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Rule-bound schools hard to work in

I used to love visiting schools. Having taught for many years in secondary schools myself and visited, in various capacities, literally hundreds since I became first a part-time and then a full-time journalist, I always felt a real homecoming affinity. Not any more.

These days the most likely reason for my being invited to a school is to see a professional touring production which may or may not be linked to some sort of drama or other project. And the invitation always comes from the theatre company who then have to get “clearance” from the school. Sometimes the school refuses (the j-word upsets some of them) and we have to start again elsewhere.

Last week I was invited by the National Theatre to see their astonishingly good 90 minute version of The Curious Incident on the Dog in the Night-time which is being taken into 60 schools. I shall not name the school which was a tiresome, time consuming journey involving three trains and 15 minute walk from my base.

On arrival (after seeing a teacher on lunch break smoking in the car park in full view of the building – so much for “non smoking premises”) I was collected from reception by a businesslike drama teacher who took me to the room where the cast were prepping and left me. I apologised for my presence and had a joke with the actors about the cluelessness of some schools. Then a very brusque company manager appeared and demanded that I go with her saying “You can’t stay here. This is where the cast are working” as if I’d walked in there of my own volition.

She put me – nuisance as I was by now beginning to feel – in an empty auditorium where stage crew etc were sorting final details. There was still half an hour to go so I ate my lunch – an apple which I cut up with my in-bag knife.  When I walked 20 feet from my seat to bin my rubbish someone snatched said knife and said “What’s this knife doing here?” I explained and put it away in my bag. Apart from the cast, who were delightful, no one had yet so much as smiled at me.

After the show, I slipped out and attempted to use a paperless loo in which the lights didn’t work. Then I tried the main door which was locked. In the end I left by a back door across a delivery yard where a security guard (whose two cats grinned at me cheerfully) let me out without stopping his phone conversation. I handed him my visitor’s badge and scuttled thankfully back to the station. I recall a rather warmer welcome when I visited Brixton Prison – and at the time I wasn’t much impressed by that either.

All this, of course, is in the interests of “child protection”. We have allowed the existence of a tiny evil minority to turn our schools into hostile lock-ups where common sense no longer seems to prevail. So in a sense the evil minority has won. It now dominates the lives of millions of innocent people.

At another school I went to in North London a while ago, by invitation, to see a small scale touring production I was accosted by a security guard as soon as I put a foot on the path from the street to Reception. “What do you want?” he asked rudely before marching me into the foyer (he had a key to the main door) and handing me over to the woman on the desk who wanted me to fill in a form before proceeding any further.

Then there was the school in Birmingham I visited with the RSC whose lovely press folk, whom I’ve known for over 20 years, had picked me, and two other journos, up from New Street. The woman manning reception at the school demanded ID from us journalists – despite the fact we were with the RSC who had a partnership with the school.  Then we were allocated to a room to eat sandwiches but the only loo we were allowed to use had an infant school size WC. You can’t let journalists use the staff facilities – against the rules obviously.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Rules are open to interpretation – not to mention common sense and  decent manners. Last year, also with RSC, I went to Springhead Primary School at Talke Pits, Stoke-on-Trent. Notice I AM naming this one. With pleasure. The purpose was to see the production of The Tempest which was touring schools and Springhead had turned it into term-long cross curricular project of which everyone on the premises was intensely proud.

We journalists, and some other guests, were taken into the staff room and plied with tea and coffee. Everyone was chatty and friendly and, best of all, the Headteacher asked me if I’d like to see the children’s work on The Tempest which was displayed around the school. When I jumped at the opportunity he popped his head out of the staffroom, found three Year 6 children and sent me on a conducted tour with them. I was most impressed by the children’s confident, articulate and knowledgeable enthusiasm as well as by the head’s sensible risk assessment methods. He knew that I was a long standing journalist, brought to his school by the RSC which made it infinitesimally unlikely that I’d morph into a child molester or paedophile the moment I was out of his sight.

If only more schools were like that. I admire actors and companies who take work to schools because they encounter all sorts of problems of which one of the commonest is not being allowed unescorted access to lavatories.  It’s true schools were, back in the day, probably too slack but we have now gone far too far the other way. And until something changes, I shall probably give most school visits a miss from here on.

Photograph: Richard Davenport

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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