sat 24/08/2019

First Person: Learning the lessons | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Learning the lessons

First Person: Learning the lessons

Jonathan Guy Lewis on his new play ‘A Level Playing Field’ - and the need to reinvent education

The conflict of education: teacher (Joe Layton, centre) and student (AJ Lewis)Images by Chris Coulson

A Level Playing Field is the first play in my trilogy Education Education Education. The trilogy is my response to the black cloud of exams which has arrived in our household every spring for the last nine years – just as the sun was beginning to shine.

It is my response to the maniacal devotion to testing and prescriptive teaching in our schools, in which exams are not just a diagnostic part of learning but the sine qua non of an education based on conformity and compliance.

The first of the plays is an attempt to present the A-level experience from the students’ point of view. The second is from the parents’ point of view. And the third from a teacher’s.

Children feel that their entire childhood and personality is summed up and judged by their final grades

A Level Playing Field was the result of several workshops with A-level students in different schools, and is very much formed by their own experiences. They happened to be private schools – but the play is not by any means a plea in favour of privilege and entitlement, or in any way against diversity. It is just an attempt to explore the very particular pressure I witnessed in these very high-achieving schools. There is often an attitude of, “They’re rich so who cares if they suffer – boo hoo – they don’t need to worry”, or, “Why should we feel sorry for them? They’re disgustingly privileged”. But these are children like any others and their suffering and confusion, and indeed joy and triumph, are equally valid. Being middle class should not exclude them from our sympathy.

Of course the casualties – the self-harmers, anorexics, the children drinking or taking drugs, on anti-depressants or suicidal – tragically cross the borders between all schools.

School is different for everyone. But more and more it feels like we have become a culture obsessed with attainment and standardisation rather than education and learning. (Pictured below: Lydia Williams, Elsa Perryman Owens, Izzy Caley and India Opzoomer.)

I don’t claim to know how our education should be reinvented in order to make it feel organic rather than battery-farming. (I personally believe Ken Robinson is our best bet when it comes to answers – or at least the right questions: check out his 2013 TED Talk, “How to escape education’s death valley.) I just feel passionately that it is not working for the pupils, teachers and parents, and not necessarily equipping our children for the world that will confront them.

I am simply sharing my despair at a system which seems so often to turn children with wonderful imaginations and joyous self-confidence into depressed teenagers with appallingly low self-esteem and a terrible sense of failure and hopelessness. Teenagers who seem almost bereft by the time they leave school – victims of what Ken Robinson refers to as a culture of compliance where pupils are not dissimilar to low-grade clerical workers.

Children who feel that their entire childhood and personality is summed up and judged by their final grades. Children taught by teachers for whom the exam process is equally inhibiting and soul-destroying, thanks to the tyranny of the league tables and homogenisation.

Was it always this pressurised? Who knows? But education should surely be a privilege not a curse – and it should make sense in relation to the world in which we live and not be flogging ideas that were developed in the 19th century and, for better or worse, are no longer applicable.

The students in this production (bar one) are not professionals – they have all just left school and have come together as a co-operative to explore and perform the play. This is a play – it is not a documentary or docudrama, so stories based on real situations and events have inevitably become compressed.

The casualties – the self-harmers, anorexics, the children drinking or taking drugs, on anti-depressants or suicidal – tragically cross the borders between all schools

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