partisan political views in schools (Jones, 2017). Teachers must offer an objective presentation of opposing political views, and, as Jones (2017) points out, it is vital for teachers to be aware of their own biases if we expect students to think for themselves. We must teach them to do so rather than depending on the opinions of others.
So this is a tricky balancing act. Drama and Politics may have a connection, but they sometimes can have a reputation too. A reputation that is not always good. To discuss the politics of Blood Brothers is fine, but to be drawn into a conversation about how that relates to the politics of today and suddenly your on dangerous territory (no matter how hard you try to big up the role of Mr Lyons in the play, he is still clearly the antagonist and symbolic of Thatcherism!).
As hard as it maybe, perhaps it’s best to leave the context of Blood Brothers – or whatever the play – hanging in the air and let the students make their own connections to the current political climate (whilst hoping they make informed ones!).
Cleaves, P. Political Performance, Teaching Drama, Rhinegold, 2016.
Jones, A. From Brexit to Trump: Should teachers talk politics in the classroom?, The Guardian, Manchester, 2017.