“Two households, both alike in dignity…”

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In 2003, a school for children with learning difficulties produced a performance of Romeo and Juliet with Shakespeare’s Globe. A decade on, the school’s former Head reflects on the legacy of the partnership

On a sunny day in the spring of 2002, I stood beneath the beautiful glass covering the concourse of the British Museum as the light cascaded down, reflecting on a chance meeting which would come to alter the future development of my school and forever change my approaches to creativity and children with SEN.

I was, at the time, Headteacher of Gosden House School, a local authority residential school for children with complex learning difficulties. I had just met with Patrick Spottiswoode, Director of Globe Education at Shakespeare’s Globe.

We were discussing the use of Shakespeare to stimulate cognitive processes and communication skills for learning, with particular emphasis on children with more than one learning disability. If the needs of the child were to be paramount, we both agreed, the development of a range of new strategies for teaching, learning and communicating was necessary to allow engagement and participation for every child.

After further meetings with Patrick, it was clear that there was a harmony between the two organisations and that we shared a love of experiential learning. Our first project together was stimulated by a desire for true inclusion and participation in playing Shakespeare to be relevant, meaningful and fun for children with SEN. We wanted to challenge our students and provide them with a powerful and empowering experience.

When these discussions were taking place ten years ago, the environment around SEN was very restrictive in terms of what I call the “ahh factor” – the idea that people with learning difficulties couldn’t ever achieve anything that merited more than a patronising “ahh” – and that they wouldn’t be taken seriously, especially within the arts. If performance was to be recognised as a goal as significant as any other within SEN policy, a change was needed.

The plot thickens

Between us, an ambitious plan was formed. The project was to involve the whole school, both primary and secondary students, culminating in a week in July in which the whole curriculum would be taught through the play, ending with a performance by the students themselves. The play should be relevant to the children and it should be played not in a theatre but within an environment seen as their secure base – the school and its grounds. The play was to be Romeo and Juliet.

The key issues when working with external organisations in an SEN setting are trust, respect, and understanding. To work effectively, trust must build very quickly, between students and staff alike. This can only happen if expectations from both organisations are clearly met and achieved.
A team of Globe Education Practitioners (GEPs) worked in the school for weekly sessions throughout the summer term before taking up residence there in the penultimate week before the performance, becoming full-time residential members of the school community. Their arrival galvanized the project; here were professionals dedicating their time specifically to our students, and they were greeted like film stars.

These GEPs are actors, directors and creatives with in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare and working in the theatre itself. All of their approaches start life in the rehearsal room and are used year-round in a programme of workshops at the theatre; the workshops are active, physically and/or intellectually, requiring students to engage fully with the moment they are exploring, to analyse based on experience and to respond personally. At the school, students developed valuable life skills as they challenged any notion that academic understanding and physical, vocal and emotional engagement do not go hand in hand.

Several months of preparation culminated in what seemed like a miracle: a student-led, site-specific, open-air Romeo and Juliet performed in front of an audience of over 400 people. Through our collaboration, we were able to demonstrate the incredible potential for children with SEN to perform and have a voice. This was so clearly shown when Romeo and Juliet clung together in the last scene and an audience of 400 were left, according to Patrick, “reeling in amazement, awe and wonder”.

Encore, encore…

There was clearly more life in the project but support was needed. Funding was sought and generously supplied by the Peter Harrison Foundation, who have been patrons of the project ever since. Subsequent years saw productions of The Tempest, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and even more challenging, darker plays such as Othello, as well as original adaptations involving the entire school.
Performance is key to students’ learning experience; the cycle of planning, practice and active learning leads staff and students alike to that fleeting breathless experience of performance, a unique moment that affects all who share it. In such a context, learning becomes both individual and social; it is education in its purest form, through shared experience.

In 2013, the Gosden/Globe partnership reached its tenth year, and I took my retirement from the school. This longevity is quite rare between education and arts organisations, and has a legacy which lives on in the students it has touched. Ellen* is one of many students who were involved in the project every year. At age six she was a proud Capulet, waving a flag and shouting “Down with the Montagues”. She remembers feeling “safe, secure, excited… But most of all; the happiness.” Ten years later, age 16, she completed a three-week work experience placement with Globe Education itself.

The relationship between the two organisations has strengthened year on year, enabling us to train more teachers and education practitioners from the theatre world in methods for positive interventions for students with SEN, through the use of creative approaches to learning. We learnt from each other, constantly exploring and developing new skills in a reciprocal relationship. The partnership, established that day, encapsulates the very best in innovative, collaborative work which can transform children’s lives forever.

Further information

Jon David was Headteacher of Gosden House special residential school from 1983 to 2013. He is now Director of the Gosden Lighthouse Trust, and SEN advisor to Globe Education and Surrey Music Hub:
www.gosden-house.surrey.sch.uk

Globe Education, based at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, is one of the largest arts education departments in the UK:
www.shakespearesglobe.com/education

* The student’s name has been changed.

 

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