I have never been in a play. Fourteen years of state school education, and my only acting experience is from faking injuries to skive PE. Most people make their acting debut in their primary school nativity play as a sheep, or if you were lucky, Mary. Despite being the best choice to play Mary (I’m an Arab and literally named after her), the teachers always gave the part to one of the cute blonde girls. Once the lead roles had been dished out, the class was divided into those who could sing, and those who couldn’t. I was stuck in the sweaty ranks of the choir for every primary school show, de- prived of the chance to star as mute donkey. I’m not bitter at all.
In secondary school, it got no better. Drama lessons were just one hour every two weeks, and since the drama teacher was on maternity leave, we were stuck with supply teachers who made us play pointless drama games instead of actually ever doing any act- ing, directing, or writing ourselves. The closest we got to real acting was reading parts of An Inspector Calls aloud in English class. Friends had tragically relatable anecdotes: “the teacher would say, ‘let’s pretend to be a sweet in a sweetshop… how would a sweet be moving?’ I always wanted to work from real scripts and put on plays instead”.
Drama games can be great teaching aids, although I’m not sure how a sweet would be moving, especially for warming up the class and getting the shy students to open up. But this kind of drama can’t make up for the ex- perience of actually being in a play. I remember seeing my first production at Oxford, and being shocked at the level of professionalism—not just the acting, but the lighting, set design, and costume. I met people who went to state schools, but had already directed, produced, or stage managed five or six plays. Obviously, it is understandable that private schools have far more resources for things like drama and sport. But why is there so much disparity between the opportunities within the state sector?
I think the answer lies somewhat in the increasing focus on statistics, on commodifying and measuring education. Schools which are regularly termed ‘failing’ or ‘satisfactory’ on their inspection reports are under more pressure to get those hallowed five A*-C grades for every pupil. Teachers pump all their energy into English, Maths, and Sci- ence, rather than encouraging participation on extracurriculars. The arts subjects are timetabled for once a fortnight, or left off altogether so more hours can be allotted to the core subjects.
But it’s more than that—students are increasingly being told that the arts don’t matter. Politicians focus on promoting STEM subjects, and the Russell Group website tells us that ‘facilitating subjects’ like Maths are preferable to ‘soft’ subjects like Drama. My form tutor told me to swap my Music and Art GCSE options to History and French, if I wanted a chance at getting into Oxford. If you go to a poorly performing state school, where few people go on to Oxbridge, you take this advice at face value.
Now that we’re here, we can see that we’ve been cheated out of our arts education. I’ve met so many people at Oxford who took ‘soft’ subjects. In fact, on my English course, I’m pretty sure those with a grounding in the arts have a big advantage. Let’s set the record straight and stop robbing students of the confidence, team spirit and empathy which an education in drama can give you. And please, can someone give me a non-speaking role in their play?