Shakespeare Schools Festival introduces 200 primary children to the Bard

Primary children were thought too young to benefit – until now.

The three witches are advancing menacingly towards the audience. They are only aged 10 or 11. Welcome to Bournemouth Park primary school in Southend, Essex – one of the pioneers for a drive to promote Shakespeare among younger children such as these.

It was one of 50 selected to take part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival, whereby pupils get a chance to enact a Shakespeare play at a professional theatre. The scheme has now been extended to a second year, with the number of primary schools taking part increasing to 200.

Bournemouth Park School is in one of the more deprived areas of the Essex seaside town. The number of children in receipt of free school meals is about double the national average. According to Annie Hughes, from the Shakespeare Schools Festival, it was "one of the first few to take a bold step".

The festival has been running for several years but previously had not allowed its scripts to be used by under-11-year-olds because it believed they may have some difficulties in mastering the text.

"Our initial approach was they wouldn't be able to cope with the discipline of working in a theatre and they may not cope with working with the language," says Annie Hughes. "Children from primary schools, though, don't seem to have the same fear and suffer from the inhibitions that children in secondary schools develop. They just take such a gung-ho approach to it. They might not get all the special nuances but if they get the love of Shakespeare or get over the fear of Shakespeare that doesn't matter. They may also revisit it in secondary school."

The enthusiasm, though, of the Year Six group (10 and 11-year-olds) is there for all to see. They have been doing Macbeth and started rehearsals for it at the end of their previous year. The following year group will be performing Hamlet at the Palace Theatre in Southend.

The decision by the school to take part in the festival has unearthed budding acting talent in 11-year-old Jo McBrearty, who has taken on the part of Macbeth.

He says of the role he plays: "I think he (Macbeth) is quite arrogant. He's a good fighter in the war and he kind of gets his way nearly always. You get that he kind of doesn't want to kill the king but wants to wait until he becomes king naturally."

He says of appearing on the boards of the Palace Theatre: "It was all right, I thought it would be more scary than it was because you might see all the people out there in the audience, but you don't and you just enjoy it. I really want to become an actor now and do that again."

Paige Bailey, aged 10, who played Lady Macbeth, adds: "I really enjoyed it. It is a really good play."

According to the school's literacy co-ordinator, Peta Miles, who directed the production, it has given her pupils confidence and self-esteem which has shown itself in the way they now approach their normal lessons in the classroom.

"I've always believed Shakespeare was important because he is such a key figure in English literature," she says. "Giving them an insight into such a classic author is good because they really get to grips with the stories. They do newspaper articles about it so it plays a part in the other work of the school.

"A lot of the children who took part weren't necessarily higher achievers but it has shown them something and given them confidence to go on in the classroom."

She describes the performance of Macbeth at the Palace theatre as "the most moving moment of my life as a teacher".

Bournemouth Park was one of four schools singled out to stage a Shakespeare production that night, two secondaries and two primaries. One of the secondaries was one of the local grammar schools, Westcliff-on-High Girls' School – which happens to be Peta Miles's old school.

"Secondary schools have much more resources to put into the production," she says. "Our pupils learnt a lot from just watching them."

The day (or evening) was finally over by around 9.30pm after the four schools had been given a professional adjudication on their efforts. The adjudicator had been impressed with the efforts of the pupils from Bournemouth Park.

"They were on a high," says Miles. "They wanted to do it again."

Next year her baton is being passed to two other teachers at the school, who have undergone a day's professional training as to how to direct Shakespeare and speak his lines.

The children were asked to write down what they thought they had learnt from taking part in the performance. Asked what they could take out of it, one said: "Learning lines, taking part, not mucking up, being one of the first primary schools (to do it)."

As for tips for the next year group now selected to do Hamlet, another wrote: "You will be proud of yourself at the end of it."

Another said: "If you get your lines wrong then just carry on because the crowd don't know you got it wrong."

And a fourth added: "It's not wrong to be nervous but you shouldn't be scared because if you're prepared, you'll be okay."

"Think there is no one there," said another pupil. "Well, really, you can't see anyone properly because it's too dark."

The Shakespeare Schools Festival, which is into its 12th year and also had 500 secondary schools performing at theatres this year, would like to expand. However, as a charity, it is reliant on schools' registration fees, box office income from its shows and some sponsorship. It now gets no money from the Arts Council or any other Government source – although it did in its initial stages.

The SSF is supported by a wide range of people from the world of theatre and drama. Its patrons include Jenny Agutter, Dame Judi Dench, former children's laureate Michael Rosen, Kevin Spacey, Sir Tom Stoppard and Dame Harriet Walter.

It says of the primary school project: "SSF has been astounded with the ability of primary school students to take ownership of Shakespeare and work with the original scripts in a way that makes sense to them."

Annie Hughes also believes taking part in the festival can help improve social mobility – the SSF takes care to ensure the mix of schools it invites to take part include a good number of pupils entitled to free school meals and youngsters with special needs.

"If you know and can talk about Shakespeare, it shows you're at an educated level," she says. "Also, acting is something you can do that you don't need to be particularly academic to take part in."

One of the bonuses to come from the performances has been the enthusiasm of the parents for the project. It is not always so, according to Hughes. "I was involved with some schools in inner-city Birmingham where the parents didn't even encourage their children to take part because they would rather they were spending extra time studying," she says.

Their (and sadly their children's) loss, one can only feel.

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