Smike – a musical for every teacher

I was fortunate to see an excellent Y7-Y9 production of Smike last night at Camp Hill. This is not a review although the actors and musicians deserve much praise.

Many teachers of my generation will know Smike. It was written in the early 70s and reflects what were seen as progressive ideas about bringing English (in this case Nicholas Nickleby) to life through pedagogy such as role play. It captures debates relevant today including over use of testing, use of textbooks and even the tension between role play and drama. The musical takes advantage of the relevance those debates had in Dickens’ time when the likes of Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman were speaking out against the Gradgrinds (Dicken’s money obsessed, utilitarian headteacher in Hard Times) of the profession. The songs are very well written and if it had not been for the success of Oliver, Smike could have been the major Dickens-inspired musical. The writer Simon May went from teacher to playwright to composer of the theme tune to Eastenders.

Whilst watching last night I reflected on the sidelining of longstanding pedagogical debates with a renewed focus on reform of education through change to governance.

Camp Hill is a non fee paying selective grammar school that benefits from the King Edwards Foundation’s ownership of parts of Birmingham City Centre. The facilities at the school are excellent but on their own they would not promote successful education. The school buildings and outdoor provision reflect and drive a progressive pedagogy that successfully promotes breadth.

Secondary education in England is a haphazard mosaic that fails to address any of the key issues of teaching and is measured through simplistic, shallow assessments and held accountable by OfSTED’s interpretation of dubious data and British values. We now have academies and free schools, promoted by those who see themselves as progressive, being opened in empty office buildings with no outdoor provision. The textbooks and testing derided by Simon May in Smike are back with avengence. It was therefore an interesting choice for a grammar school. When I look around Camp Hill (as I did last night when I got lost on the way in) I see facilities that should be the right of every child. The fact that they are not can be traced back to the 1980s. Thatcherite economics saw short term measures such as the selling off of school playing fields being driven by one overriding principle: there was no such thing as society just individuals who make choices through consumption and this the best way to organise everything from supermarkets to railways to the health service and schools. In this model, taxation is an evil and the popular press, whose profits come from advertising to consumers, pushed this argument aggressively so that no government could be elected unless they gave manifesto commitments to cut tax. In a democracy, I can have no complaint. Successive Conservative and Labour governments were elected who chose to borrow private finance rather than tax voters. No voice was heard in the media celebrating taxation as the means by which individuals do things such as build hospitals which we cannot do on our own. As a person, I have been better off thanks to government fiscal policy but it means that rather than leaving the next generation with first rate schools, I have to live with the thought that my bequest is a narrow education in converted office blocks and a large private debt.

From what I see, KE Camp Hill offers a brilliant breadth of education (related to selection because the league tables are not as invasive as in non selective schools) that reflects staff commitment and skill. This commitment and skill is present in every school but too often is constrained by underinvestment, OfSTED and the loud voices of the new generation of Gradgrinds.

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